The Shrinking Cities

In 1960s America there was "white flight" to the suburbs. In the '70s and '80s the death of heavy industry emptied once proud cities like Manchester and Glasgow. Social and economic change has been wreaking havoc with cities for a long time, but each instance is usually thought of as an isolated event--or at least a regional disease. That's no longer true. As birthrates in more and more countries plummet, shrinking-city syndrome is becoming a worldwide crisis.

Aging countries are getting hit the worst. In Russia a combination of rock-bottom birthrates, decreased life expectancy and the collapse of communist-era industry is taking a toll. Seven major Russian cities were shrinking in 1990; by 2000 the number had soared to 93. In Japan, hundreds of small and midsize cities are thinning out. Even in China, the low birthrate means that coastal megacities like Shanghai are growing at the expense of dozens of less successful, now shrinking metropolises like Dalian, Chengdu and Nanchong. Today, while hundreds of millions of Asians and Africans are just starting to move to cities, one quarter of the world's urban centers are declining in population--twice the number a decade ago.

Wouldn't less-crowded cities be a good thing? Definitely not, according to "Shrinking Cities," a new exhibit in Berlin that compares city shrinkage across the world. In places like Detroit and Liverpool, shuttered stores and abandoned houses have led to increased violence. A 50 percent drop in the birthrate has killed entire sectors of the economy in east German cities like Leipzig and Magdeburg.

Decline begets decline, as the young and educated move away while the old and unemployed tend to stay behind. "It's next to impossible to fight," says Reiner Klingholz, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. If shrinkage is inevitable, can it be managed? Today's planners and politicians have not even begun to face the facts, argues the curator of "Shrinking Cities," architect Philipp Oswalt. "Urban planning is all still in terms of new growth and construction," he says. Inner-city wastelands are usually left to themselves, a unique subculture growing in the morbid remains.

In Detroit, goats and sheep share abandoned neighborhoods with the alternative-music scene that gave the world techno. Refuse blows through parts of Liverpool like tumbleweeds. What may be the world's first urban "shrinkage policy" is now being tested in eastern Germany, where the government is spending 2.7 billion euros to tear down thousands of suburban communist-era apartment blocks and let grass grow back.

Whether mass demolitions will help stabilize places like Leipzig is not clear. But these are the kinds of policies municipal governments will have to consider. The era of big cities may not be over, but that of smaller cities is coming.

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