Shrinking Cities


What is sustainability?

The term “sustainability” has become a catch phrase that defines a large proportion of the goals of the modern environmental movement. Sustainable forestry, sustainable agriculture, sustainable energy, sustainable fuel, sustainable development… the list could go on and on.

Over the past ten years, sustainability has emerged from the fringe of secular and business awareness to become one of the most important considerations of the 21st century. The issues of climate change and the need for energy efficiency and smarter land use have heightened consumer demands for sustainable goods and services as well as lifestyles. This shift has resulted in the greening of many businesses and industries and the empowerment of local planners to drive sustainable planning initiatives.

AIA Sustainability Diagram
What does sustainability mean?(AIA 2008)

Sustainability has more depth than simply environmental quality; it also encompasses the consideration of social equity and economic stability. Sustainability“seeks to reconcile the conflicts among economic development, ecological preservation, and intergenerational equity, as reflected in the familiar definition from the report Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987): ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Godschalk 2004).

Community sustainability for shrinking cities seeks to increase long-term stability by balancing the three “E’s”: environment, economy and equity (see diagram above.) This serves as the primary driver behind this website and most other work on shrinking cities.

What does sustainability have to do with planning for shrinking cities?

Everything. Although somewhat counterintuitive to the more common connotations of sustainable urban initiatives that focus on “smart growth”, shrinking cities offer the unique and exciting opportunity to define criteria for what has been called “smart decline” or “right-sizing” strategies that seek to build more sustainable communities.

The vast quantities of vacant and abandoned properties in declining post-industrial cities such as Detroit and Cleveland have strong potential for reclamation strategies that fall into the three pillars of community sustainability (mirroring the diagram above):

Economic stability – opportunities for regeneration by rebuilding local economies, reinvigorating real estate values, and offering creative new business initiatives. This can be achieved by readjusting the built environment through strategic demolition as well as alternative uses such as blots. [insert links to pages]

Environmental quality – reclaiming contaminated and/or misused properties serve many ecological services, including: stormwater mitigation, improved infiltration, reduced ‘heat island’ effects, better habitat and even carbon sequestration. These efforts, such as green infrastructure and other alternative uses [insert links] ­increase human health by decreasing exposure to toxins.

In the case of Cleveland and many other post-industrial cities, almost all reuse sites contain some degree of contamination

Social equity – reviving neighborhoods, enhancing cultural amenities, decreasing exposure to toxins, improving quality of living through parks and open spaces, creating jobs and teaching new skills.

Collaborative efforts with strong community involvement are imperative in achieving these sustainable strategies. Community development corporations (CDC’s), land banks [insert link], housing courts (such as Cleveland Housing Court), nonprofit groups (such as Kent State’s Shrinking Cities Institute), and governments at the local, regional, state and federal levels all must take an active role if these ambitious initiatives are to be successful.

What is the greater relevance of community sustainability initiatives in shrinking cities?

While the immediate context of the strategies outlined on this site is on shrinking cities, many tenants of these innovations in sustainable community planning can be useful tools for cities across the country, and world.

Although not necessarily on the same regional scale, many of these ideas are applicable on a local scale for regeneration and redevelopment projects universally. This is especially true across other post-industrial cities, such as San Francisco and New York. While they do not suffer widespread population decline, they do have to deal with issues of contamination and need for alternatives uses.

Inversely, successful sustainable regeneration efforts in these cities offer ideas that can serve as a model for shrinking cities – examples at the forefront of this include the work of Sustainable South Bronx, and Greenworks Philadelphia.

Recommended articles for further reading/Bibliography:

Beatley, Timothy. "Sustainability 3.0: Building tomorrow's earth-friendly communities." Planning (APA), May 2009.

Godschalk, David R. "Land Use Planning Challenges: Coping with Conflicts in Visions of Sustainable Development and Livable Communities." Journal of the American Planning Association (APA), no. 70 (March 2004): 1,5-13.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA). Leaner, Greener Detroit. Washington, DC: The American Institute of Architects Center for Communities by Design, 2008.