Are we ready to face the shrinkage of a city?

Shrinking cities

What happens when a city has to deal with depopulation? When its economic model, its growth engine, suffers a recession? As professionals in the field, Architects and Urban planners should consider these consequences, and propose alternatives.

Again, it seems that the problem has arrived and has taken us out of resources.

Traditionally, the discipline of Urban planning has been based on the principle of extension, increase, widening. Projects seeking the expansion of the city, adding intensity, program or new uses, in order to attract people.

In the words of José María Ezquiaga, Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Madrid, “Up to now the land legislation was designed for growth. We don’t have instruments to face a recession”. We need to think about growth models that are not only intended to spend, but to recycle, change, and replace.

One of the most documented cases nowadays is the city of Detroit. Splendid metropolis during the golden age of the car industry, in recent years is facing a bottomless problem in terms of depopulation, as I explained through the work of Brent D. Ryan in the previous blog post “Design After Decline“.

There are projects in this city that have confronted the problem, but from the perspective of the art scene. The Heidelberg Project, begun in 1986 by Tyree Guyton, Detroit-born artist, intends to use the abandoned buildings of the McDougall-Hunt neighbourhood on the east side of the city, as outdoor installations, treating them as pieces of art. A proposal understood as a protest, which evidences the lack of successful models to fight depopulation.

It achieved, though, the appearance in the guidebooks of the city (despite the efforts of two of the mayors of the city trying to destroy the work), attracting a generation of young artists who see in the case of the depopulation of Detroit a creative freedom lacking elsewhere.

Another expert in the city, Camilo José Vergara  addressed the subject in his book The New American Ghetto“, proposing the creation of an American Acropolis, from the conservation of a dozen blocks from the time before the Great Depression. It was considered a very controversial idea, since what the city is trying is to attract back a new generation. Is it the only alternative, attract back people to grow again?

Both projects are isolated proposals for a phenomenon that sooner or later will have to be faced. In the history of Urbanism much has been written to expand urban centers, but little about shrinking cities.

Here in the U.S. there are several cases like Detroit or Philadelphia, as Brent D. Ryan mentioned in his book, but it is easy to foresee its extension to other parts of the planet. In the case of Spain, millions of residential buildings built during the housing boom are empty, and the number of young people migrating abroad each month is count by thousands. What to do with that amount of empty built space? When are we going to start thinking about solutions?

While the large emerging economies of China and South America are living their period of expansion (and often without good Urban Planning), several cities in Europe and the U.S. are facing depopulation, a more complex problem because of the lack of studies and proposals.

At the doctoral level cases are being studied (even though maybe not as much as needed), but it is necessary to bring the issue to the design field. When are we going to see a proposal within a university to have students addressing this problem? When are we organizing competitions about it? Hopefully before it’s too late and we are surrounded by modern ruins as the only possible solution.

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One response to “Are we ready to face the shrinkage of a city?

  1. Pingback: Urbanism and Education | Open Source Urbanism

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