Shrinking Cities: Moving Beyond the Growth Obsession

Global Map Animation from 1kilo on Vimeo.

Minnesota’s Chapter of the American Planning Association kicked off the Upper Midwest Planning Conference for 2010 this week in Mankato, MN.  The keynotes feature Jim Charlier from Boulder, and Tom Stinson (Minnesota State Economist) and Tom Gillaspy (Minnesota State Demographer).  My highlight for the first day (other than running into my first college roommate who I hadn’t seen in over 20 years) was a presentation by Les Pollock, a planning consultant with the Camiros firm.

Les spoke on ‘Planning for Shrinking Cities’.  He began with global perspectives, looking at the demographic and economic changes of aging populations and decreasing workforce in Europe and many other “shrinking cities” around the world.  (Interestingly, this was also a theme of Stinson & Gillaspy’s keynote later.)  While we’ve heard for years about the challenges of places like Detroit, Michigan, or Manchester and Liverpool in the UK, the chronic dysfunction of these places has reached the point which require drastically different ways of looking at urban systems.  As the website Shrinking notes:

Shrunken cities contradict the image, familiar since the Industrial Revolution, of the “boomtown”, a big city characterized by constant economic and demographic growth. Shrunken cities spur a reconsideration not only of traditional ideas of the European city, but also of the future development of urban worlds.

Mr. Pollock wasn’t all doom and gloom, though, pointing out the need for professional planners to seriously consider the issues at hand.  Growth, he noted, needs managers; Shrink requires leaders.  Anybody can muddle along through good times but it takes hard work to take on the challenge of systems change.  And it’s going to be hard work to bring shrinking cities even to stasis, let alone rejuvenation.


  1. Recognize obsolescence
  2. ID a realistic vision
  3. Build upon assets
  4. Maintain positive self image
  5. Stimulate reinvestment
  6. Discourage sprawl

Examples:  The presentation drew on projects described in a recent Camiros newsletter on ‘How Should We Grow Our Cities’, in particular Chicago and Decatur, Illinois, that are working on the proverbial turning of lemons into lemonaide.  Mr. Pollack also addressed different models for addressing derelict land and concerns with resurgent nature (I’m thinking distopias alá Omega Man / I Am Legend) but I didn’t get good notes (was thinking more about the movies than the examples!).

Lesson:  We need to move from managing growth to managing the evolutionary process of cities. Sounds to me like a good idea for professional planners today and tomorrow.


See also on a related note: UVA blog on Buffalo & Rochester, New York

Flint (MI) Journal on different approaches in Flint, Saginaw and Detroit, Michigan


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