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Shrinking Cities
Alex Steffen, 10 Oct 04

I spent half of 2002 travelling around the United States, looking for hints of what a shiny-new-green future might look like. It was a pretty great trip, about which I've written at length elsewhere, but in many ways the highlight was my stay in Detroit.

See, the 21st Century is an urban era: megacities are the central fact of human life now. But there's another side to that coin. Just as the central fact of the developing world baby boom is echoed by the aging of the developed world's populations, so to are the vast megacities of the South echoed by an increasing number of cities in the North which are actually collapsing in on themselves. Detroit is a perfect example.

But what do we do with cities which are contracting?

That's precisely the question the Shrinking Cities project aims to answer. In their Reinventing Urbanism competition, Shrinking Cities and archplus have asked multi-disciplinary teams for new ways of thinking about the challenges of four cities in similar positions: Detroit (USA), Halle/Leipzig (DE), Ivanovo (RUS) and Liverpool/Manchester (GB).

"Shrinkage calls into question our understanding of the city and of urban planning. Urban neighborhoods, cities and entire regions are being drained of their population and jobs, leaving behind thos ewho have lost out in the process of transformation from an era of Fordist industrial production to a society governed by globalized service industries. The dramatic developments in Eastern Germany since 1989 -- resulting in over 1 million vacant apartments, the abandonment of countless industrial facilities and the loss of any number of social and cultural institutions -- exemplify a general pattern of contemporary civilization. ...[But] shrinkage does not only imply loss; it can also be the point of departure for cultural renewal. The objective of the competition is to identify new modes of action capable of shaping and qualifying the urban transformation resulting from shrinkage."

Which is exactly right. Part of what impresses about Detroit is the sheer scale of the ruin -- square miles of what appears to be the product of saturation-bombing, with lone houses scattered here and there amidst fields of weedy rubble. It's a stunning sight. But what impresses even more is the sheer sense of possibility one gets driving around there. I'm not an architect, developer or planner, but I kept finding myself visualizing what might be done with some inspiration and a few hundred million dollars, visualizing transformations of a type simply impossible in more prosperous cities.

Which is why I fully expect to find the new taking root first in places like Detroit. Collapsing cities are to new ideas as virgin populations are to viruses. In an expanding city, ten thousand interests compete, generally evolving only the most profitable land uses and urban cultures. In a collapsing city, strange manias can take hold -- sometimes those manias are cheap scams (like the whole casino economy), but sometimes they are genuine breakthroughs.

In any case, the 12 initial Reinventing Urbanism winners have been announced (page in German, but many entries in English). If you're interested in the urban future, it's really worth taking a look.

(photo from the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit. Thanks for the Shrinking Cities link, Ethan!)

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This is strange.... I live in India and I have been reading so much about outsourcing and being "Bangalored" - paradoxically, Bangalore is a city that can be called shrinking - or 'collapsing in on itself'.... more jobs, and therefore more people pouring into the city - ideally. and more people leaving their jobs and the city - and the second is reality.

so Bangalore is a crowded congested city.... parts of it are empty / emptying more rapidly than other parts are growing. and it seems like very soon when Bangalore will become a total "shrunk" city...

Posted by: Charu on 12 Oct 04

Very interesting article - it reminds me of a required reading text from architecture school by Frank Lloyd Wright written in 1932, called "The Disappearing City". It attempts to explain this phenomenon as the natural result of over concentration of capital in one place, at a certain time. It also brings up the idea of an internal struggle between our nomad instinctive need to wander versus our cave dweller instict to stay put and "industrialize". It may be old text but it is certainly relevant to the discussion today.

Posted by: Mark on 12 Oct 04



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