View Full Version : Shrinking City Syndrome

February 5th, 2004, 10:22 AM
February 5, 2004

Shrinking City Syndrome


REPURPOSED A parking garage in Detroit, above, began life in the 1920's as a theater.

A DECADE ago, the prevailing wisdom was that cities grow, sprawling ever wider. As the world population hit six billion, experts warned of explosive overcrowding in the megacities of the developing world. Shrinking cities were considered an anomaly, the result of isolated economic upheaval or traumatic political events. "Smart growth" became a rallying cry.

In fact, while city dwellers make up nearly half the world's population, new research by the United Nations and other demographers has shown that for every two cities that are growing, three are shrinking. Some cities that were bustling centers of commerce just a generation ago have become modern-day Pompeiis. Cities that have lost more than a third of their population include St. Louis, Phnom Penh and Johannesburg.

The shrinking city syndrome is leaving planners and city officials with, among other things, the challenge of preserving and reusing buildings with architectural and cultural interest.

In Manchester, England, where the population has fallen by 48 percent since 1931, dress patterns still hang on the walls of derelict textile mills. And in the former East Germany, which experienced a mass exodus after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, dozens of midsize cities have shrunk, forcing those left behind to grapple with job losses, empty schools and a falling tax base.

The problem is so acute that a group of researchers based in Berlin is holding an international competition to address it. The competition, which aims to find fresh approaches to dealing with population loss in urban areas, is sponsored by a $3 million research project, Shrinking Cities ( www.shrinkingcities.com ), financed in large part by the German government.

"Even though the development in Germany is quite shocking, it is not the first or only place that this kind of crisis is taking place," said Philipp Oswalt, the project director.

More than 450 cities with populations above 100,000 have lost 10 percent or more of their populations since 1950, including 59 in the United States alone, the project found.

It has enlisted teams of architects, artists, journalists and others to study four regions in particular that have hemorrhaged people and jobs: Manchester and Liverpool; Ivanovo, Russia, a state-sponsored manufacturing center in the days of the Soviet Union; the Detroit metropolitan area; and the Halle-Leipzig area of what was East Germany. Their research will culminate in Berlin in September with an exhibition of 10 proposed projects from each area.

"The classic urban planning tools don't work," Mr. Oswalt said.

Traditionally, urban planners advise bulldozing eroded neighborhoods and starting from scratch, he said. Now some of the same sites that were singled out for "slum clearance" in the 1960's are undergoing a second round of urban renewal.

Efforts in the 1990's to spur economic growth have also failed, Mr. Oswalt said. Entire streets — along with sidewalks, lights and sewerage and electricity lines — were plopped into the Halle-Leipzig region, for instance, after the reunification of Germany led to a 14 to 30 percent drop in population in the cities there. Planners assumed that if enough was invested in infrastructure, private investment would follow. Instead the result was a series of "illuminated meadows," as they are known in Germany.

Every city, of course, is different. But research by Shrinking Cities has revealed that planned development is often counterproductive. And buildings left vacant often lend themselves to curious and unexpected uses that can trigger development at the grass-roots level.

Manchester failed to perk up in the 1960's despite investments in new building projects. Then, in the 80's and 90's, musicians flowed in, attracted by rock-bottom rents. The "Mad-chester" music scene spawned not only homespun record labels and illegal raves, but also new condominiums, bars and businesses in the city center.

In order to prepare for the Commonwealth Games in 2002, Manchester decided to "brand" many abandoned and run-down buildings rather than demolish or renovate them. Shrouded with positive slogans, the buildings helped put a positive spin on Manchester's shifting landscape.

In Detroit, churches now occupy a number of abandoned bank buildings, and the Michigan Theater, once a lavish jazz-era movie palace, has become a private parking garage (complete with velvet curtains).

"Planners, developers and some architects see these wastelands and they say, Let's just make it a tabula rasa. Let's just knock it down and start again," said Dan Dubowitz, an architect in Glasgow. "They don't think imaginatively about how culturally rich these structures can be."

Mr. Dubowitz has spent 12 years documenting discarded spaces in Europe and New York and now works with planners to redevelop them. "There's a lot that goes on while these places are decaying that make them very important to the life of the city," he said. "So something quite negative happens when you come along and erase these sites."

The challenge, he and others say, is to overcome the fear many associate with abandoned spaces.

"We have to think about shrinking cities in more than just a negative way," said Dan Pitera, director of the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, a community-building architectural practice at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Mr. Pitera, who is one of the curators from Detroit participating in the Shrinking Cities project, said that he and a team of other architects and researchers estimate that Detroit loses people at the rate of 1.7 every hour. Even the dead are leaving: suburbanites exhume up to three graves a day to move loved ones out of the city, Mr. Pitera said.

Rather than "filling in the gaps" or recreating a city in an image of its past, Mr. Pitera said, Detroit should infuse new life in discarded spaces, erasing the ghosts without erasing the buildings themselves.

Working with community groups, the Detroit Collaborative Design Center has, for example, converted wrecked houses into temporary art installations. In a similar project, an artist, Tyree Guyton, helped turn dilapidated houses on one block into polka-dot found-art sculptures, and they are now a tourist destination.

"We need to define density as something other than just buildings and structures," Mr. Pitera said. Detroit may never grow back to its former glory, he continued, but that doesn't mean it can't be a vibrant city. "We need to start tapping into the creative, spontaneous solutions that are already happening in these cities and turn them into strategies," he said.

In other words, smart growth in reverse.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

TLOZ Link5
February 5th, 2004, 06:33 PM
In the early 1900s, Detroit was considered the most beautiful city in the United States; squares and parks like Campus Martius were viewed as the model for good urban planning and use of public space, and its wealthy industrialists built some of the most gorgeous houses and mansions in the Western Hemisphere. In the 1920s it was one of the most prosperous cities in the nation, having built one of the world's most impressive collections of neoclassical and art deco skyscrapers; serious plans for the world's tallest building, and a subway system to rival New York's in size and efficiency, were in the pipeline. By 1950 it was the fifth-largest city in America (1,849,568 people, almost twice that of Baltimore, the nation's sixth-largest); though the subway and world's tallest building plans had fallen through it was still a large but safe, industrial but clean, and overall great city, and its large interurban trolley system was well-used and popular. By 1970, however, suburbanization had spread the population of the city outward to communities like Highland Park, Grosse Pointe, Ann Arbor, Oak Park and Dearborn; the trolley tracks had been paved over in favor of highways and the cars sold to Mexico City; factories were closing and businesses locating to more convenient and versatile office parks for the convenience of its commuting workforce; and terrible social problems due to segregation, involving racist suburban developers, an overworked, outnumbered, and mostly white police force, and increased disgruntlement among the city's rapdly-growing Afro-American population, had exploded in the infamous riot of 1967. The resulting backlash found Detroit residents of all colors fleeing to the suburbs to escape a city they increasingly found dangerous and basically screwed over. Realtors took advantage of the social climate by blockbusting huge swaths of their property—selling homes at rock-bottom prices to low-income people, most of them Afro-American. The city's median income, and as such its profits, declined drastically along with its population; by the year 2000 census its population was below the benchmark of one million for the first time since 1920 (951,270, a 49% decline from its peak population in 1950).


February 6th, 2004, 04:02 AM
The photo at the top of this thread is an arresting metaphor for Detroit's decline. And a highly effective set-up to the article that follows. The thesis is quite provocative: Can decay itself be an efficacious medium for regeneration?

What is true in the natural world should also be applicable to the life of cities. When Mount St. Helen's erupted in 1980 in the Pacific Northwest, knowledgeable people speculated that generations would pass before the ash-covered blast zone could regenerate. One generation later plant and animal life are in dynamic stages of growth.
Seattle Times: Lessons in Life from the Zone of Destruction (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/helens/story2.html)

What can urban planners learn from erupting volcanos?
From Life Returns: Animal and Plant Recovery around the Volcano (http://www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm/research/faq.html)
Early studies have demonstrated that, even after a large-scale, catastrophic disturbance, recovery processes are strongly influenced by carry over of living and dead organic material from pre-disturbance ecosystems. At Mount St. Helens ecosystem recovery was influenced not only by the survival of plants and animals, but also by the tremendous quantities of organic material that remained in the standing dead and blown down forest.
Slum clearance in the 1960s could be called urban clear cutting. Decayed neighborhoods flattened for fallow ground became lifeless ghosts. Planning lacked vision and much new construction was uninspired. Our inner cities mimicked "the standing dead and blown down forest."

New York City seems to thrive on simultaneous cycles of growth, decay and resurgence. But in 1980 when St. Helen's became a natural disaster, many would have characterized NYC as a national disaster too. Since then we've gone from Soho and Tribeca to Williamsburg and Dumbo. Starving artists, entrepreneurs, immigrants and strivers are often the catalysts for regeneration. They don't merely make do, they release that New York ethic to make dough! City imitates biology. As microbes and grasses give way to towering trees and large animals, artists and squatters give way to high-rise condos and celebrities.

Could there perhaps be good decay and bad decay? The South Bronx and Red Hook are resurgent; but would you have placed your bet on them twenty years ago? What are the criteria that enable some neighborhoods (and thus communities) to go through organic processes from decay to adaptive growth while other neighborhoods remain toxic and inhospitable to new life forms? I have no answers, but I'm grateful the article's got me thinking.