Cities that are losing population, termed shrinking cities, are those cities which were previously densely populated, but owing to significant out-migration, and lower levels of in-migration, are rapidly becoming depopulated.
Population loss is a serious concern for cities. The infrastructure constructed in these shrinking cities was built to support the economic activity and liveability of a much larger population. This overcapacity puts an unenviable strain on the fiscal situation, leaving a higher per capita cost to the remaining residents, while straining budgets where infrastructure costs are fixed. In addition, services must be provided to fewer citizens over a larger geographic area, leading to further inflated per capita costs.
In addition to infrastructure problems, prolonged population loss can lead to increases in the levels of poverty and crime, as areas become effectively abandoned, which can create a self perpetuating cycle of disinvestment and decay, which makes eventual recovery a slim possibility.
Can cities that lose population still succeed?
Throughout Europe and America, growth over the last few centuries has been the primary driver of urban development. Economic development in cities has been facilitated by urban planning and high levels of investment in infrastructure provision. The arrival of the concept of shrinking cities requires a shift in paradigm geared towards considering how best to reuse this newly available land to affect positive change.
There are many schools of thought with regards to how shrinking cities can still succeed despite their population loss, but there is no single solution which urban planners can agree upon. The literature, however, does offer a few recurring ideas, some of which have met with success.
For shrinking cities to succeed, they must firstly adjust their existing geographical area to match current and projected population levels. The strategy to turn population loss into an advantage, however, must consist of three core elements:
1. It must be community driven. Any strategy employed by a city must take into accounts the needs and desires of its residents. This is a far more effective strategy than applying a top down approach which sees the further displacement of residents and remaining businesses in an involuntary manner.
2. Green infrastructure. This involves creating a strategically planned network of protected green space, with a variety of uses, both public and private. These networks could be linked by a network of trails and greenways. A green infrastructure plan, which has effectively engaged the local community, will improve the quality of life of local residents and provide recreational opportunities, as well as increasing the property value of adjacent homes. This increase in property value, according to Wachter’s 2004 study of Philadelphia’s New Kensington neighbourhood, could be by as much as 30%.
3. Land banks and land trusts. Land banks protect land with natural, ecological, recreational, scenic, historic, or productive value. In the context of shrinking cities, land trusts could also be used as a means of strengthening the model.
Some success has already been met by some of the most innovative shrinking cities around the world. While certain cities chose to develop strategies which laid out plans to overcome specific problems, such as Leipzig, others have chosen a more long-term vision approach, such as Bremen. In addition, the construction of large scale development projects to galvanise development has also been a recurring theme, with cities such as Bilbao creating development agencies, Bilbao Ría 2000, for the sole purpose of dealing with the problem of urban decline and leading to the construction of such landmarks as the Guggenheim.