Illustrations by Debora Westra

How to cope with urban shrinkage? Introducing right-sizing, urban greening and public participation
Daan Vegter // Human Geography and Urban & Regional Planning

What do the cities of Detroit (US),  Adelaide (Australia),  Dresden (Germany) and Osaka (Japan) have in common? Effectively they have all lost a significant amount of their inhabitants since the mid-twentieth century.(1) This process can be referred to as urban shrinkage: ‘a densely populated urban area or city that faces significant population losses over a longer period of time’.(2) Furthermore, this process seems to have accelerated in the past ten years.(3) Many cities and urban areas from all over the world could have been added to the example above. Urban shrinkage is a process that is influencing many citizens world-wide by changing the built environment they live in. It is an important topic that has often been discussed within the discipline of urban planning. Interestingly, however, the focus has been mainly on causes and explanations of urban shrinkage rather than on policies that offer  options on how to cope with it. This is evident in the fact that ‘urban planners have still little background experience or recourse to deal with it’.(4) How can urban planners deal with this process and reinvent declining cities, and what role can new concepts such as ‘urban greening’, ‘right-sizing’ and ‘public participation’ play? These concepts have recently emerged or gained more prominence within the context of urban shrinkage in the US and are promising in dealing with the process.


Why do cities shrink?

On a global scale we can recognize several drivers that contribute to the process of urban shrinkage. The most prominent ones are suburbanization, deindustrialisation, a decrease in number of jobs, and a decrease in fertility.(5) As one might expect, the very outcomes of these drivers of urban shrinkage are locally contingent, meaning that the process of urban shrinkage has a different impact on different cities embedded in different spatial contexts. For example, urban shrinkage in Eastern-Germany can mainly be explained by a declining fertility rate, job-oriented outmigration and suburbanization,(5) whereas urban shrinkage in the Industrial Belt (Ohio, US) has, to a large extent, been caused by the replacement of the manufacturing industry to regions such as Southeast-Asia.(5) Although the causes of urban shrinkage may differ per city, population loss is the resembling phenomenon that can be seen in each shrinking city, often with negative outcomes.


Negative consequences of urban shrinkage: A multidimensional perspective

The negative consequences of urban shrinkage are not only spatial, but also psychological, economic and social in nature. The first and most prominent outcome is vacancy. In Detroit (Michigan, US)[1] vacancy leads to an interrupted pattern of streets missing one or more houses.(6) This corrodes the image of the neighbourhood given that people often have negative experiences with a pauperised built environment. Moreover, drug addicts or beggars often use abandoned buildings to live in, which might contribute to the fact that inhabitants feel alarmed. Although vacancy is a spatial phenomenon, urban shrinkage therefore also generates psychological effects. Secondly, tax revenues decrease due to the outward movement of people. The city needs money in order to invest in strategies dealing with urban shrinkage, but faces a decline in tax revenues due to the outward migration of its citizens. In the American Rustbelt, ‘many cities have shrunk by more than half from their mid-twentieth century peak undermining the tax base needed to pay for a sprawling infrastructure of utilities, roads, and transportation services’.(4) Thus, a lack of tax revenues in shrinking cities generates financial issues. Thirdly, socio-spatial segregation often emerges when a city is in decline. Citizens who can afford migrating to suburbs or other cities will leave, while those less fortunate are forced to stay. This creates a pattern of relatively poor people living in the shrinking areas, whereas the relatively rich people live in the suburbs. Although vacancy might be the most obvious spatial outcome of urban shrinkage, several social, cultural, economic and psychological dimensions can be linked to this process as well. Summarized, ‘the shrinking city phenomenon can thus be seen as a multidimensional process, comprising cities, parts of cities, or entire metropolitan areas that have experienced dramatic decline in their economic and social bases’.(7) Through spatial interventions in shrinking areas several spatial, psychological, economic and social issues can be addressed.


Dealing with urban shrinkage in the US

’Urban planning in the United States focuses almost exclusively on controlling and shaping the effects of growth and is ill-equipped to deal with cities or neighbourhoods experiencing sustained disinvestment and depopulation’.(7) In other words, in order to cope with urban shrinkage, a new approach in urban planning is desirable that not necessarily focuses on growth, but also on urban shrinkage if that is the case in a city. There seems to be a first step towards acknowledging the fact that planners should plan for decline instead of growth. The concepts of ‘right-sizing’, ‘urban greening’ and ‘public participation’ can be regarded as promising in this context. Right-sizing can be viewed as a strategy that is currently emerging within the context of urban shrinkage. The central idea of right-sizing is ‘to avoid the trap of growth-oriented planning by restructuring the urban landscape around mixed-income, mixed-used clusters’.(4) Furthermore, it is a ’watchword for the perceived mismatch between shrinking city populations, physical and infrastructural plans, and budgets’.(4) In this sense, one could argue that this strategy can be seen as a paradigm shift. Rather than focusing on growth, the emphasis should be placed on the improvement of existing parts of the city.


Another more content-focused definition emphasizes right-sizing as ‘stabilizing dysfunctional markets and distressed neighbourhoods by more closely aligning a city’s built environment with the needs of existing and foreseeable future populations by adjusting the amount of land available for development’.(8) Thus, there seems to be consensus about the fact that right-sizing is a strategy that does not necessarily assume growth, but rather looks at the context of the city. An example of a relatively successful implementation of right-sizing policies can be seen in Philadelphia (NTI Program), where the demolition of abandoned houses, the implementation of affordable housing strategies, the involvement of political leaders and the redevelopment of vacant properties led to a successful right-sizing approach to urban shrinkage.(8) However, right-sizing plans have also produced disappointing results. Evidence from Detroit, Flint, Rochester, Saginaw and Youngstown in the US shows that right-sizing lacks ‘the utopian modernism and Keynesian interventionism of urban renewal, and the progressive equity-oriented environmentalism idealized by its proponents’.(4) Thus, right-sizing is neither successful nor unsuccessful. Nonetheless, the fundamental idea of right-sizing, abandoning the idea of growth, is promising. In addition, it is the local context of a shrinking city that decides what actions are needed in order to apply right-sizing in a city in decline. Moreover, an important role can be played by urban planners and policy-makers. If they can leave the habit of assuming future growth and develop new plans that are able to restructure and renew cities, right-sizing could be a success.


Another promising example of a more practical approach to urban shrinkage is urban greening. Generally we can refer to urban greening as a strategy to deal with urban shrinkage that focuses on spatial, green solutions that improve the urban environment.(8) In this context, one could for example think of the creation of parks, waterways, working farms, floodplains and forests. In doing so, negative outcomes of urban shrinkage such as vacancy and the pauperization of the built environment are being dealt with. As a result, greening these vacant and pauperised areas in cities provides opportunities for recreation. Families can have a picnic in the park, or sports can be performed. Furthermore, it increases property value, reduces stormwater runoff, and increases access to healthy local foods.(8) More importantly, urban greening can also increase and improve social networks within neighbourhoods by engaging residents actively into the planning process.(8) This might enhance the ‘community feeling’ in a city. Thus, urban greening can be regarded as a very positive tool that is used to deal with deal with urban shrinkage. However, some difficulties do exist. The most critical one is funding. As outlined above, the tax revenues of shrinking cities have declined due to the outward migration of citizens. Therefore, city councils have less money to invest in (greening) projects like the NTI Program in Philadelphia. By establishing public-private partnerships around urban greening projects, this issue could potentially be solved.


The last concept is public participation. Public participation can be broadly defined as the active involvement of residents into planning and decision-making processes that affect their neighbourhood.(9) Rather than being a concept that has been designed to deal with urban shrinkage, public participation can be regarded as a more general concept emerging within the discipline of urban planning. The concept has the potential to contribute to strategies such as right-sizing and urban greening, thereby dealing with urban shrinkage. In the context of public participation in the US, the main argument in favour of public participation is that ’urban planning’s approaches to involving citizens in making decisions about the future of their cities and neighbourhoods can

encourage processes that leave residents and civic leaders committed to working toward a better future while realistically accepting that a city will not return to its past’.(7) In this sense, involving citizens in decision-making processes that deal with urban shrinkage seems to be a promising strategy. Furthermore, public participation in decision-making processes also increases the legitimacy of the outcome of spatial decisions because stakeholders have been involved from the very beginning of the planning process. However, some scholars have negatively emphasized the role of power in decision-making processes that involve the public.(9) They argue that, although residents are now more often involved in decision-making processes concerning their neighbourhoods, power expressed through knowledge, language and actions is still at play. In this sense, public participants in decision-making processes still lack the power to decide about spatial plans. To be more concrete, if residents believe in plan A, but the more powerful local government is aiming for plan B, the ultimate decision will be made by the government. Thus, in order to make public participation a real success, a more equal distribution of power in the planning process is needed.


The ultimate approach to urban shrinkage: right-sizing within the local context

Shrinking cities can be found all over the world embedded in different local contexts. This has important implications for policy-making. It is the local context that should be taken into greater consideration to cope with the issue of urban shrinkage. Furthermore, it is important that the assumption of future growth of cities, which is often present in local policy-making, can be left behind. As we have seen in the case of the US, urban planners often assume and plan cities for growth despite this not being the case. Therefore, a shift from a ‘growth paradigm’ to a ‘right-sizing paradigm’ is needed. People adopting the right-sizing strategy are able to cope with urban shrinkage by creating new policies that can deal with vacant land and pauperised neighbourhoods. As a practical example of right-sizing, urban greening is very promising. It has the potential to lift places to a higher level of environmental quality by improving the built environment through green solutions. Moreover, public participation has the potential to yield more legitimate outcomes of planning processes by involving residents actively into the planning process. Their often strong commitment can greatly help improve neighbourhoods facing decline. By making use of the three presented concepts, the quality of shrunk cities and neighbourhoods can be increased, thereby improving people’s lives by providing a pleasant urban environment to live in.

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1. Cristina Martinez-Fernandez, Tamara Weyman, Sylvie Fol, Ivonne Audirac, Emmanuèle Cunningham-Sabot, Thorsten Wiechmann, Hiroshi Yahagi. 2015. ‘Shrinking Cities in Australia, Japan, Europe and the USA: From a global process to local policy responses’. Progress in Planning, 105: 1-48.


2. Pallagst, K. 2008. ‘Shrinking Cities: Planning Challenges from an International Perspective’. Cities Growing Smaller, edited by Pallagst et al. 5-16. Cleveland: Kent State University.


3. Hackworth, J. 2015. ‘Rightsizing as spatial austerity in the American Rust Belt’. Environment and Planning 47, 2: 766 – 782.


4. Justin B. Hollander, Karina M. Pallagst, Terry Schwarz, Frank J. Popper. 2009. ‘Planning shrinking cities’. Progress in planning, 72, 4: 195-250.


5. Sigrun Kabisch, Annegret Haase, Dagmar Haase. 2006. ‘Beyond Growth: Urban Development in Shrinking Cities as a Challenge for Modeling Approaches’. 3rd International Congress on Environmental Modelling and Software.


6. Hunter Morrison, Margaret Dewar. 2012. ‘Planning in America’s Legacy Cities: Toward Better, Smaller Communities After Decline’. Rebuilding America’s Legacy Cities: New Directions for the Industrial Heartland, edited by Alan Mallach. New York: American Assembly.


7. Karina Pallagst, Jasmin Aber, Ivonne Audirac, Emmanuèle Cunningham-Sabot, Sylvie Fol, Cristina Martinez-Fernandez, Sergio Moraes, Helen Mulligan, Jose Vargas-Hernandez, Thorsten Wiechmann, Tong Wu and Jessica Rich. 2009. The Future of Shrinking Cities: Problems, Patterns and Strategies of Urban Transformation in a Global Context. California: University of Berkeley.


8. Joseph Schilling, Jonathan Logan. 2008. ‘Greening the Rust Belt: A Green Infrastructure Model for Right Sizing America’s Shrinking Cities’. Journal of the American Planning Association, 74 (4), 451 – 464.


9. Pløger, J. 2000. ‘Public Participation and the Art of Governance’. Environment and Planning, 28, 219-241.



In order to make public participation a real success, a more equal distribution of power in the planning process is needed.


Issue 9 / October 2017 / ISSN 2214-6083

Edition: 500 copies


Honours Review is a publication of students at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

2017 - Honours Review

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