Across the globe, cities are shrinking. While we tend to concentrate on cities that are growing, and equate population decline with city failure, this is not necessarily the case. A city that is shrinking is not necessarily getting worse; the only thing we can say for sure is that it’s getting smaller. And while getting smaller can present a city with all sorts of challenges, from restructuring education systems to aging populations to a glut of vacant buildings, it can also provide them with opportunities that cannot be enjoyed in rapidly expanding cities.
Until relatively recently, no one was talking about this phenomenon. Thanks to Germany’s Federal Cultural Foundation, a broad cross-section of people across the world are beginning to pay attention to the unique environment facing cities declining in population. In 2002, the organization launched the Shrinking Cities Initiative, which documented in great detail why and where shrinkage was occurring and what cities were doing to address it.
The launch of the initiative inspired many American “Rust Belt” cities to reexamine themselves in a whole new context. Detroit played an active role in the research component of the project. Both Detroit and Cleveland sponsored art exhibitions, discussions and events to educate people about the shrinking cities phenomenon. An initiative called Pop Up Cleveland started holding unconventional events in vacant areas of the cities. Youngstown, Ohio, took the lessons of the Shrinking Cities Initiative a step further, becoming the first American city to integrate the realization that it was shrinking into its city planning efforts. And these lessons are likely to echo throughout the Rust Belt for years to come.
So what does the Shrinking Cities Initiative mean for GLUE? A ton. First and foremost, young Rust Belters have the potential to be realists about population decline in a way that the generations above us may be unwilling to accept. Generally, we don’t recall the days when our cities were exploding in population and our downtowns were dotted with department stores. Many of us value the opportunities that shrinkage has provided us … low traffic allowing us to bike to work, low cost of living allowing us to occupy houses and lofts that our equivalents in NYC or Boston would drool over and communities that give their young people the latitude to innovate and dream up what the next great American cities will look like.
GLUE participants are truly at the epicenter of a giant urban laboratory. In the coming months, we would be wise to examine what all this surplus space means for our respective cities and for the region as a whole. In 50 years, we can be remembered as the generation who conjured up widespread community gardens, artist villages, reclamation of industrial buildings into public parks and museums … or we can be the generation that kept trying to build cities for magic population booms. Hopefully, we will collectively choose the latter.