Shrinking cities

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Shrinking cities or urban depopulation are dense cities that have experienced notable population loss. Emigration (migration from a place) is a common reason for city shrinkage. Since the infrastructure of such cities was built to support a larger population, its maintenance can become a serious concern. A related phenomenon is counterurbanization.




The phenomenon of shrinking cities generally refers to a metropolitan area that experiences significant population loss in a short period of time.[1] The theory is also known as counterurbanization, metropolitan deconcentration, and metropolitan turnaround.[2] It was popularized in reference to Eastern Europe post-socialism, when old industrial regions came under Western privatization and capitalism.[1][3] Shrinking cities in the United States, on the other hand, has been forming since 2006 in dense urban centers while external suburban areas continue to grow.[4] Suburbanization in tandem with deindustrialization, human migration, and the 2008 Great Recession all contribute to origins of shrinking cities in the U.S.[1] Scholars estimate that one in six to one in four cities worldwide are shrinking in countries with expanding economies and those with deindustrialization.[1] However, there are some issues with the concept of shrinking cities, as it seeks to group together areas that undergo depopulation for a variety of complex reasons. These may include an aging population, shifting industries, intentional shrinkage to improve quality of life, or a transitional phase, all of which require different responses and plans.[5]


There are various theoretical explanations for the shrinking city phenomenon. Hollander et al.[6] and Glazer[7] cite railroads in port cities, the depreciation of national infrastructure (i.e., highways), and suburbanization as possible causes of de-urbanization. Pallagst[1] also suggests that shrinkage is a response to deindustrialization, as jobs move from the city core to cheaper land on the periphery. This case has been observed in Detroit, where employment opportunities in the automobile industry were moved to the suburbs because of room for expansion and cheaper acreage.[8] Bontje[3] proposes three factors contributing to urban shrinkage, followed by one suggested by Hollander:

  1. Urban development model: Based on the Fordist model of industrialization, it suggests that urbanization is a cyclical process and that urban and regional decline will eventually allow for increased growth[3]
  2. One company town/monostructure model: Cities that focus too much on one branch of economic growth make themselves vulnerable to rapid declines, such as the case with the automobile industry in Flint.[3]
  3. Shock therapy model: Especially in Eastern Europe post-socialism, state-owned companies did not survive privatization, leading to plant closures and massive unemployment.[3]
  4. Smart decline: City planners have utilized this term and inadvertently encouraged decline by "planning for less—fewer people, fewer buildings, fewer land uses.".[6] It is a development method focused on improving the quality of life for current residents without taking those residents' needs into account, thus pushing more people out of the city core.[6]



The shrinking of urban populations indicates a changing of economic and planning conditions of a city. Cities begin to 'shrink' from economic decline, usually resulting from war, debt, or lack of production and work force.[9] Population decline affects a large number of communities, both communities that are far removed from and deep within large urban centers.[9] These communities usually consist of native people and long-term residents, so the initial population is not large. The outflow of people is then detrimental to the production potential and quality of life in these regions, and a decline in employment and productivity ensues.[9]

Social and infrastructural[edit]

Shrinking cities experience dramatic social changes due to fertility decline, changes in life expectancy, population aging, and household structure. Another reason for this shift is job-driven migration.[9] This causes different household demands, posing a challenge to the urban housing market and the development of new land or urban planning. A decline in population does not inspire confidence in a city, and often deteriorates municipal morale. Coupled with a weak economy, the city and its infrastructure begin to deteriorate from lack of upkeep from citizens.[citation needed]


Historically, shrinking cities have been a taboo topic in politics. Representatives ignored the problem and refused to deal with it, leading many to believe it was not a real problem. Today, urban shrinkage is an acknowledged issue, with many urban planning firms working together to strategize how to combat the implications that affect all dimensions of daily life.[9]

International perspectives[edit]

Partizánska Ľupča in Slovakia. Now a village with 1300 inhabitants but in 14th-19th centuries an important mining town with more than 4000. Several houses still have an urban character.

Former Socialist regions in Europe and Central Asia have historically suffered the most from population decline and deindustrialization. East German cities, as well as former Yugoslavian and Soviet territories, were significantly affected by the weak economic situation they were left in after the fall of socialism. The reunification of European countries yielded both benefits and drawbacks. German cities like Leipzig and Dresden, for example, experienced a drastic population decline as many people emigrated to western cities like Berlin. Hamburg in particular experienced a population boom with record production yields in 1991, after the unification of Germany. Conversely, Leipzig and Dresden suffered from a failing economy and a neglected infrastructure. These cities were built to support a much larger population. However, both Dresden and Leipzig are now growing again, largely at the expense of smaller cities and rural areas. Shrinking cities in the United States face different issues, with much of the population migrating out of cities to other states for better economic opportunities and safer conditions. Advanced capitalist countries generally have a larger population, so this shift is not as dangerous as it is to post-socialist countries. The United States also has more firms willing to rehabilitate shrinking cities and invest in revitalization efforts. For example, after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco in 1989, the dynamics between the city and its residents provoked change and plans achieved visible improvements in the city. By contrast, cities in Germany have not gotten the same attention. Urban planning projects take a long time to be approved and established. As of now, Leipzig is taking steps toward making the city more nature-oriented and 'green' so that the population can be first stabilized, and then the country can focus on drawing the population back into the city.[10]


The observable demographic out-migration and disinvestment of capital from many industrial cities across the globe following World War II prompted an academic investigation into the causes of shrinking cities or, urban decline. Serious issues of justice, racism, economic and health disparity, as well as inequitable power relations, are consequences of the shrinking cities phenomenon. The question is, what causes urban decline and why? While theories do vary, three main categories of influence are widely attributed to urban decline: deindustrialization, globalization, and suburbanization.


Sectors of the US Economy as percent of GDP 1947-2009.[11]

One theory of shrinking cities is deindustrialization or, the process of disinvestment from industrial urban centers.[12] This theory of shrinking cities is mainly focused on post-World War II Europe. Following World War II, global economic power shifted from Western Europe to the United States.[13] At this moment, manufacturing declined in Western Europe as it increased within the United States.[13] The result was a shift away from Western European industrialization and a movement towards alternative industries.[13] This economic shift is clearly seen through the United Kingdom's rise of a service sector economy.[14] With a shift in industry, however, many jobs were lost or outsourced.[14] The result was urban decline and the massive demographic movement from former industrial urban centers into suburban and rural locals.[14]

Post-World War II politics[edit]

Rapid privatization incentives encouraged under the United States sponsored post-World War II economic aid policies such as the Marshall Plan and Lend-Lease program, motivated free-market, capitalist approaches to governance across the Western European economic landscape.[12] The result of these privatization schemes was a movement of capital into American manufacturing and financial markets and out of Western European industrial centers.[14] American loans were also used as political currency contingent upon global investment schemes meant to stifle economic development within the Soviet-allied Eastern Bloc.[15] With extensive debt tying capitalist Europe to the United States and financial blockades inhibiting full development of the communist Eastern half, this Cold War economic power structure greatly contributed to European urban decline.

The case of Great Britain[edit]

19th century Great Britain became the first global economic superpower, because of superior manufacturing technology and improved global communications such as steamships and railways.

Great Britain, widely considered the first nation to fully industrialize, is often used as a case study in support of the theory of deindustrialization and urban decline.[14] Political economists often point to the Cold War era as the moment when a monumental shift in global economic power structures occurred.[14] The former "Great Empire" of the United Kingdom was built from industry, trade and financial dominion. This control was, however, effectively lost to the United States under such programs as the Lend-Lease and Marshall Plan.[14] As the global financial market moved from London to New York City, so too did the influence of capital and investment.

With the initial decades following World War II dedicated to rebuilding or, readjusting the economic, political and cultural role of Britain within the new world order, it wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that major concerns over urban decline emerged.[14] With industry moving out of Western Europe and into the United States, rapid depopulation of cities and movement into rural areas occurred in Great Britain.[14] Deindustrialization was advanced further under the Thatcherite privatization policies of the 1980s.[14] Privatization of industry took away all remaining state protection of manufacturing. With industry now under private ownership, "free-market" incentives (along with a strong pound resulting from North Sea Oil) pushed further movement of manufacturing out of the United Kingdom.[14]

Under Prime Minister Tony Blair, the United Kingdom effectively tried to revamp depopulated and unemployed cities through the enlargement of service sector industry.[14] This shift from manufacturing to services did not, however, reverse the trend of urban decline observed beginning in 1966, with the exception of London.[14]

The case of Leipzig[edit]

Leipzig after bombing in World War II

Leipzig serves as an example of urban decline on the Eastern half of post-World War II Europe. Leipzig, an East German city under Soviet domain during the Cold War era, suffered to receive adequate government investment as well as market outlets for industrial goods.[13] With the stagnation of demand for production, Leipzig began to deindustrialize as the investment in manufacturing stifled.[16] This deindustrialization, demographers theorize, prompted populations to migrate from the city center and into the country and growing suburbs in order to find work elsewhere.[13] Since the 2000s, Leipzig reindustrializes and turned back into a growing urban realm.

The case of Detroit[edit]

Although most major research on deindustrialization focuses on post-World War II Europe, many theorists also turn to the case of Detroit, Michigan as further evidence of the correlation between deindustrialization and shrinking cities.[17] Detroit, nicknamed Motor City because of its expansive automobile manufacturing sector, reached its population peak during the 1950s.[18] As European and Japanese industry recovered from the destruction of World War II, the American automobile industry no longer had a monopoly advantage. With new global market competition, Detroit began to lose its unrivaled position as "Motor City".[18] With this falling demand, investment shifted to other locations outside of Detroit. Deindustrialization followed as production rates began to drop.


As evident from the theory of deindustrialization, political economists and demographers both place huge importance on the global flows of capital and investment in relation to population stability.[19] Many theorists point to the Bretton Woods Conference as setting the stage for a new globalized age of trade and investment.[19] With the creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in addition to the United States' economic aid programs (i.e., Marshall Plan and Lend-Lease), many academics highlight Bretton Woods as a turning point in world economic relations. Under a new academic stratification of developed and developing nations, trends in capital investment flows and urban population densities were theorized following post-World War II global financial reorganization.[20]

Product life-cycle theory[edit]

The product life-cycle theory was originally developed by Raymond Vernon to help improve the theoretical understanding of modern patterns of international trade.[19] In a widely cited study by Jurgen Friedrichs, "A Theory of Urban Decline: Economy, Demography and Political Elites," Friedrichs aims to clarify and build upon the existing theory of product life-cycle in relation to urban decline.[15] Accepting the premise of shrinking cities as result of economic decline and urban out-migration, Friedrichs discusses how and why this initial economic decline occurs.[15] Through a dissection of the theory of product life-cycle and its suggestion of urban decline from disinvestment of outdated industry, Friedrichs attributes the root cause of shrinking cities as the lack of industrial diversification within specific urban areas.[15] This lack of diversification, Friedrichs suggests, magnifies the political and economic power of the few major companies and weakens the workers' ability to insulate against disinvestment and subsequent deindustrialization of cities.[15] Friedrichs suggests that lack of urban economic diversity prevents a thriving industrial center and disempowers workers.[15] This, in turn, allows a few economic elites in old-industrial cities such as St. Louis, Missouri and Detroit in the United States, to reinvest in cheaper and less-regulated third world manufacturing sites.[21] The result of this economic decline in old-industrial cities is the subsequent out-migration of unemployed populations.

Neoliberal critique[edit]

Nanjing Road, a major shopping street in Shanghai

Recent studies have further built upon the product life-cycle theory of shrinking cities. Many of these studies, however, focus specifically on the effects of globalization on urban decline through a critique of neoliberalism. This contextualization is used to highlight globalization and the internationalization of production processes as a major driver causing both shrinking cities and destructive development policies.[22] Many of these articles draw upon case studies looking at the economic relationship between the United States and China to clarify and support the main argument presented. The neoliberal critique of globalization argues that a major driver of shrinking cities in developed countries is through the outflow of capital into developing countries.[20] This outflow, according to theorists, is caused by an inability for cities in richer nations to find a productive niche in the increasingly international economic system.[20] In terms of disinvestment and manufacturer movement, the rise of China's manufacturing industry from United States outsourcing of cheap labor is often cited as the most applicable current example of the product life-cycle theory.[20] Dependency theory has also been applied to this analysis, arguing that cities outside of global centers experience outflow as inter-urban competition occurs.[23] Based on this theory, it is argued that with the exception of a few core cities, all cities eventually shrink as capital flows outward.


The migration of wealthier individuals and families from industrial city centers into surrounding suburban areas is an observable trend seen primarily within the United States during the mid to late 20th century.[24] Specific theories for this flight vary across disciplines. The two prevalent cultural phenomenons of white flight and car culture are, however, consensus trends across academic disciplines.[25]

White flight[edit]

White flight generally refers to the movement of large percentages of Caucasian Americans out of racially mixed United States city centers and into largely homogenous suburban areas during the 20th century.[18] The result of this migration, according to theorists studying shrinking cities, was the loss of money and infrastructure from urban centers.[18] As the wealthier and more politically powerful populations fled from cities, so too did funding and government interest. The result, according to many academics, was the fundamental decline of urban health across United States cities beginning in the 20th century.[18]

A Home Owners' Loan Corporation 1936 security map of Philadelphia showing redlining of lower income neighborhoods.[26] Households and businesses in the red zones could not get mortgages or business loans.

The product of white flight was a stratification of wealth with the poorest (and mostly minority) groups in the center of cities and the richest (and mostly white) outside the city in suburban locations.[17] As suburbanization began to increase through to the late 20th century, urban health and infrastructure precipitously dropped. In other words, United States urban areas began to decline.[17]

Mid-20th-century political policies greatly contributed to urban disinvestment and decline. Both the product and intent of these policies were highly racial oriented.[17] Although discrimination and racial segregation already existed prior to the passage of the National Housing Act in 1934, the structural process of discrimination was federally established with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).[18] The result of the establishment of the FHA was redlining. Redlining refers to the demarcation of certain districts of poor, minority urban populations where government and private investment were discouraged.[17] The decline of minority inner city neighborhoods was worsened under the FHA and its policies.[17] Redlined districts could not improve or maintain a thriving population under conditions of withheld mortgage capital.[17]

Car culture and urban sprawl[edit]

In combination with the racial drivers of white flight, the development of a uniquely American car culture also led to further development of suburbanization and later, urban sprawl.[27] As car culture made driving "cool" and a key cultural aspect of "American-ness," suburban locations proliferated in the imaginations of Americans as the ideal landscape to live during the 20th century.[27] Urban decline, under these conditions, only worsened.[27]

View of suburban development in the Phoenix metropolitan area

The more recent phenomenon of urban sprawl across American cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles, were only made possible under the conditions of a car culture.[27] The impact of this car culture and resulting urban sprawl is, according to academics, threefold. First, although urban sprawl in both shrinking and growing cities have many similar characteristics, sprawl in relation to declining cities may be more rapid with an increasing desire to move out of the poor, inner-city locations.[13] Second, there are many similarities in the characteristics and features of suburban areas around growing and declining cities.[13] Third, urban sprawl in declining cities can be contained by improving land use within inner city areas such as implementing micro-parks and implementing urban renewal projects.[13] There are many similarities between urban sprawl in relation to both declining and growing cities. This, therefore, provides similar intervention strategies for controlling sprawl from a city planning point of view.


Different interventions are adopted by different city governments to deal with the problem of city shrinkage based on their context and development. Governments of shrinking cities such as Detroit and Youngstown have used new approaches of adapting to populations well below their peak, rather than seeking economic incentives to boost populations to previous levels before shrinkage and embracing growth models.

Green retirement city[edit]

Research from Europe proposes "retirement migration" as one strategy to deal with city shrinkage. The idea is that abandoned properties or vacant lots can be converted into green spaces for retiring seniors migrating from other places. As older individuals migrate into cities they can bring their knowledge and savings to the city for revitalization.[28] Retiring seniors are often ignored by the communities if they are not actively participating in community activities. The green retirement city approach could also have benefits on social inclusion of seniors, such as urban gardening.[28] The approach could also act as a "catalyst in urban renewal for shrinking cities".[28] Accommodations, in the meanwhile, have to be provided including accessibility to community facilities and health care.

Establishing a green retirement city would be a good approach to avoid tragedies like the 1995 Chicago heat wave. During the heat wave, hundreds of deaths occurred in the city, particularly in the inner neighborhood of the city. Victims were predominantly poor, elderly, African American populations living in the heart of the city.[29] Later research pointed out that these victims were socially isolated and had a lack of contact with friends and families.[29] People who were already very ill in these isolated, inner neighborhoods were also affected and might have died sooner than otherwise.[29] The high crime rate in the inner decaying city also accounted for the high rate of deaths as they were afraid to open their windows. Therefore, a green retirement city with sufficient community facilities and support would accommodate needs for elderly population isolated in the poor, inner city communities.


The idea of "right-sizing" is defined as "stabilizing dysfunctional markets and distressed neighborhoods by more closely aligning a city's built environment with the needs of existing and foreseeable future populations by adjusting the amount of land available for development." [30] Rather than revitalize the entire city, residents are relocated into concentrated or denser neighborhoods. Such reorganization encourages residents and businesses in more sparsely populated areas to move into more densely populated areas.[31] Public amenities are emphasized for improvement in these denser neighborhoods. Abandoned buildings in these less populated areas are demolished and vacant lots are reserved for future green infrastructure.[30]

The city of Detroit has adopted right-sizing approaches in its "Detroit Work Project" plan. Many neighborhoods are only 10–15% occupied.[32] and the plan encourages people to concentrate in nine of the densest neighborhoods.[32] Under the plan, the city performs several tasks including: prioritizing public safety, providing reliable transportation and demolition plans for vacant structures.[33]

Although the "right-sizing" approach may seem attractive to deal with vast vacant lots and abandoned houses with isolated residents, it can be problematic for people who are incapable of moving into these denser neighborhoods.[31] In the case of Detroit, although residents in decaying neighborhoods are not forced to move into concentrated areas, if they live outside designated neighborhoods they may not get public services they require.[31] This is because communities in shrinking cities often are low-income communities where they are racially segregated.[34] Such segregation and exclusion may "contribute to psychosocial stress level" as well and further add burden to the quality of living environments in these communities.[34]

Smart shrinkage[edit]

The idea of "smart shrinkage", in some regards, is similar to dominant growth-based models that offer incentives encouraging investment to spur economic and population growth, and reverse shrinkage. However, rather than believing the city can return to previous population levels, the governments embrace shrinkage and accept having a significantly smaller population.[35] With this model, governments emphasize diversifying their economy and prioritizing funds over relocating people and neighborhoods.

Youngstown 2010 is an example of such an approach for the city of Youngstown, Ohio. The plan seeks to diversify the city's economy, "which used to be almost entirely based on manufacturing".[36] Tax incentive programs like Youngstown Initiative have also "assisted in bringing in and retaining investment throughout the city."[37] These practices help attract and preserve investment throughout the city. Since the plan was introduced, many major investments have been made in the city. The downtown Youngstown has been also transformed from a high crime rate area into a vibrant destination.[36]

Nevertheless, there are concerns that the smart shrinkage approach may worsen existing isolation of residents who cannot relocate to more vibrant neighborhoods. Environmental justice issues may surface from this approach if city governments ignore the types of industries planning investment and neighborhoods that are segregated.

Land bank[edit]

Land banks are often quasi-governmental counties or municipal authorities that manage the inventory of surplus vacant lands. They "allow local jurisdictions to sell, demolish and rehabilitate large numbers of abandoned and tax-delinquent properties."[38] Sometimes, the state works directly with local governments to allow abandoned properties to have easier and faster resale and to discourage speculative buying.[38]

One of the most famous examples of land banks is the Genesee County Land Bank in the city of Flint, Michigan. As an industrial city with General Motors as the largest producer, declining car sales with the availability of cheap labor in other cities led to reduction in the labor force of the city. The main reason of the property or land abandonment problem in Flint was the state's tax foreclosure system.[39] Abandoned properties were either transferred to private speculators or became state-owned property through foreclosure, which encouraged low-end reuse of tax-reverted land due to the length of time between abandonment and reuse.[39]

The Land Bank provides a series of programs to revitalize shrinking cities. In the case of Flint, Brownfield Redevelopment for previous polluted lands is controlled by the land bank to allow financing of demolition, redevelopment projects and clean up through tax increment financing.[39] A "Greening" strategy is also promoted by using abandonment as an opportunity for isolated communities to engage in maintenance and improvement of vacant lots.[39] In the city, there is significant reduction in abandoned properties. Vacant lots are maintained by the banks or sold to adjacent land owners as well.[38]

Establishment of land banks could increase land values and tax revenues for further innovation of the shrinking cities. Nevertheless, The process of acquiring foreclosures can be troublesome as "it may require involvement on the part of several jurisdictions to obtain clear title," which is necessary for redevelopment.[40] Economic problems that local residents have, including income disparities between local residents, cannot be solved by the land bank, with the addition of increasing rents and land values led by the revitalization of vacant land. Local leaders also lack the authority to interrupt works that Land Banks do.[39] Environmental justice problems that are from previous polluting industry may not be fully addressed through shrinking city intervention and without opinions from local people. Therefore, a new approach of dealing with these vacant lots will be to work with non-profit local community groups to construct more green open spaces among the declining neighborhoods to reduce vacant lots and create strong community commitments.[38]

Other approaches[edit]

There are several other miscellaneous interventions that some cities have used to deal with city shrinkage. One of the interventions would be the series of policies adopted in the city of Leipzig in East Germany. They include construction of town houses in urban areas and guardian houses with temporary rental-free leases.[41] Temporary use of private property as public spaces is also encouraged.[41] Another intervention would be the revitalization of vacant lots or abandoned properties for artistic development and artists interactions such as the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia, where vacant lots and empty buildings are renovated with mosaics, gardens and murals.

Case study: Detroit, Michigan[edit]

History of Detroit's changing demographics[edit]

Abandoned houses in Detroit - a representation of urban shrinkage.

Economic changes, the Automotive industry in the United States, societal shifts, and political restructuring each affected demographic change and shrinkage in Detroit.[42] The city's demographic history plays a key role in the present situation of depopulation in Detroit, and how it has become an issue of economic inequality and environmental justice.[43] These political, economic, and societal shifts are outlined below.

From village to city[edit]

Though it began as a small village in 1701, Detroit was not an incorporated city until 1815.[7][44] By 1820 the city had around 1,400 inhabitants, which increased to 2,200 by 1830.[7] By 1850 the city's population of predominantly immigrants had reached 21,000, and by 1860 had surpassed 45,600 total inhabitants.[7] This is in part because Detroit was the final stop on the Underground Railroad.[44] Even though much of Detroit's African American community was free, racial tensions ran deep among white landowners, and free African Americans often had to deal with slave hunters.[8] In the late 19th Century, roughly half of Detroit's population was foreign-born.[8] Demographically, the city was home to numerous Austrians, Belgians, Canadians, Germans, English, Scottish, Polish, and Irish groups.[7] Detroit's residents also lived in clearly defined ethnic and economic neighborhoods from the beginning, segregating English and non-English speakers from Jewish and Catholic, for example.[7] In 1825, the Erie Canal and a network of highways, including the Chicago Road, also brought in additional settlers while the city developed.[7] Throughout this time, Detroit was slowly becoming a commercial center in the Midwest.[8] The market for manufactured goods slowly grew, as the construction of railroads connected industrial leaders to other prosperous counties in the state, allowing the population to grow further.[7] By 1854, the railroad connected Detroit to New York City, permanently opening the city's commercial capacity.[7] To support these opportunities, the city also modernized quickly, laying 242 miles of water pipe by 1883 to service the growing population, and contributing to suburbanization.[8]

The Motor City[edit]

Industries native to Detroit, such as manufacturing cigars and kitchen ranges, were quickly overshadowed by the success of Detroit's automobile industry, which allowed the city to explode via population growth. Other cars had been built already in other cities, but Ford's concept of the moving assembly line "put the world on wheels".[44] The materialization of the automobile industry put Detroit on the map as a global industrial center, allowing dozens of companies to emerge and offer jobs in the automobile industry.[8] This had significant implications for population. In 1900, the US Census reported the city's population at 286,000, with over 115,000 of them working.[8] By 1910, this number had grown to a total population of 466,000 with 215,000 working.[8] During World War I, Detroit was a recipient of thousands of rural African Americans flowing into the city from the South, many of them taking jobs in burgeoning car factories.[8] By 1920 over half of the population were immigrant generations, as Detroit was the nexus for many migrating populations.[8]

Road engineers and industry workers flocked to Detroit with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 (Phipps Act).[8] The creation of interstate highways and well-maintained roads made it easier to build homes away from the urban city center, increasing urban sprawl and suburbanization that would later characterize the region.[8] Just as the highways allowed for suburban sprawl, they also allowed for segregation between suburbanites (typically white) and working class city-dwellers (immigrants and African Americans) as workers could not afford to move away from the city center.[8] As population boomed, close living quarters instigated racially charged conflicts, through "everyday expressions of white supremacy, and segregation".[8] As thousands of workers moved into the city, many lived near the factories to be close to work and fellow union members, creating concentrated neighborhoods of working class citizens.[8] These neighborhoods were often class- and race-based, perpetuating social stigmas surrounding race and ethnic group.[8] Much of this racial and class-based segregation continues today.[8] Debates over the trade union of the automobile industry also sparked conflict, turning the working class against many wealthy industry owners and cementing the class system that would come to characterize the population.[8] Ford's next conception of the automated assembly line changed city demographics, allowing unskilled labor to dominate the automobile industry and pushing skilled craftsmen out, usually further into the suburbs.[7][8] The city developed at a rapid pace, with General Motors building offices adjacent to poor working class ghettoes, and developing the Detroit River to serve the needs of the auto industry.[7]

The Great Depression[edit]

With the Great Depression, consumers quickly lost faith in the economic boom in Detroit, which was augmented by the eventual market collapse in October 1929.[8] The huge population of Detroit began to deplete as people lost their homes, savings, and jobs.[8] Few cities were hit as hard by the Depression as Detroit, and by July 1930, a third of the automobile jobs were lost.[8] The decline in job availability increased homelessness, unemployment, foreclosures, and out-migration from the city. As working and living conditions declined, particular groups were often targeted for evictions.[8] One of the many examples of homelessness and shrinkage that plagued Detroit came in 1935, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt championed razing slum housing in Black Bottom, a low income, predominantly African American neighborhood in Detroit.[8] More than 100 families were evicted with the promise of new public housing called the Brewster Homes.[8] However, the housing program did not break ground for months, and was not fully replaced until the 1960s.[8] In 1933, success was won by the working class through the enactment of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union in car companies across Detroit.[8] Unionization and the UAW's push for social welfare programs helped to build a solid middle class in spite of the Depression.[8] Unions could negotiate wages and benefits packages, setting the stage for other working class communities across the nation.[8]

World War II and postwar era[edit]

The attack on Pearl Harbor shifted Detroit out of this first major economic slump.[8] Along with other cities in the U.S., Detroit immediately became part of an all-out total war effort.[7] Out-migration increased as men and women left to serve in World War II, while industry grew again in Detroit by using automobile factories to produce war items.[7] Suddenly the problem was not unemployment, but housing shortages and overcrowding as men and women flooded into Detroit for work.[7] Detroit's second wind and prolific growth attracted more immigrants and newcomers from everywhere.[7] The city's physical growth was beginning to cause problems, and in 1927 the city limits were stretched to include 129 square miles.[7] Housing was not built fast enough to accommodate the influx of new residents.[8] Detroit's director-secretary of the Detroit Housing Commission claimed, "There just isn't such a thing as a place to rent in Detroit".[8] Government services were too limited to keep up with the rapid growth. Those who could moved to the more affluent neighborhoods of Indian Village, North Woodward, and Grosse Point on the outskirts of the city.[7] Political restructuring and the introduction of new housing commissioners allowed for more public housing to be built.[8]

After World War II, Detroit experienced another economic boom that was accompanied by increased social pressures.[8] Automakers profited $1.1 billion between 1945 and 1950,[8] a significant sum as the U.S. became a world superpower in the second half of the century. The ubiquity of cars and highways in Detroit encouraged further sprawl, and created segregated suburbs outside of the city limits.[8] Martelle argues, "While Detroit was the region's population base, the majority of the new housing was being built outside the city limits...which were also where the new factories were being built".[8] Detroit's automobile industry had inevitably driven immigration away from the congested city to cheaper land in the suburbs, taking much of the innovation with it.[8] A degree of white flight was occurring, in which the white population moved to surrounding counties, leaving low income individuals (predominantly African American) in Detroit's city center.[8]


In the 1950 mayoral elections, the city passed numerous policy decisions against urban infrastructure development, as Albert Cobo threatened to raze a slum to "offer the land for sale to private individuals for redevelopment".[8] Cobo won the election, which had dramatic effects on public housing across the city.[8] Cobo vetoed many of the proposed project plans, shifted the city's focus to "urban renewal projects that would eradicate slums", and replaced the Detroit Housing Commission with private developers.[8] None of these plans included new housing for low income residents. In the 1950s, Mayor Cobo also refused federal funds that would have aided in public housing projects, further discriminating against low income communities.[8] This decade concretized racial segregation and depopulation in Detroit.[17] Housing remained segregated across the city, and more and more whites began to leave for the suburbs.[17] The engineering of Interstate 94 in Michigan required many buildings in the city to be removed, including businesses and homes.[17] The Big Three automobile manufacturers and other industries also implemented plans to build factories closer to consumer bases and reduce labor costs, causing a severe loss of employment opportunities within the city.[8] In the 1970s, Detroit's economic base was exported overseas, with some 28% of equipment and plant investment done in foreign countries.[8] Industry's move in away from Detroit "set the course for Detroit's economic collapse".[8] As jobs were lost, economic inequality also increased, such that in 1959 the median income of a white family was $7,050, but for an African-American family was $4,370.[8] In 1960, Detroit's population was around 1.5 million, 29% African-American and 70% white.[45] In 2012, that number diminished to 701,475, with 82.7% African-American and 10.6% white residents[46]

Causes of shrinkage[edit]

Initial causes[edit]

Detroit's depopulation did not occur overnight, but slowly over a series of decades. Shrinkage is also not a new phenomenon, and is often the converse side of growth.[21] However, shrinkage in Detroit today occurs in stark contrast to the accelerated expansion of other large cities in America.[21] Jianping and Yasushi argue that an initial cause of depopulation can be due to out-migration, lower fertility rates, and changes in residential preferences or accessibility that lead to suburbanization.[47] The decline of employment as auto makers moved to cheaper property also caused depopulation, as residents moved away from the city or even state to seek jobs.

Ongoing causes[edit]

While issues such as out-migration and unemployment spurred shrinkage initially, many factors of shrinkage are ongoing and remain prevalent in Detroit. In the suburbs, increased residential development in "undesirable" land-use patterns occurs rapidly, such as land utilization for sprawl and the lack of high-rises.[48] This threatens local ecosystems and land conservation and influencing further suburbanization.[48] These suburbs are also indicative of racial segregation between suburb and city. In 2010 the city of Detroit's white population was only 10.61% of total residents, whereas African Americans made up 82.69% (see Demographic history of Detroit). This racial disparity implies a further cause to Detroit's shrinkage and the lack of opportunities for its remaining residents.

Another ongoing cause of shrinkage specific to Detroit is deindustrialization,[21] primarily from Detroit's automobile industry moving to cheaper locations or overseas to Brazil and China. Other industries that supplied car parts to automakers also retreated, resulting in the loss of employment opportunities and financial crises for the entire city.[1][49] With the Great Recession of 2008, the Big Three automakers – General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford Motor Company – were forced to apply for loans from the federal government in the Effects of the 2008–10 automotive industry crisis on the United States. The subsequent bankruptcy of the automobile industry in cities across Michigan lent themselves to dramatic unemployment and lack of financial investment in the Detroit, further contributing to depopulation.[50] With white flight, waning industry left in Detroit, and a lack of social mobility for remaining residents, the effects of shrinkage were dire.[1] From 2000 to 2004, Detroit lost 5.1% of its overall population, a dramatic decline in such a short period of time.[1]

Effects of shrinkage[edit]

Both the initial and ongoing causes of shrinkage hold dramatic effects on the city and its remaining residents. Divisions between urban and suburban residences imply continued dramatic segregation that is self-perpetuating, resulting in a cycle where African American residents cannot afford to leave because property in the suburbs is too high. Simultaneously, because real estate in predominantly black neighborhoods often has a lower market value than white neighborhoods, white residents can sell their homes and leave for the suburbs, whereas home owners in black neighborhoods have a harder time selling their homes (see white flight). This depreciates African Americans' sense of socioeconomic status, as inner-city residents struggle to maintain their livelihoods without economic opportunities.[6] Another issue that perpetuates this cycle is that many Detroit policy makers and municipal government workers refuse to see shrinkage as a problem, and avoid using the term altogether. Criticisms of the term run the gamut from shrinkage as a natural process, to using population decline as a money-making scheme through "smart decline".[6] This is problematic because cities rely most heavily on their municipal governments, despite the cities' lack of political might in state legislatures. Changes to institutions, demographics, and the economy have made non-government coalitions less reliable, which is a large problem faced by shrinking cities today. Many politicians also do not see depopulation as an environmental justice issue, such that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not yet gotten involved in shrinkage issues in Detroit.[51]

In inner city Detroit, problems also arise when fewer residents inhabit buildings that cannot be maintained. Instead, these once-beautiful buildings and centers of commerce are slowly falling into disrepair, a sign of inadequate revitalization efforts.[47] Revitalization has stalled due to municipal politicians' framing of the problem as suburban growth, rather than city shrinkage.[6] Building vacancy, demolition of condemned buildings, and underuse of infrastructure are rampant in Detroit, each the effect of decreased population.[47] Lower population density in cities like Detroit can also lead to brownfield land and land wastage, two phenomena that occur after an industry abandons its facilities and leaves behind potential contaminants or pollutants.[51] Jianping and Yasushi include these as two main effects of city shrinkage in large metropolises:

  1. Brownfield land wastage is left in the city core, while expansion of suburbs consumes arable land and endangered ecosystems.[47]
  2. Negative effects on residents' quality of life may occur due to lack of infrastructure, resources, community loss, and social segregation.[47]

Increased suburbanization negatively impacts city residents due to lack of infrastructure and money devoted to the city.[48] Other effects include loss of city services, loss of access to public goods due to a shrinking tax base, and loss of money flowing into the city to rebuild infrastructure.[1] Each of these elements further affects the continued inequity between suburban and city residents, as well as the level of opportunity and quality of life available to each Detroit resident.

Social equity and environmental justice issues[edit]

The causes and effects above lend insight into shrinkage as an environmental justice issue resulting from uneven development and investment disparities in urban planning. Economic development has been disproportionately skewed toward the suburbs instead of the city's core, in part because of political agency held by predominantly white suburbs.[8] Many minority residents in the city's urban center lack the resources and political influence to achieve increased economic development.[8] In cities like Detroit, there is no strong response to the deterioration of the city's core, primarily due to city planners' and politician's failure to prioritize the disadvantaged people and spaces.[6] Policy makers are instead trying to limit urban sprawl and gentrify abandoned neighborhoods to make them more appealing to the predominantly white people that have moved away from the city.[6] This has broader ripple effects in driving up rents and pushing original residents out of these neighborhoods. For example, the Detroit International Riverfront district near downtown has been historically used as a site for subsistence fishing, typically by resident African Americans.[52] Redevelopment of this district in response to shrinkage through casinos, shopping, and expensive condos has led the city to restrict fishing on the riverfront, raising questions of environmental justice inequity.[52] Traditional black communities that used this region for subsistence fishing are no longer able to do so, pushing them to seek other forms of subsistence in grocery stores or corner stores.[52]

Another component of shrinkage in cities like Detroit is politicians who refuse to recognize and prioritize shrinkage as a problem, instead focusing on growth in other regions away from the city center.[49][53] Funding is often redirected from the city center to the suburbs, encouraging further sprawl. This is due to a continued political thrust of Manifest Destiny, a concept that regional planners utilize in expanding suburban housing.[53] According to this theory, if a city is not expanding, it is not considered successful.[53] Without a plan to address shrinkage, it is likely that the surplus of vacant infrastructure and buildings would persist, along with housing problems.[53] Some theorize that if left unchecked, this trend of vacancy would continue outside of city limits, affecting the suburbs as well.[53] However, this perspective turns shrinkage into a sort of disease with its host as low income communities and communities of color, rather than addressing the social and racial segregation that catalyzes it.[53] An attempted response to shrinkage and misallocated funding was made by the city through Detroit's Neighborhood Stabilization Plan (NSP). The NSP was designed to address abandoned and condemned housing structures and received federal grant funding, but has not had much effect, failing to distribute funds evenly to historically poor neighborhoods.[54] The NSP's distribution requirements include income status, but no data on race or gender, which are both important factors of shrinkage.[54] The plan has had little effect on remediating vacancies and depopulation in the city's core.

Other problems include the presence of brownfields near residential areas within the city. Historically, industries placed their facilities near working-class neighborhoods to ensure a broad labor base. However, as Detroit's automobile industry outsourced and moved outside the city limits,[8] these decrepit and polluting facilities remained adjacent to low-income communities of color. The City of Detroit attempted to ameliorate these brownfields by creating the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, "an authority providing incentives for the city to revitalize underdeveloped or under-utilized properties due to abandonment or environmental contamination"[55](see also Planning and development in Detroit). The city outlined three tenets in facilitating the project: brownfield tables and templates, in-house meetings, and coordination with the community.[55] Some of the clean-up programs include turning abandoned lots and buildings into spaces for performances and art, as well as new business, retail, and apartment buildings.[55] Many of the future building projects are expected to bring thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars to the city, helping revitalize depressed areas and assist original residents.[55] Programs created by the DBRA are intended to create up to 10,000 new housing units in neighborhoods near brownfields, as well as preserve "greenfields" from development.[56] However, much criticism has been raised about the effectiveness of this organization in serving the interests of surrounding neighborhoods.[56] The DBRA could also be using this brownfield program as a means to gentrify areas of the city to attract new residents instead of providing support for long-term residents.[56]

Mitigating shrinkage[edit]

Early efforts to mitigate shrinkage included the Detroit Vacant Land Survey of 1990. This included at attempt at de-densification, in which city residents and development were ushered into and concentrated into some neighborhoods while vacating others.[4][57] In this model, residents would be moved into more densely populated areas that were already owned by the city.[57] The Survey and resulting city planning were met by retaliation by residents, and failed.[57] Hollander et al. suggest another model of de-densification includes dispersed vacancy, in which property owners are encouraged by the city to take title to surrounding vacant lots.[6]

Today, city planners offer little guidance on how to shrink a city, even when granted funding to help mitigate shrinkage.[53] City planning policies are usually directed toward growth and new development, using tools such as comprehensive planning, zoning, subdivision regulations, and urban growth boundaries.[53] Since the beginning of the 2008 Great Recession, there have been some policies and financial investment in Detroit's infrastructure. The Neighborhood Stabilization Plan (NSP) was proposed by the Planning and Development Department of the City of Detroit,[58] and builds off of Congress' Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008.[54] The NSP aimed to address the impacts of foreclosure in communities that were detrimentally affected by the economic crisis, and hopes to support market recovery and stabilize neighborhoods.[6] However, this policy has been largely ineffective due to city government delays, poor infrastructural planning, and misallocation of funds.[54]

Other efforts to mitigate shrinkage include using occupied-housing-unit density as a metric "to analyze changes in physical land use associated with population decline in urban neighborhoods".[6] This is a response to government proposed "smart decline", a method aimed at gentrification and consolidating abandoned neighborhoods rather than addressing root causes of shrinkage.[6] Smart decline has been met with strong opposition in Detroit, especially when city planners were told by outside observers how to shrink "gracefully".[6] Many smart decline plans are inherently top-down, assume a blank slate at project sites, and require an uninvolved and quiet public opinion.[6] This concept's exclusion of community opinion is largely why it has been met by so much opposition. However, Hollander and Németh have proposed a version of smart decline that is founded instead on ethics, equity, and social justice, including town hall meetings, public hearings, and the merits of potential solutions.[6]

Another attempt to remedy the shrinkage problem has been to capitalize on the population decline in Detroit's urban core for the benefit of remaining residents. Setting aside abandoned lots and green space for "recreation, agriculture, green infrastructure, and other non-traditional land uses will benefit existing residents and attract future development, and enable shrinking cities to reinvent themselves as more productive, sustainable, and ecologically sound places".[59] While developing these lots into green space would benefit the community, many residents fear that it could result in increased development of high rises and office buildings, rather than community resources.[60]

The future planning decisions for Detroit, as well as the future for environmental justice in relation to city planning and depopulation, are slowly improving. Much more research has been done on shrinking cities in the U.S., as well as in Detroit in particular. In order for more work to be done by the city government and non-government organizations, shrinkage must be seen as more than an issue of income, but an issue of race, gender, and household size.[54] Problems of unemployment and racial discrimination exist as functions of environmental injustice, requiring policy makers to address inequality in funding distribution and housing availability for people of color.[61] Organizations like Detroit Future City have begun work on carbon buffering, a "best practices" demolition program, and tree remediation.[62]

Case study: New Orleans, Louisiana[edit]

History of New Orleans' changing demographics[edit]

French colonists founded the city of New Orleans in 1718, traveling from Mobile, Alabama to the Mississippi River.[63][64] Because the area was a major hub for the slave trade, there was an increase of African slaves from 300 to 1,000 between the years of 1726 to 1732.[65] By 1800, the population of the city included Anglo-Americans, Creoles, and enslaved Africans that were intermixed.[66] However, a large demographic shift took place as a result the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Driven by the 1791 slave insurgency of Saint Domingue[66] and threat of war with England, the French sold 530,000,000 acres west of the Mississippi including New Orleans to the United States Government.[67] After the purchase, over 10,000 refugees from Saint Domingue doubled the size of the city, changing the population to "1/3 white, 1/3 free people of color and 1/3 African slaves" by 1810.[68] The city's population expanded even more and experienced shifts between 1830 and 1860 when the city's population grew three times as large, as a result of an influx of European immigrants whose population overtook the slave population. As a result of the end of the Civil War in 1865, the emancipated African American population in the city doubled to 50,000 by 1870.[66] The subsequent Jim Crow laws segregated blacks to more low-lying and marginalized areas of the city, including black Creoles who previously resided in the French Quarter.[63][66][68] However, by 1900 migration to New Orleans slowed, lowering it from the 5th to 12th largest among all American cities, placing it below the growth rate of Chicago, Detroit, and Milwaukee. This change took place largely because of New Orleans' reliance on agricultural exports that did not require urban laborers. This decline was somewhat lessened by the railway that passed through the city and connected to ocean freighters.

Before the 20th century, New Orleans' neighborhoods were of mixed race, but a combination of Jim Crow laws, racially segregated public housing, unequal educational opportunities, white flight, and unequal employment opportunities led to a racially segregated city. During this time, the city shifted from being tripartite to a biracial, meaning individuals were considered to be black or white. PhD Elizabeth Fussell explains how unequal opportunities based on race contributed to economic and geographic disparities in New Orleans over the years:

explicitly unequal treatment of those racial groups has been reproduced through an interlocking system of unequal educational opportunities, residential segregation, and blacks were consistently far less likely than whites to complete secondary school, even to present. The effect of racial educational inequity during the "human capital century" has been to diminish the labor-market opportunities and life changes of the individuals that lag behind.[68]

Beginning in 1960, New Orleans began to see population loss, and just before Hurricane Katrina hit, New Orleans had almost twice as many people living below the poverty level than the national average and a 30% lower average income. The storm worsened population loss and changed the demographics of the city, resulting in an increased proportion of whites population and decreased proportion of black individuals in the years following.[68]

Causes of shrinkage[edit]

Before Hurricane Katrina[edit]

New Orleans' population began declining in the 1960s.[69][70] From 1970 to 2000, the population shrank by 18%, and the region's employment rate fell from 66% to 42%.[71] This resulted partially from the decline of key economic enterprises in the area. New Orleans relied on tourism, a part, and oil, while elsewhere in the United States cities experienced technologically driven growth.[68] The oil boom that had once economically supported the city collapsed in 1979 and 1980, leading to job loss and the proliferation of depopulation.[63][71][72] Many other changes in the area incentivized suburbanization, or movement from the city area to surrounding suburbs, including the development of interstate 10 in 1955,[63] the draining of backswamps that were formerly uninhabitable, and federal tax incentives.[73] In terms of demographics, this caused movement of whites into exclusive suburban areas [74] eventually resulting in a majority of Black residents in the urban core of New Orleans, but not in the broader metropolitan area that included suburbs.[68] Furthermore, historic school integration and Hurricane Betsy drove many whites from New Orleans neighborhoods.[74] Racially segregated public housing, racial discrimination from lenders and realtors contributed to the racialized emigration of New Orleans residens.[68][75]

After Hurricane Katrina[edit]

Compounded with years of poor economic growth, the largest contributor to the worsening population decline of New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which resulted in the flooding of over 80% of the city.[76] The storm displaced 800,000 people, which is the greatest displacement in the United States since the Dust Bowl.[77] In 2010, the population of New Orleans was only at 76% of what it was in 2005.[78]

Effects of shrinkage[edit]

Before Hurricane Katrina[edit]

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans faced racial segregation and poverty levels above the national average. In 1960 it had the fifth highest level of poverty of all US cities, as well as some of the worst substandard housing.[75] Poverty levels were at 24.5% in 2005, which were almost double the national level, and average income levels were at $30,711, which was about $16,000 less than the national average. Over the years, the city dealt with an aging infrastructure and gradual sinking of the city until portions were below sea level [79] It was found that in inner city neighborhoods over 50% of children had levels of lead in their blood above federal guidelines.[63]

From the beginning of the 20th century to 1980, New Orleans faced increasing residential segregation.[68][75] Unemployment of blacks was as much as 10 times that of whites, and blacks paid a greater proportion of their income for housing than whites. In the 1970s, four times as many blacks had incomes placing them below the poverty level than whites, and by 1980 there was a belt along the undesirable backswamp of majority black residents.[75] In addition to facilitating the growth of suburbs and advancing depopulation,[63] the creation of Interstate 10 displaced many historically black neighborhoods [75] including Tulane/Gravier, Tremé/Lafitte and the 7th Ward.[80] As individuals with financial and social mobility moved to suburbs, the poor, who were disproportionately African American [71] remained in low lying location within the city's core, making them especially susceptible to flood and storm damage.[81] Although there are a variety of ways Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath affected groups differentially based on race and class, as journalist Eugene Robinson said, "Environmental injustice began long before Hurricane Katrina ever hit, in the basic pattern of settlement in the city."[77]

After Hurricane Katrina[edit]

Hurricane Katrina and shrinkage of New Orleans had significant effects on various groups in the city. African Americans, renters, the elderly, and people with low income were disproportionately impacted by Hurricane Katrina compared to affluent and white residents.[76][77] First, African Americans are less likely to have rental and homeowner's insurance and to have insurance with major companies as compared to whites, which is related to practices of racially based insurance redlining.[63] Since people of color were more likely to rely on public transportation, the dependence of the evacuation on personal transportation impacted these individuals more than those with personal means to leave the area.[77] Some academics highlight this disparity as an issue of climate injustice,[82][83] which is the differential impact of climate change on certain groups,[84] as scientists have shown that increases in activity of Atlantic hurricanes "are believed to reflect, in large part, contemporaneous increases in tropical Atlantic warmth...[and] have attributed these increases to a natural climate cycle termed the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), while other studies suggest that climate change may instead be playing the dominant role."[85]

The number of homeless people in the city was at double the pre-Katrina rate by 2008, and African Americans faced discrimination in housing transactions, finding inferior treatment based on race. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave some evacuees from Katrina and Rita trailers that were contaminated with formaldehyde, a mistake that took over two years to fix.[63] The National Fair Housing alliance [86] showed in a report that information about units was withheld from or differentially given to African Americans compared to whites, and pointed out examples of racist practices of landlords and online advertisements.[87] Even after federal and state governments spent $4 billion on revitalization efforts to repair levees, black New Orleans is disproportionately endangered by future flooding.[63] In the first four months after the storm, the city's white population rose while the black population declined.[77] As of 2006, evacuees that were African American were 5 times more likely to be unemployed when compared to evacuees that were white.[88] Of additional concern are the effects on children, who face four times the risk of having serious symptoms of emotional disturbance than comparable children. Moreover, while many parents feel that their children need professional help, the majority of them did not get it or have access to it.[89] As of 2007, only 40% of school children had returned to public school.[88]

These disparities bring up issues with environmental racism as well as environmental justice as a whole, which is "defined in terms of the distribution (or maldistribution) of environmental goods and bads."[90]

Planning in response to shrinkage[edit]

Before Hurricane Katrina[edit]

There is little evidence that New Orleans was planned and developed with a specific focus on shrinkage as a phenomenon. This is problematic, because even though the metropolitan area as a whole was growing, there was simultaneously an increase in suburbanization.[66] Many long-time residents and their needs were left out of planning decisions due to race and socioeconomic status.

After Hurricane Katrina[edit]

Planning for shrinkage as a result of Hurricane Katrina focuses most of its attention on reconstructing the city after the damage of the storm. There are a variety of methods proposed by academics, communities and governing bodies to develop New Orleans in the aftermath of shrinkage as well as Hurricane Katrina. A large part of the dominant planning narrative seeks to make New Orleans "bigger and better" while still decreasing the overall size of the city.[78] Through the creation of various commissions, many ideas have been proposed and have incited controversy.[91][92] Many planners agree that part of the effort to revitalize the area must not render the residents vulnerable to the effects of another similar hurricane.[76] In the wake of Katrina, much planning focused on rapid reconstruction of some areas, with proposals for temporary prohibition were rejected by most residents.[81] There are four main planning efforts in response to Hurricane Katrina's damage.[76]

Bring New Orleans Back Commission[edit]

The Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB), created by Mayor Ray Nagin in January 2006,[93][94] consisted of "professional planners and designers"[76] including the Urban Land Institute (ULI).[95] Some of the BNOB policies included shrinking the city's footprint and conversion of some neighborhoods to parks and wetlands through buyouts from the government.[91] This fueled an outcry from the public, who resisted the idea of being prevented from returning to their homes.[76] This was especially true for African American residents, because "they were much more likely than whites to live in flood prone areas." [76]

New Orleans Neighborhood Rebuilding Plan[edit]

In November 2006, the New Orleans Neighborhood Rebuilding Plan was approved by city council.[96] It differed from BNOB as it mainly drew from the community and "was based on the assumption that all areas of the city would be rebuilt," and planned to recover every neighborhood. One of their proposals was a "lot next door" policy, in which property owners were given first priority in purchasing adjacent homes.[76]

Unified New Orleans Plan[edit]

Funded mainly by philanthropy from the Rockefeller foundation and the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund,[91] the Unified New Orleans Plan was developed in 5 months.[76] According to America Speaks, the process had "unprecedented levels of citizen engagement... established credibility... built a constituency committed to work... [and] helped restore hope." [97]

Office of Recovery Management[edit]

Beginning in January 2007, the Office of Recovery Management was funded by the city and by foundations. It was created to develop a strategy for recovery. It was headed by Edward Blakely, who promoted strategies such as "trigger projects" in 17 target areas [91] to drive development, and the creation of target areas determined to be renew, redevelop or rebuild zones.[76] As of 2007, the project was encountering problems with allocating funds assured by the Louisiana Recovery Authority[98] and FEMA.[91]

Case study: Leipzig, Germany[edit]


Leipzig was on its way to becoming a metropolis that attracted people from all over Europe due to its centralized location. It was one of the major European centers of learning and culture in music and publishing. After World War II, it became the major urban and trade center within East Germany. Because Leipzig played a large role in the decline of Communism in East Germany, the city itself also suffered economic drawbacks and declines resulting in a change in landscape, infrastructure and geography. Today, Leipzig is considered a 'shrinking city' because of its rapid population decline and infrastructure devastation. While Leipzig is one of the most livable cities in East Germany and is a prominent cultural center, it is still suffering the repercussions of the last World War, economically, politically and socially.[99]

Causes of shrinkage[edit]

After World War II, the local economy in Leipzig was deflated and the regional economy desperately needed to be revitalized. The fall of socialist East Germany led to a mass emigration to other areas of the country. The housing vacancy had risen to 20%, and renovations in the older neighborhoods were needed. The post socialist conditions are partly to blame for the state in which many east German cities find themselves in.[100] Because east Germany was a socialist country merging with a west-European capitalist country, it has a unique situation. Lingering socialist ideals competed with very democratic western philosophy, causing issues for old and new generations. Integrating east Germany into West Germany has been problematic because of regional variations due to differences in economic performance in the recent years. The whole area suffers from problems like joblessness, population loss, and a lack of renovation. In the case of Leipzig specifically, a dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs and mass out-migration has accelerated the shrinking process. Loss of stock in commercial real estate and housing stock produced a problematic picture to the whole of Germany and Europe in general. The transition from 40 years of socialist rule to a democratic-capitalist economy was not as smooth as expected. The loss of economic and socio-cultural importance did not fare well for Leipzig, or Germany as a whole. Becoming apart of the German Democratic Republic lead to the loss of several national functions of the former unitary state.[101]

Effects of shrinkage[edit]

In 1949, when Leipzig was a part of the German Democratic Republic, the city underwent many infrastructure changes. National and regional industries, like banks and the publishing media, left Leipzig for the capitalist western Germany. The German Democratic Republic prioritized pre-war traditions rather than investing in innovations; the city of Leipzig was to become the industrial center with large-scale mining, which caused pollution in the air and the national and cultural landscape of the city was drastically changed. Villages were torn down to make room for the new machinery and coalfields. This caused inhabitants to leave the area, and at the end of GDR era in 1989, the population shrunk down from a peak of 700,000 to 530,000.[102] Some neighborhoods were neglected because of their past-socialist nature. These infrastructures then began to disintegrate and there were no initiatives established for maintenance. Nobody wanted to be reminded of communist times. 75% of the local industry was closed down within the years after the reunification of Germany. Small companies took over parts of the formerly state-owned industries, but it was not noticeable due to the large outflux of industry years earlier. Contrary to conventional thinking, the reduced use of water from 700,000m3 to only 165,000m3/day has resulted in higher operation and maintenance costs and will lead to higher long-term investment costs for restructuring the water system, as consumption and revenue continue to decline. [103] There was huge environmental damage and social costs. The city had turned into a coal producing state, but the energy value of coal was poor, so continuation of coal mining was not economical. The city was destroyed by landscape devastation and air pollution, and the industry was not thriving and would not be continuing in the area. The physical infrastructure of roads, buildings and public transportation was designed for much larger population than is present, they are too large to represent the current population. The population is now stagnant.[104]

Policies and investment decisions[edit]

Urbanization is a cyclical process and urban and regional decline will make way for new growth. The Fordist model of industrialization was employed, which was characterized by mass standardized production and mass employment in large complexes.[105] This mass production technology created increases in output due to specialization of jobs based on individual workers' skills and top-down management. While the output was unprecedented, this put added pressure on wages causing stagnation. There was an unbalanced relationship between consumption and production in that there was not enough payoff for the working class to incentivize working hard.[106]

A suburban land use pattern

Suburbanization is the growth of areas on the fringes of cities. It is one of the many causes of the increase in urban sprawl.

Human capital, creativity and competitiveness are key to successfully industrializing the city. Neglected areas of the city were ignored because of their connection to former socialist memories. Instead of renovating, large city centers were built away from the center of the city. These large buildings fell victim to the effects of neglect like decay. Large construction and renovation projects were meant to strengthen the optimistic view on the future of Germany. Suburban housing projects were constructed around the city so the houses could be offered to those who left the city earlier. The goal was to offer housing opportunities so that the population would come back and the regional population would not decline too drastically.[107]

There was a policy of 'restitution before financial compensation' which had an adverse effect on inner city renovation projects. This was an accelerated out-migration to the suburbs and countryside which resulted in many empty houses in the city despite their perfect state of condition after renovation. Stimulating suburbanization increased the already too large housing stock in the region and failed to mitigate the inner city vacancy problems. The city would do best if the development policy was aimed at modest economic growth and employment was created to stabilize the urban population and prevent a new exodus to the west.[108]

Census trends[edit]

After the fall of East Germany, the population of the German Democratic Republic suffered a decline. After the Second World War, there was an out-migration of 3.8 million people from East Germany to West Germany. This was so drastic that East Germany would eventually cease to exist. The rest of Germany felt the only option was to cut off ties completely with Eastern Germany.[109] However, the shift from communist to capitalist gave new employment opportunities in retail, transportation and communication, but this only accounted for a small amount of the economy that was lost. There were not enough people living in the city to make use of these opportunities. Unemployment was not too high at 20%, but still higher than other cities in West Germany and other EU countries. The working-class neighborhoods fell victim to the large-scale vacancy.[110]

Efforts to mitigate shrinkage[edit]

The new policies are shifting their focus toward stabilizing the current population and adjusting the housing stock to the population size. The city has developed a strategy to adapt housing stock and infrastructure according to a 'shrinking city' model. There will be demolition of housing that were neglected or there is too little demand for living.[111] These neglected areas are then replaced with parks or squares. The goal is to turn the area into a more attractive and greener, nature-oriented environment (See also gentrification). This in turn encourages a more spacious livelihood and leads to a higher quality of life, which could potentially attract urban dwellers to these remodeled neighborhoods, as well as land developers.[112]

Stimulating owner-occupancy is another important strategy that strengthens the ties between the city and its inhabitants. There is a lack of clients and purchasing power for retailers, which causes problems especially for working-class neighborhoods. There is a public hearing that is held to brainstorm strategies for solving this problem, like focusing exclusively on physical solutions like improvements of housing stock and public space.[111] Long-term monitoring of sustainable urban open space development at the city district level will also be helpful in the long run. Concrete socio-economic evidence of the benefits that green spaces bring to shrinking cities would be a valuable contribution to the rehabilitation of a shrinking city like Leipzig.[112]


A coherent urban development strategy is hard to find because there are many policy plans, each dealing with different parts of the problem. The government is not to blame completely for the state Leipzig is in as there are many facets of the shrinking city problem that need to be addressed. The government has not failed to find the right solutions, or been too optimistic in their judgements. Leipzig has a bad reputation in other parts of West Germany, which is where most investors come from. Leipzig can claim that they have branches of large office of West German companies like BMW and Porsche, but this does not result in enough jobs or opportunities to push the unemployment rate back to an acceptable level. The politicians and investors should not see the shrinking of the city as negative or a problem that cannot be solved; but that it offers things that other cities do not have like space for innovation, creative subcultures, cheap start-up rents, and an increase of green space for making the city more attractive. The attempt to get the 2012 Olympics to take place in Leipzig brought renewed recognition for the discussion of more building projects. For now, the city needs to focus on stabilizing the current population and lowering the unemployment rate by increasing opportunities within the city.[107]

Environmental justice[edit]

A rapidly contracting population is often viewed holistically, as a citywide and sometimes even regional struggle. However, shrinking cities, by their nature and how local officials respond to the phenomena, can have a disproportionate social and environmental impact on the less fortunate, resulting in the emergence of issues relating to environmental injustices. This paradigm was established almost immediately after cities started shrinking in significance during the mid-20th century and persists today in varying forms.

Historical precedent[edit]

Although the concept of environmental justice and the movement it sparked was formally introduced and popularized starting in the late 1980s, its historical precedent in the context of shrinking cities is rooted in mid-20th century trends that took place in the United States.

In an American context, historical suburbanization and subsequent ill-fated urban renewal efforts are largely why the very poor and people of color are concentrated in otherwise emptied cities, where they are adversely plagued by conditions which are today identified as environmental injustices or environmental racism.[113] These conditions, although created and exacerbated through mid-20th century actions, still persist today in many cases and include: living in close proximity to freeways; living without convenient access, if any, to healthy foods[114] and green space. Unlike white people, people of color were socially and legally barred from taking advantage of federal government policy encouraging suburban flight. For example, the early construction of freeways[115] coupled with practices such as redlining and racially restrictive covenants, physically prevented people of color from participating in the mass migration to the suburbs, leaving them in – what would become – hollowed and blighted city cores.[116] Because income and race are deeply embedded in understanding the formation of suburbs and shrinking cities, any interventions responding to the shrinking city phenomenon will almost invariably confront issues of social and environmental justice. It is not the case in Europe, where suburbanization has been less extreme,[117] and drivers of shrinking cities are also more closely linked to aging demographics, and deindustrialization.[118]

Case studies[edit]

In addition to discriminatory policy-driven decisions of the past, which caused cities to contract in population and created inhospitable living conditions for the poor and people of color in urban cores, environmental justices concerns also arise in present initiatives that seek solutions for cities struggling with considerable population losses.

New Orleans[edit]

New Orleans, like many major American cities, saw its population decrease considerably over the latter half of the 20th century, losing almost 50% of the population from its peak in 1960. In large part because of white flight and suburbanization, the population loss perpetuated existing racial segregation and left people of color (mostly African Americans) in the city center.[119] By 2000, vacant and abandoned properties made up 12% of the housing stock.[120] The city was struggling economically[119] and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, 134,344 of 188,251 occupied housing units sustained reportable damage, and 105,155 of them were severely damaged.[121] Because of historical settlement patterns formed by racial restrictions in the first half of the 20th century,[119] African Americans were disproportionately impacted by the destruction.[122]

The corner of Wilton & Warrington streets, March, 2007, almost two years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans

Responding to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin formed the Bring New Orleans Back Commission in September 2005.[123] The goal of the commission was to assist in redevelopment decision-making for the city. The commission shared its proposal for redevelopment in January 2006, however it faced some criticism related to environmental justice concerns. The commission's proposal was presented prior to many residents having returned to the city and their homes.[123] The process was not very inclusive, particularly with locals of impacted areas, who were predominantly from disadvantaged communities. While the proposal addressed future potential flooding by incorporating new parks in low-laying areas to manage storm water, the locations of the proposed greenspaces required the elimination of some of the low-income neighborhoods.[123] Residents largely viewed the proposal as forced displacement and as benefitting primarily more affluent residents.[124] The proposal was roundly rejected by residents and advocates for residents.[122]

A later intervention to alleviate the mounting abandonment and blight (which existed prior to Katrina but was exacerbated by the disaster) was Ordinance No. 22605, enacted by the New Orleans city council in 2007.[125] The rationale for the ordinance was to allow the city to establish a "Lot Next Door" program, which seeks to "assist in the elimination of abandoned or blighted properties; to spur neighborhood reinvestment, enhance stability in the rental housing market, and maintain and build wealth within neighborhoods." The program intended to give owner occupants the opportunity to purchase abutting properties (city acquired properties formerly state-owned or owned by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority) as a means of returning properties to neighborhood residents.[122] It later expanded to allow any individual to purchase a property if that person or a family member would live there. The impact of the program, however, was unevenly distributed throughout the city. Although black neighborhoods in the low-laying topographical regions were hit the hardest by Katrina, affluent neighborhoods with high rates of owner occupancy better absorbed vacant and abandoned properties than areas with more rental units.[122]


Perhaps the city most commonly associated with the concept of shrinking cities, Detroit too has grappled with issues of environmental justice. Detroit's current circumstances, as it struggles to deal with a population less than half of that from its peak in 1950, are partially the direct result of the same racist process, which left only the poor and people of color in urban city centers.[126] The city presently faces economic strain since only six percent of the taxable value of real estate in the tri-county Detroit area is in the city of Detroit itself while the remaining ninety-four percent is in the suburbs.[127] In recent years, the city has made attempts, out of necessity, to address both its economic and population decline.

Gaps between Detroit's remaining neighborhoods and homes form as abandoned houses have been demolished.

In 2010, Detroit mayor David Bing introduced a plan to demolish approximately 10,000 of an estimated 33,000 vacant homes[128] in the city because they were "vacant, open, and dangerous".[129] The decision was driven by the reality that for financial constraints, the city's existing resources simply could not maintain providing services to all areas.[130] However, the decision also reflected a desire to "right-size" Detroit by relocating residents from dilapidated neighborhoods to "healthy" ones.[131] The idea of right-sizing and repurposing Detroit, however, is a contentious issue.[132] Some locals are determined to stay put in their homes[130] while others compare the efforts to past segregation and forced relocation.[132] Mayor Bing clarified that people would not be forced to move, but residents in certain parts of the city "need to understand they're not going to get the kind of services they require."[133]

In addition to right-sizing Detroit as a means to deal with a massively decreased city population and economic shortfall, Mayor Bing also undertook budget cuts.[133] Although often necessary and painful, certain cuts, such as those to the city's bus services[134] can produce harms in an environmental justice framework. In Detroit, despite the city's massive size and sprawl, roughly 26% of households have no automobile access, compared to 9.2% nationally.[135] From an environmental justice perspective this is significant because a lack of automobile access, coupled with poor transit and historic decentralization, perpetuates what is often referred to as a spatial mismatch. While wealth and jobs are on the outskirts of the metropolitan region, disadvantaged communities are concentrated in the inner-city, physically far from employment without a means of getting there.[136] Indeed, almost 62% of workers are employed outside the city limit, and many depend on public transit.[135] Some contend that for Detroit this situation should more specifically be termed a "modal mismatch" because the poor of the inner-city are disadvantaged because they lack automobile access in a region designed for automobiles.[137]

Regardless of name, the situation is little different and still embedded in historic racial and environmental injustices; the poor are clustered in an inner-city from past policies, which were often racially discriminatory, and cuts to public transportation reduce job accessibility for the many households in Detroit that lack automobile access.

See also[edit]


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