Shrinking Cities

Where cities shrink, the era of growth has come to an end. It is evident that shrinking cities shed populations and economic activity in equal measure, yet the reasons for the phenomenon of shrinkage and its impacts are many and diverse.


The phenomenon of shrinking cities is nothing new. Throughout history, phases of growth have been followed by periods of population decline. Wars, catastrophes and epidemics decimated populations in cities and across the country; technological, economic or political shifts robbed even erstwhile capital cities of their relevance.

Since the outset of industrialisation some two centuries ago and the evolution of the modern metropolis, growth has been accepted as the universal indicator of urban development. In industrial countries, populations and economic power grew almost continuously and usually rapidly. This was accompanied by greater prosperity, and the cities grew. The global urban population increased from three per cent in 1800 to 14 per cent in 1900. By 2000, this figure had grown to 47 per cent; approximately half the global population now lives in steadily growing cities. Up to the present day, this growth paradigm has influenced our thinking about urban development: growth has become a matter of course. However, the developments of recent years show that this historic era is drawing to a close. The populations of industrialised countries are beginning to wane, the urbanisation process is on the decrease and although the economy (measured according to the gross domestic product) is still showing limited growth, rates of employment have been steadily falling for some time.

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Urban shrinkage in the 20th century differs significantly from its historic antecedents. No longer the consequence of fateful catastrophes, it is increasingly becoming the norm in urban development. Some sixty years ago, large cities in the western world had already begun to shrink, but what was initially perceived as a localised maldevelopment has meanwhile become the rule in many regions of the world.

Nevertheless, to the present day, every attempt has been made to give these new challenges a wide berth. A veritable arsenal of censorship vocabulary is in circulation, which obscures the heart of the problem. For a long time, the notion of “shrinking cities” was frowned upon, and it is only now beginning to establish itself in the public debate. However shrinkage does not exclusively have to be perceived in a negative light, just as growth is not always experienced as a positive process. Even shrinkage harbours potentials – potentials, which are revealed wherever the guiding principles change in fundamental ways, and modes of action and practice are reorganised. The result is widespread social reform. The open exploration of the phenomenon of shrinkage is an incisive step on the path to this end – a confrontation, which the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt boldly faced in 2002 with the IBA Urban Redevelopment 2010 Saxony-Anhalt.