Why do Cities Shrink?

Why do Cities Shrink?


The Shrinking Cities International Research Network defines a shrinking city as, “a densely populated urban area with a minimum population of 10,000 residents that has faced population losses in large parts for more than two years and is undergoing economic transformations with some symptoms of structural crisis” (Wiechmann, 2008, p. 431). Research in this field has boomed over the past 15 years as the global prevalence of the phenomenon has become increasingly apparent. The research focus has shifted from concentrating predominantly on European, American and Japanese cities to include case studies from China, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Korea and others. But, the geographic distribution of the cases and the multidisciplinary nature of the topic often result in very geographic or discipline-specific analyses. Consequently, a thorough, but wide-ranging, understanding of the causes and effects of urban shrinkage is difficult to obtain. In this writing, the causes and effects of urban shrinkage are identified and classified in order to provide a baseline global understanding of the phenomenon. Furthermore, the causes and effects are situated within a larger conceptual framework to demonstrate the feedback mechanisms present in many shrinking cities. The first step to helping cities stabilize is to develop an understanding of what caused them to decline.

The root causes of economic decline and population loss are inherently context dependent. The shrinking cities literature reflects this singularity and presents numerous typologies highlighting the causes of urban shrinkage (Bernt, Cocks, Couch, & Großmann, 2012; Buhnik, 2010; Cunningham-Sabot & Fol, 2009; Kaugurs, 2011; Oswalt & Rieniets, 2006b; Schatz, 2010; Wiechmann, 2008). Many similarities and commonalities arise between the classifications from the literature, with suburbanization, demographic change, political transformation, and economic decline and restructuring all being featured repeatedly.

The research focus has shifted from concentrating predominantly on European, American and Japanese cities to include case studies from China, Australia, Canada, Brazil, Korea and others. But, the geographic distribution of the cases and the multidisciplinary nature of the topic often result in very geographic or discipline-specific analyses. Consequently, a thorough, but wide-ranging, understanding of the causes and effects of urban shrinkage is difficult to obtain.

In the preindustrial era, the major contributing factors to urban shrinkage prominently included wars, city fires, natural disasters, epidemics and loss of significance (Oswalt & Rieniets, 2006b). However, in the postindustrial period, there was a pronounced change in principle causes of shrinkage (Schatz, 2010). Sanitary infrastructure and advancements in healthcare systems successfully impeded demographically significant epidemics, and elaborate support and response systems considerably affected post-disaster population loss as they enabled citizens to remain during the aftermath (Beauregard, 2003). Yet war, natural and ecological disasters and violent conflicts do continue to bear consequence in postindustrial shrinking cities (Oswalt & Rieniets, 2006b), as seen in many locations including Hiroshima during the Second World War, and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Shock events such as these tend to be isolated cases and often, especially in developing countries, occur within a larger context of high growth rates (Rieniets, 2006). Yet, commonplace shrinkage in recent years has become a slower process and results from a number of different factors, either acting independently, or more often, in combination (Schatz, 2010). New facets of urban development have emerged along with global industrialization and successive de-industrialization, including “new” causes of shrinkage that have a propensity to affect cities in the developed world, especially older industrial centers (Rieniets, 2006).

Yet, commonplace shrinkage in recent years has become a slower process and results from a number of different factors, either acting independently, or more often, in combination.

In order to classify these new causes of shrinkage, Oswalt and Rieniets (2006a) present a four-part typology consisting of destruction, loss, shifting and change. Each cause is also subdivided into a number of particular factors. This typology encompasses the major urban transformations, since the dawn of global industrialization, leading to urban shrinkage. By combining a variety of conflicting causes and effects, Oswalt and Rieniets’ classifications exemplify how ostensibly unrelated factors may in fact contribute to one another. A full summary of the typology and its factors can be seen in Table 1. Although thorough and emphasizing inter-relatability, due to the combination of conflicting causes, Oswalt and Rieniets’ (2006a) typology is not conducive to natural common classifications. By classifying economic, social, political and cultural aspects together (as in the “Change” classification), analytically objective study becomes difficult using this typology. 

 Table        SEQ Table \* ARABIC     1      : Oswalt and Rieniets' (2006) typology of shrinking cities.

Table 1: Oswalt and Rieniets' (2006) typology of shrinking cities.

As the shock occurrences of war, natural and ecological disaster and armed conflict are perceived to be isolated cases (Rieniets, 2006), many scholars omit these events from their urban shrinkage classifications. Table 2 catalogues generalized typologies put forth by Schatz (2010) and the second Shrink Smart Research Brief (SSSRB) (Bernt et al., 2012), as well as the geographically specific typologies of Buhnik (2010) and Wiechmann (2008)

 Table        SEQ Table \* ARABIC     2      : Summary of shrinking cities typologies from the literature.

Table 2: Summary of shrinking cities typologies from the literature.

Although each author was organizing their typologies for different geographic regions, the causal factors identified can be reorganized into four distinct categories. It is important to note that only the English-language academic literature was reviewed and therefore this is not an exhaustive list of shrinkage typologies. The identified factors are synthesized and generalized and presented as a four-part comprehensive typology: (1) economic restructuring, (2) demographic change, (3) suburbanization, and (4) political transformation. Table 3 explores the drivers and effects of each category of urban shrinkage identified in the literature.

 Table        SEQ Table \* ARABIC     3      : Shrinking cities typology.

Table 3: Shrinking cities typology.

Economic Restructuring

Economic restructuring and globalization are considered by the current literature to be a key cause of urban shrinkage (Martinez-Fernandez, Audirac, Fol, & Cunningham-Sabot, 2012; Schatz, 2010). The restructuring shift from industrial Fordist economies to post-Fordist global industrial subcontracting and the emergence of global cities has led to population loss in older industrial centers all over the globe. This economic shift is driven by a number of factors including the increased mobility of labor and the globalization of the production process, both which are mirrored by the increased concentration of capital in the emerging global market and the growth of transnational corporations (Castells, 2004).

The structural shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge-based economy and the relative influence exerted by a sector in an economy (Seasons, 2004) has manifested itself in the form of unemployment and outmigration (Hollander, Pallagst, Schwarz, & Popper, 2009), increased socio-economic inequality (Soja, 2000), gentrification (Audirac, Cunningham-Sabot, Fol, & Moraes, 2012) and increased brownfield sites (Zakirova, 2010).

Demographic Change

Postindustrial urban shrinkage, according to the literature, is strongly related to demographic change and migratory movements (Bernt et al., 2012; Buhnik, 2010; Wiechmann, 2008). In the past fifty years, the majority of shrinking cities have been located in Western industrial countries (Rieniets, 2005) and in most Western industrial countries birth rates are declining and populations are aging (Wiechmann, 2008). In many of these countries, urban growth only results from immigration or redistribution of residents within the country (Rieniets, 2005). The combination of demographic aging, low immigration, and in many post-socialist countries, the emigration of youth, are resulting in an absolute decline of the population (Audirac et al., 2012; Beauregard, 2003; Turok & Mykhnenko, 2007). In turn, this is leading to a high number of vacancies (Großmann, Haase, Rink, & Steinfuhrer, 2008), underused infrastructure (Buhnik, 2010; Wiechmann & Pallagst, 2012), increased socio-economic inequality (Martinez-Fernandez & Wu, 2009) and the abandonment of residential areas (Hollander, 2011; Martinez-Fernandez & Wu, 2009; Wiechmann, 2008).


Van den Berg et al. (1982) describe suburbanization as being associated with a two part process: (1) population and job loss within the inner city and (2) the simultaneous constant growth of the entire region. While suburbanization is considered by many researchers to be a principal cause of urban shrinkage (Bernt et al., 2012; Buhnik, 2010; Pallagst, 2005), its extent does vary from country to country, being more prominent in the United States and Britain and less in Europe and Japan (Beauregard, 2003; Buhnik, 2010; Hesse, 2006).

Suburbanization is driven by a number of factors, many of which are associated with increased mobility and the expected increase in quality of life outside the city (Rieniets, 2005). It is also driven by the greater demands on residential areas and, in cases, facilitated by planning and policy (Schatz, 2010). Historically, the American suburbs grew at a frantic pace between 1950 and 1970 during the Fordist era, doubling in population and, for the first time, exceeding the urban population (Rieniets, 2005). This exodus to the suburbs is known as “white flight” because it was principally white citizens who fled the cities after an influx of minorities emigrated in (Beauregard, 2003). This was in part driven by the many federal policies focused solely on new infrastructure and new development, as opposed to rehabilitation or infill redevelopment (Németh & Langhorst, 2013). Redlining, the denial of home loans in certain neighborhoods showing supposed physical decline, by insurance and banking institutions further promoted suburban development and was particularly detrimental to African-American communities (ibid.).

When large populations of residents relocate to suburban areas, large amounts of tax dollars must also be re-allocated as infrastructure must be stretched to accommodate more distance and is, simultaneously, underused in the city core (Großmann et al., 2008). Other effects of suburbanization include downtown dilapidation, high vacancies in the city center and increased inner-city crime (Hollander et al., 2009; Wiechmann & Pallagst, 2012).

Political Transformation

Two of the most prominent political transformations in the post-Fordist era have been the German reunification and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which resulted in severe urban shrinkage in Eastern Germany, the former Soviet Union and other former Eastern European planned economies (Bontje, 2004). The massive population losses are due to the economic reorganization and collapse of an entire political and social system. Formerly state-planned industrial regions were particularly affected as they were forced to generate a new economic foundation. These shifts led to mass outmigration, especially of well-trained young adults, job loss, rapidly falling birth rates and even decreased life expectancy (Martinez-Fernandez et al., 2012; Rieniets, 2006; Wiechmann & Pallagst, 2012).

Conceptual Framework

The four causal factors identified in the typology rarely work independently. In most cases they exist in concert, often reinforcing each other through positive feedback loops. For example, Detroit, MI has experienced economic restructuring, demographic change and suburbanization. Drivers and effects from all three categories have played substantial roles in Detroit’s urban evolution. However, when looking at a sole case, it can be more effective to think of the drivers in two categories – internal and external. Internal drivers manifest within the urban area itself, whether physical, social, political or economic. These drivers are a product of their environment and are more likely to be directly impacted by the effects they cause. External drivers, on the other hand, manifest outside the control of the urban area. These drivers are often a result of regional, national or even global shifts and are hard to predict or influence at the local level. 

 Figure        SEQ Figure \* ARABIC     1      : Shrinking cities conceptual framework.

Figure 1: Shrinking cities conceptual framework.

The internal and external drivers of urban shrinkage are characterized in Figure 1. This framework is representative of the modern phenomena of shrinking cities, where shrinkage is not simply a step in the growth cycle, but a permanent spatial symptom of an emerging global progression (Martinez-Fernandez et al., 2012). The external and internal drivers of shrinkage, which may influence each other, generate population loss and economic restructuring that has a variety of effects on the urban area. These effects can contribute directly to further shrinkage or can elicit a response, in the form of policy or community action, which then impacts the internal drivers. This self-reinforcing cycle has been seen in a variety of cities including Detroit, MI and Cleveland, OH. It is important to note that this feedback mechanism is not always to the detriment of the city. Even in cities that continue to lose population, there can be constructive responses that have a positive impact on citizen quality of life. The population may continue to decline and the economy may continue to evolve while the wellbeing of residents improves.


In recent years, the discourse on shrinking cities has garnered progressively more international attention, yet the debates can appear fragmented by geography and discipline. Researchers have only recently begun to realize the potential for producing cross-national knowledge (Großmann, Bontje, Haase, & Mykhnenko, 2013). The European, North American and Asian discourses currently running in parallel must interconnect in order to push the global understanding of urban shrinkage and to pool regional knowledge and expertise (ibid.). A better understanding of overarching causes and effects will in turn improve local analysis, as local conditions will be easier to isolate from known, global macro-processes.

In North America, there is a lag in both professional and academic discussions of shrinking cities (Wiechmann & Pallagst, 2012). According to Leadbeater (2009), the pro-growth bias of most academic research in Canada and U.S. is well known. Actors in the North American urban sphere are convinced of the need for growth – population decline is generally viewed as a temporary issue, which should be as short as possible, and is fully expected to be resolved through traditional growth processes (Bontje, 2004). In many parts of Europe, both researchers and practitioners have accepted the possibility of shrinkage as a permanent spatial manifestation. Großmann et al. (2008) contend that questions of coping with or adapting to urban shrinkage are dominant in Germany, whereas their Anglo-American counterparts continue to search for a fix-all solution. As the forceful discussions on urban shrinkage have continued to grow, both in Europe and more recently in North America, the necessity of a paradigm shift from the traditional urban growth model to alternative planning techniques have become apparent (Martinez-Fernandez et al., 2012). “The shrinking cities phenomenon … offers an opportunity to investigate the principles upon which spatial planning has traditionally been based and, by this means, it may help shed light on changing planning cultures” (Pallagst, 2010, p. iii). Pallagst (2010) believes that shrinking cities, as a topic, has been severely underrepresented in international comparative urban and regional research and Hollander et al. (2009, p. 232) argue that “if there were more, better, and especially cross-national research on shrinkage, the on-the-ground truth might turn out to be more complex and interesting.” So while there is currently a knowledge and practice gap in how each side of the Atlantic perceives shrinking cities, it is believed that the discussion of shrinking processes will eventually be so ubiquitous that they will naturally lose all stigma and become as typical as growth processes (Audirac, Fol, & Martinez-fernandez, 2010). Until that time, an added research focus on the planning responses to urban shrinkage is needed.



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Maxwell Hartt can be reached at hartt@aesirlab.com.

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