Shrinking Cities

What are Shrinking Cities?

collage by ORAu-Vang      Photos by JSchilling

A shrinking city is one that has experienced prolonged, severe population and job loss, resulting in a place where the urban footprint far exceeds the needs of its current and future populations.  Adverse impacts often include excess inventories of vacant and abandoned properties and high rates of poverty and crime that generate a spiral of disinvestment and decay. Over the years, these cumulative effects, together with urban sprawl, cause residents to abandon center city neighborhoods.  With the current foreclosure crisis and economic downturn, inner ring suburbs are now experiencing these same problems.

Researchers and academic thinkers, such as Frank Popper, Witold Rybczynski, and Peter Linneman began preliminary explorations of shrinking cities in the late 1970s and 1980s. The concept of shrinking cities, however, first gained notoriety  with the debut of the touring Shrinking Cities exhibit – an international study of the processes of shrinking as a result of deindustrialization and the development of strategies for action. The effort, headed by Berlin designer Phillip Oswalt involved case studies, research and exhibits, sponsored by Germany's Federal Cultural Foundation that compared the economic, social and cultural challenges of urban decay in four cities: Detroit, Michigan, Manchester/Liverpool (Britain), Ivanovo (Russia), and Halle/Leipzig (Germany). The exhibit was widely-acclaimed and hosted by venues around the world between 2007 and 2008, including Cleveland, New York and Detroit here in the US.

Another collaboration, the Shrinking Cities International Research Network, has also brought attention to the shrinking cities phenomenon. The network was founded in 2004.  Comprised of researchers and policymakers, this interdisciplinary group conducts and disseminates research on the social, economic, environmental, cultural and land-use issues of shrinking cities. In 2007, the group held a symposium on the future of shrinking cities.

Within the United States, the Brookings Institute, scholars, and practitioners founded the National Vacant Properties Campaign (NVPC) to address the vacant properties problem that has plagued so many cities. NVPC is a project of Smart Growth America (SGA), Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, and the Genesee Institute. NVPC provides information resource, tools, and technical support to government agencies, for profit and non-profit developers, community organizations, and others to help them revitalize vacant properties.

In 2009, Virginia Tech-Alexandria campus created the Shrinking City Studio website (this website) to share resources, post events, and promote awareness of the shrinking cities phenomenon and to explore sustainable strategies for urban decline.


(Why the Need to Right-size (or for planned shrinkage)? GreenSense (Feb. 2010) finds out why the need to right-size by interviewing Joseph Schilling, Associate Director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech; Dave Flynn, an environment and energy Attorney; Stephen Filmanowicz, the Congress for the New Urbanism; and Jeff Edstrom, Senior Scientist, Environmental Consulting and Technology.  Requires MP3.)