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Shrinking Cities

Brexit in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the rise of extreme-right populist parties in France or more recently in Germany : these recent events have the common feature of being widely portrayed as the political consequences of the decline of old industrialized regions in Western countries. The question of the emergence of a “two-tier society”—characterized on the one hand by a tendency to concentrate the hopes of national economic prosperity in large metropolitan centers and, on the other, by growing territorial marginalization, “peripheralization”, or even irremediable decline—is now entering the public debate.

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In the United States, urban decline has most often occurred in cities and regions that were highly dependent on manufacturing during the 20th century. These cities began their decline in the immediate post‑World War II period, when they began to lose population. But the more durable process of “shrinking cities” is really a late‑20th‑century phenomenon, as some of the widespread postwar decline became more persistent in a set of cities that did not recover in the 1980s or 1990s, but continued their decline (Beauregard 2009). Geographically, among other regions, they are mostly concentrated in the upper Midwestern and Great Lakes states, such as Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Not coincidentally, these former strongholds for the Democratic Party shifted toward Trump, who promised the return of manufacturing to the US, in the most recent presidential election. The US government has long had an ambiguous relationship with the country’s large cities : while economically dependent on their production, the federal government has regularly cut funding for everyday urban activities and initiatives, while leaving cities to their own self-management. This has long been the case, and in the postwar period the federal government’s financial resources supported mass suburbanization—and thereby the depopulation of cities—and since the 1980s there has been a steady decline in federal support for cities. The proposed federal budget from president Trump appears to have taken these declines to their logical conclusion by proposing the elimination of all funding for a range of urban policies, most notably the Community Development Block Grant program, the largest federal program supporting urban development (DelReal 2017).

In France, local and national political actors have long believed they were protected from urban decline, which explains why the problem has only recently reached the political agenda. Admittedly, French cities were destabilized by the industrial crisis of the 1970s. However, the diversity of most urban economic bases, high fertility rates, the long-established presence of upper- and middle-class groups in city centers, and the intervention of the national government to cope with industrial decline—first directly by supporting strategic firms, and then indirectly by invisible territorial transfers of money emanating from the national system of redistribution (social benefits, pensions, etc.)—have long set the French situation apart from that of the United Kingdom or the United States. Above all, they have made the issue of urban shrinkage invisible in France. Moreover, while a few cases of early demographic decline were identified in cities like Saint‑Étienne or Le Havre, most of the major French cities continued to experience processes of demographic growth in the 1980s and the 1990s. This gap has been deepening over the last decade (Cauchi‑Duval, Cornuau and Rudolph), however. Over this period, the rise of major cities has been accelerating and, by contrast, many medium-sized cities whose economies were predominantly public-oriented have been strongly hit by the economic crisis and austerity policies. This concentration of the processes of decline in small and mid-sized cities is one of the main reasons for the uneasy emergence of the issue of urban shrinkage in French public and political debates (Dormois and Fol). It also explains the specific form of its recent politicization, which has been constructed around an opposition between a “France of big cities” characterized by progressive values, tolerance, and pro-globalization sentiment, and a vaguely defined “periphery” apparently marked by logics of decline, withdrawal and isolation. This overly simplistic view of territorial decline is questionable from a scientific point of view, because of its tendency to homogenize highly differentiated territories. It is also problematic from a political point of view, since it helps to legitimize an analysis in terms of “territorial divide”, of which declining cities would appear to be one of the clearest outputs, while keeping silent on the dynamics of downgrading at a finer scale, such as those at play in the deprived neighborhoods of the French banlieues.

In this context, it is crucial to take a closer look at the dynamics of shrinking cities—that is to say, those characterized by demographic and economic decline and, in many cases, by rising poverty rates among their populations. Initially circumscribed to certain specific regions such as the American Rust Belt or the former East Germany, this phenomenon now affects most countries in the Global North and is even occurring in the Global South (medium-sized cities in India and China, mining towns in Africa, etc.). As such, urban shrinkage could be considered one of the hot topics of urban studies, with scholars inquiring into the causes—deindustrialization, suburbanization, demographic transition or, more recently, austerity policies—and manifestations—social and political unrest, high vacancy rates, local financial crises, etc.—of urban decline.

The current spread of urban shrinkage is leading to a number of challenges for the residents of these cities and for their local governments. As a modern discipline, city planning was created to manage urban growth, which has long been taken for granted. Municipal governments are therefore deprived of the tools to deal with urban shrinkage. Accordingly, it is important to understand and compare the variety of policy responses and local strategies developed to address the issue of urban shrinkage. This need for cross-national comparison explains why the primary objective of this special issue is to provide analyses of urban shrinkage in various national contexts, specifically France, the United States, Japan, and Germany.

Moreover, in the current context of an increasing politicization of the processes of territorial decline, this series of articles will seek to reshape the academic and policy debates on shrinking cities, initially by looking beyond the simplistic picture of a “two-tier” territorial development, but also by providing new tools and analyses to understand urban shrinkage. For example, the analysis of residential mobility shows a clear selectivity in demographic decline (Rudolph), which results in an overrepresentation of the working class and an underrepresentation of the upper and middle classes. In the same vein, the analysis of territorial stigma associated with urban decline (Béal, Morel Journel and Sala Pala) makes it possible to understand the difficulty of implementing alternative redevelopment strategies. These dynamics play out particularly strongly in the American context, with the salient demographic and territorial issues associated with the percentage of the population that is black, as Jason Hackworth forcefully argues. Meanwhile, as Joshua Akers reminds us, urban shrinkage is hardly a natural process : market-based activities create winners and losers as cities decline.

Lastly, this series will give new insights into both the constraints and the opportunities provided by urban shrinkage. Although neoliberal policies have long been favored by state and local government actors to cope with urban shrinkage, there are also some signs that a context of urban decline could constitute a fertile ground for the emergence of alternative urban policies. Indeed, such a context greatly affects the balance of power between the different actors involved in local governance and can therefore open a space for citizens and other local groups to influence the urban agenda—or, at the very least, to transform their environment. Deeply hit by the territorial decline that threatens their economic model, the local organizations that provide and manage public housing are thus key players in the emergence of “smart shrinkage” strategies in France (Miot and Rousseau) and “smart decline” policies in the United States (Popper and Popper), while local utilities operators in Germany, no less concerned by a changing local context, have proved to be proactive in the creation of new regional solidarities (Florentin). Should we then conclude from these examples that a context of decline leads to the creation of urban policies that promote social justice ? The answer is not so simple. In Japan, for instance, structural urban decline has facilitated the promotion of a new urban form—the “compact city” (Buhnik)—whose inclusiveness is debatable. In the American context, the results, as Kimberley Kinder (2016) argues, have been a “DIY urbanism” that is incredibly demanding of the time, resources, and capacities of those that remain, who have to struggle mightily just to maintain the basic services upon which society rests—hardly a recipe for urban social justice. Finally, in Germany and the United States, urban strategies based on street art (Gribat) or urban agriculture (Paddeu) have also proved to be highly ambivalent in both their rationalities and results.

Articles in this series :

Trends in urban shrinkage

Managing urban shrinkage under constraints

Shrinking differently : alternative urban strategies ?

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  • Beauregard, R. A. 2009. “Urban Population Loss in Historical Perspective : United States, 1820–2000”, Environment and Planning A, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 514–528.
  • DelReal, J. A. 2017. “Trump administration considers $6 billion cut to HUD budget”, Washington Post, 8 March.
  • Kinder, K. 2016. DIY Detroit : Making Do in a City Without Services, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press.

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Pour citer cet article :

Vincent Béal & Anaïs Collet & James DeFilippis & Richard E. Ocejo & Max Rousseau, “Shrinking Cities”, Métropolitiques, 27 mars 2017. URL :

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