Dealing with Shrinking Cities

Defending What's Left of Declining Cities

Despite the fact that we like to imagine that over time cities always become larger and more prosperous this is not always the case. In the United States an entire region of cities has been declining in prestige and population for about 50 years. This area is the upper midwest and is known as the Rust Belt. Cities such as Detroit (more on that later), St. Louis, Youngstown and Flint have been shrinking for decades. Public officials have either turned a blind eye or just hoped that trends would reverse. As these areas lost manufacturing jobs that were at the base of the economy, they have been forced to cut back.

I wanted to show you a picture of Detroit specifically. It is the highlight of urban decline and it's population has dropped from a peak of 1.8 million to around 700,000.

This is only one neighborhood, but it is largely representative of the whole city. Notice that a once full residential neighborhood stands with fewer than 50% of the houses remaining. This problem plagues Detroit. The city has a large size but because residents are so dispersed and density is low, city services are strained.

But what do we do?

1. Accept Shrink

The first step to fixing any problem is always acknowledging that it exists. Clearly some cities have a dramatic shrinking problem. Often times, city boundaries were created large to accommodate high density population; it makes sense that if it was known that the population would shrink, the city would have been designed smaller.

2. Centralize  

This could be a challenge. I propose literally moving people out of the abandoned reaches and into the urban core. This will do two things. First, it will allow the city to cut services to outlying areas because they will truly be abandoned. Secondly, increased density in a central urban area will make the city FEEL bigger. This can help residents to cope and may restore some faith in the community. Bringing people together may also increase business activity in the central core of the city.

3. Defend What's Left

Rather than continuing to reduce the size of the central core, revitalize downtown and make the city more livable. Make the center of a city that people want to come to and want to stay in. Rebuilding downtown and bringing a in new businesses will bolster the economy and hopefully help to stop the exodus. If this does not happen, the city will probably keep shrinking!

It is certainly not easy to deal with a shrinking city and by no means is shrink the "fault" of urban designers. Many factors relate to why people may want to leave a city. It sometimes takes radical and creative approaches to turn things around. My next post will be about Detroit and it's specific dilemna.