How to tackle Shrinking Cities?

Murmansk - a shrinking post-socialist city

Shrinking cities are a focus of growing concern. Globalisation has increased the vulnerability of cities to sudden adverse changes in their economic base. Austerity policies augment the problems. Loss of a key economic activity, can be followed by net out-migration of economically active age groups, falling tax revenues, an aging population but declining public services, “excessive” infrastructure that is expensive to maintain, empty property and gap sites. What strategies are being pursued in different parts of the world to address these challenges?

Something like 40% of all medium-sized European cities have lost a significant part of their population, according to the Shrink Smart project. The situation is particularly acute in the post-socialist cities of Eastern Europe.

Cities in America’s Rust Belt have seen some of the sharpest population declines in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The US lost roughly one in three manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010, so we should not be surprised to find that 10 of the 12 cities of over 100,000 with the largest population declines between 2010 and 2011 have economies based on heavy industry and manufacturing.

UN-Habitat’s State of the World’s Cities 2012-13 reports that Rome, Turin and Milan are shrinking, and so are Prague, Budapest and Bucharest, but also Seoul and Monrovia. However the list is dominated by Russian cities, in part of reflection of the more general demographic trends in Russia.

What are cities doing about it?

Within Europe research  suggests that policy makers face a choice: whether to accept the decline and try to manage it, or to pursue a growth strategy to counter it. Spatially the choice translates into trying to regenerate the declining areas or look for market-led green-field development to deliver a revival. Cities in Western Europe tend to favour adaptation and regeneration, while post-socialist cities in the east chase foreign investment to create jobs and growth.

Typical components of a response in the west are a focus on SMEs, housing refurbishment, green infrastructure and social inclusion. At the same time there are still restrictions on edge city development, with the principles of sustainable and compact cities to the fore. A mix of pro-active policies (e.g. place marketing or targeted sector-based strategies) and re-active policies (e.g. taking some land out of economic use) are usually found. Fundamentally, when past economic activities have gone, it is necessary to confront the issues of identity and branding, and to build broad support for a credible new vision of the place.

In eastern Europe, faith in markets and distrust of government intervention remains strong. These beliefs impact on the approach to shrinking cities. Infrastructure, private investment and jobs are sought. Less attention is given to “soft” measures such as those targeting environmental improvement, housing or culture. EU funds underpin the choices of many cities: urban development strategies are defined by what is available through funds, rather than assessment of local development needs. In smaller towns local government may simply lack the expertise to deliver a new vision and capitalise upon local assets.


The Shrink Smart Framework 7 research project has some interest case studies illustrating these general patterns. Halle is especially fascinating as it shows a transition from the eastern, “growth model” to the western “adaptation model”. Like most other East German cities it experienced massive deindustrialization and shrinkage in the 1990s. During that period it tried to retain its chemical industry, but the growth strategy proved unable to deliver re-industrialization. In 2000 the German federal government produced a programme “Urban Restructuring East”. This led to a shift in policy in Halle towards managing shrinkage with a target of stabilising the city’s population at around 200,000.


Makiivka is a heavy industry city in the eastern Ukraine. It still has steel works and metallurgy and is in a coal-producing region. Its population is about 390,000. Makiivka plans to remain an “industrial city” while improving environmental conditions. There is no coherent urban regeneration strategy and policies are described as “short-term crisis management”, e.g. through cost-cutting exercises. Like UK cities, Makiivka is mainly dependent on central government for its funds, so managing the budgets becomes the prime focus of local government activity.

Urban Hierarchies

Both Halle and Makiivka are secondary centres urban regions. Halle is overshadowed by Leipzig and Makiivka by Donetsk. There is some evidence that these larger centres are more able to make the switch into a “services and culture” economy than are their smaller neighbours. Both Leipzig and Donetsk were able to be centres for major football tournaments (the 2006 World Cup and the 2012 Euro-Championships respectively). Infrastructure upgrades were achieved on the back of these events.


Shrinking cities present a significant challenge to planners across Europe, but also in other regions such as North America. The dynamic is usually driven by deindustrialisation, but is also spurred by demographic structures and aging populations. The longer the economic downturn lasts, the more cities are likely to have to confront the symptoms most evident in shrinking cities. With the global economy as fragile as it is, and external environmental shocks an ever increasing threat, places that are currently stable or growing may find lessons from the experience of today’s shrinking cities.

Shrinkage rapidly presents planners and policy makers with a range of problems – derelict (and often contaminated) land, vacant properties, schools that are under-capacity, declining municipal budgets and a general loss of confidence that can be associated with policies of denial. Conventional planning approaches rooted in regulating pressures for land development can be a handicap when the problem is disinvestment not growth.

Each city is different, and as the Halle/Leipzig and Makiivka/Donetsk examples show what works in a larger centre may not work for its smaller neighbour. Nevertheless, the Shrink Smart project offers some general guidelines. These include: restrict suburbanisation; demolish the worst building stock; refurbish the most attractive neighbourhoods and the town centre; decontaminate and re-use brownfields, not just for commercial purposes, but for parks, open spaces and urban forests too.

It is a list that planners in urban Britain outside the south-east of England will be very familiar with. However, is it enough anymore? Shrinking could be viewed as a route to affordable housing, reduced congestion, cheap premises for business start-ups and increased capacity for local people to take control of their towns if the blockages to transfers of land ownership could be overcome. It would not be easy, it would need some exceptional local leadership, but it would be interesting.

Hopefully, the new urban emphasis in the Cohesion Funds 2014-2020, and particularly the emphasis on Community-Led Local Development, might lead to more integrated approaches than in the past, but don’t bet on it.

  • Stevenboxall

    Can we use the word change rather than decline? I think we can accept that places change but we should never accept decline.

    • Cliff Hague

      Using “change” is in the spirit of “smart” approaches, but it does leave the direction of change unspecified. One benefit of the “Shrinking Cities” label has been that it has enhanced awareness and knowledge sharing, and given the issue some profile. I accept though that “decline” is also misleading, as it carries many negative connotations.

  • John Walls

    As an urban planner with some 4 decades experience with a significant period in the West of Scotland during the post-industrial period, I can relate to this article.

    What I have found difficult to cope with over time is the rhetoric, usually from people not suffering from the effects of adversity, which goes with decline. Particularly ‘people should go where the work is’. While this is very logical, it overlooks the fact that (1) journeys between home and work are not frictionless (ie where journey to work distances are long and expensive within regions and a major impediment to taking up employment) and (2) we do not live in tents and are unable to move on as nomads would (nationally). Mind you, it creates an interesting mental image of tent villages and towns in and around London or Aberdeen, if you are Scottish.

    While common sense suggests that one should expect an urban ebb and flow, there remains the underlying issue of assets on the ground. From an economists point of view one should be seeking to obtain the best return on your investments – housing, schools, hospitals, infrastructure, etc. These cannot be relocated as a rule and walking away from existing settlements is an expensive option. This is not to mention the less tangible, but still important, social fabric which is essential to make urban settlements work.

    From a government point of view, one would think that policy would be driven by trying to optimise the country’s assets. This is something that the landed gentry of old would understand trying to optimise the income from their estates. They rarely had the opportunity just to up sticks and move on. The issue is, in my view, about the best way to manage change in the most effective way both economically and socially.

    Your article touches on various measures which different places are adopting – I’m sure I have many of them on a T-shirt somewhere. However, it is my observation that countries which have a more devolved government are more successful in mitigating the worst effects of structural economic failure. Germany is one of the best European examples where one can observe effective decentralised government. Moreover, the German States also have good working relationships between businesses, government and the community. In the UK where government and resource management is very centralised, I despair at the increasing focus of investment in London and the South East. One can sense that Heseltine’s recent report, ‘No Stone Unturned’ proposing the wider distribution of investment around the country is greatly out of step with the current Coalition Government’s grasp of the country’s problems. As a result I haven’t heard anyone holding their breath expecting to see a shift in government policy.

    My fear for the future of the UK beyond the London City State and the South East of England which siphon off most of the nation’s wealth through the fiscal system, is that the government sees the ‘provinces’ as a drag on the economy and unwilling to make the necessary investments to ensure that most of them can be self-supporting and sustainable in the longer term. The key danger being that the nation’s movers and shakers personal reference points have become so London-centric that they cannot actually understand what is happening to the UK at large. It’s all rather reminiscent of the court of Louis XVI not that I think there is a revolutionary appetite in the UK.

    As a Brit it’s rather depressing really.

  • Stevenboxall

    Picking up on John’s point, I can never understand why, in this age of free movement of capital, why it is people who are expected to move when the capital can come to them. Naive I know, but surely worth thinking about.

    I have said this recently elsewhere, but part of the problem is that we have too many people in positions of power who don’t like other people.

    And John, please don’t give these people the idea of tents: they are likely to take it seriously- it will not be long before we get trailer-park communities as part of a housing ‘strategy’ as they have in the USA.

    • Cliff Hague

      Thanks to John, Steven and Tony for these comments. I agree with the thrust of all of them. I can add a few observations. There is an ESPON study recently completed and led by Prof. Michael Parkinson that looks at Secondary Cities across Europe. It makes an eloquent and evidence-based case for the contribution that non-capital cities make to the national economy. It is also very well written and has a good executive summary, which is not true of all ESPON reports. It shows the dominance of London in the UK, not surprisingly.

      John makes passing reference to the “landed gentry of old” looking after their estates. I happened to be at a reception at the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday night, hosted by Scottish Land and Estates. It was clear that most of the “landed gentry of today” are also passionate in caring for their estates.If the UK government cared about the cities of northern England in the same way those places would be on a different trajectory.

      At the risk of giving credence to the “tent city” concept, I have to confess that I floated it in a “devil’s advocate” way in a recent meeting with the head of a major Scottish Housing Association. We had discussed the current reluctance of financial institutions to lend for property, and their anxiety in relation to HAs because of changes in the Housing Benefit system, which in effect shifts risk onto the HA. I put it to my colleague that the logic would point towards reducing standards, and I cited the ubiquitous trailer parks in USA or informal settlements in rapidly urbanising countries as the urban forms through which people and low and irregular incomes were able to access shelter in situations where you do not have even the residual vestiges of a European-style welfare state. He said he was not prepared to lower standards.

      That said, we should not pretend that “informal” kinds of housing solution do not exist already in the UK. Back in the 1980s when my home town of Manchester was suffering high unemployment, a cousin was living in a caravan in London to get work. I am also aware at the moment of couples who are sub-letting and sharing a 2 bedroom flat.

      Last but not least, the UK outside the south-east may be below the radar for those in power in London, but as I have pointed out in a previous blog, the effect of government fiscal policy since 2007 has been to take money from the rest of the country to sustain London as a global financial centre. Edinburgh has also benefited greatly from the bail out of the banks. The spatial impacts of a collapse of the UK banking system would not have been even across the country. What would have happened to jobs, firms and property markets in London, the South-east and Edinburgh if Gordon Brown had not decided that the banks had to be saved regardless of the cost? The bail out was the biggest regional policy intervention in history, “work to the workers” who would otherwise have been cast on the dole.

  • Tony Baldwinson

    Today’s Daily Mirror has a news piece under the heading ‘Regeneration’ page 8 of houses in Kensington, Liverpool being sold by the council for £1 each to landlords and “DIY enthusiasts” because talks on a £25m scheme have fallen through. Most readers here will know the HMR Pathfinder context.

    The point below about ‘how can other cities live in the same country as London?’ is well made, and the issue is that London is a world-city, whereas with all respect Paris and Berlin etc are not, so the lessons from elsewhere need to be filtered through this additional and powerful factor.

    For my money, the answer is strong local and regional planning underpinned by strong regional and industrial policies, otherwise the micro-scale logic of developments in EC1 overtakes the macro-scale logic of 2.5m people unemployed. But there are no big bonuses and fees to be earned defending regional planning.

    Politically, talk of “shrinking” cities will signal that we’ve just given up and sold the farm – and this is a time when we need more brave and smart politicians with a vision for sustainable cities. We need to speak truth to power with ideas that convey our belief that positive outcomes are still available.