Knowing your limits

With government happy to leave the fate of cities to market forces, where does that leave those for whom growth isn’t a realistic option? Clare Goff reports

Liverpool’s population has halved since the 1950s and, despite strong economic growth in recent years, the city still struggles to stem its population decline.

Having expanded its boundaries during its boom years as a port and cultural mecca, areas of the city now sag under baggy infrastructure. In the north Liverpool suburb of Anfield boarded up homes and deprived neighbourhoods show the human and societal cost of population decline. But Liverpool’s leaders shun the label of ‘shrinking city’.

‘We reject the idea of managed decline,’ says Nick Small, cabinet member for employment and skills at Liverpool Council. ‘We want to create growth.’

The recently installed Labour administration in the city is focused on boosting the skills and staying power of the population that remains, with what Mr Small says is the biggest apprenticeship programme in England as well as graduate schemes to incentivise students to stay on after their degrees.

It also plans to add yet more infrastructure to the city: a new waterfront development by Peel Holdings – currently at the planning stage – will boost the population of north

Derelict houses in Anfield, north Liverpool

Liverpool – the city’s key area of decline – by 23,000. Mr Small says targets to create 100,000 jobs in the city by 2020, expanding on recent successes in tourism, the knowledge economy, low-carbon industries and logistics, are realistic.

‘No one’s ever going to say ‘let’s manage the decline of this city’. We’re realistically repositioning Liverpool and are looking to increase the city’s population for the first time since the 1930s.’


The narrative of shrinkage is now common across the UK and the developed world. Towns and cities, particularly those that previously had a single economic raison d’etre – from coal to shipping to cotton – have struggled to reinvent themselves following the decline of industry. Tyneside lost 10% of its population between 1971 and 2009, Manchester fell 7% and Stoke-on-Trent 4%.

As the concept of growth has dominated recent history, the culture of shrinkage will soon be considered as normal a development, according to the Shrinking Cities project, a three-year initiative to research the processes of city shrinkage around the world. It points to a combination of declining fertility, an ageing population and the deindustrialisation of many Western cities as key factors in their shrinkage.

Liverpool may not yet be ready to give up on growth but cities across Europe, the US and Japan are now focused on managing their decline. Should the UK’s worst-off cities be following suit?

Across the water from Liverpool, Birkenhead saw 9,500 people – 0.24% of its population – leave in the ten years to 2009; private sector jobs growth contracted by 11% over the period. It was named as one of eight ‘struggling’ cities in a report by the Centre for Cities think tank, alongside Bolton, Barnsley, Blackburn and Stoke.

It is cities such as these which will feel the full force of the withdrawal of public spend in the coming months. Left to the mercy of market forces and cut out of a central government growth policy skewed towards the prosperous southeast, should such cities focus on managing their decline?

The answer to that question depends where you sit on the economic spectrum. To free marketers, shrinkage should be considered as normal a process of development as growth. In the home of the free market – the United States – it is already a reality: rust belt cities from Detroit to Cleveland lost 50% of their population base in the 50 years to 2000. There are now 180 ghost towns in the US, abandoned either through the decline of industry or suburbanisation, as people move further and further away from the centre.

A dilapidated warehouse in Detroit

The wrecked infrastructure of Detroit has become symbolic of the flipside of consumer excess.

The decline and fall of our cities and towns is part of the natural ebb and flow of economic life, the argument goes. When Aberdeen lost its fishing industry it found new life as a market town; when that subsequently faltered the city was reinvented through oil and is now European capital to the oil industry. Across the UK and the developed world, cities have navigated change in line with changing economic circumstances.

However, globalisation and shifting demographics mean that some cities will be forced to opt out of economic growth altogether. The logical conclusion to the free market argument – and one promoted in a report by centre-right think tank Policy Exchange which controversially called for Sunderland to be shut down – is that those cities that fail to renew themselves should be left to decline.

It’s an idea that has been boosted by Ed Glaeser, a US economist whose recently-published book the Triumph of the City argues that our approach to the growth and decline of cities should be even more laissez-faire than it is currently.

Successful cities such as Cambridge should have more liberal planning laws so that they can expand further, while those cities not providing the ‘clusters’ that drive the economy and provide places in which people want to live should wither and die. In his ‘survival of the fittest’ approach, smart people with the skills to get ahead will flourish in ever expanding city clusters, while those unable or unwilling to keep up will be left behind.

Such an approach tells residents of failing cities to get on their bikes to find work; public investment and policy to assist areas unable to attract business and growth is withdrawn.

But government policy has always played a role in the economic fortunes of our towns and cities, argues Kevin Gulliver, director of the Birmingham based Human City Institute, who remembers the last time public funds were withdrawn from the city. ‘Birmingham was left high and dry in the 1980s and reinvented itself around tourism, culture and leisure.’

New arenas were built and the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet and Simon Rattle’s orchestra enticed to the city by the interventions of local government, he says. ‘The local state did something about the decline of the city in the teeth of an attitude of “let the market rip”.’

Battered local governments in some of the poorest areas of the country may struggle to bring growth back to their urban areas in the current economic climate. The likes of Liverpool may still be able to attract private investment to the city but the days when government could entice a new factory or international company to set up shop in the likes of Barrow or Burnley are long gone.

For many cities, admitting that large-scale growth will not return could be the first step on the way back to a prosperous future. Today’s interventions – for growth and its opposite – will inevitably be more piecemeal, revolving around business support, the boosting of skills and dealing with derelict land.

But they should also be more sophisticated, allowing development that builds on what is there already, both in terms of infrastructure and people, and which also acknowledges the limits to growth.

For while city leaders shudder at the notion of shrinkage, the policy of growth by all means necessary has not always led to the creation of better places. For many areas a recognition that smaller is more beautiful, an understanding that there can be shades of shrinkage and development, and a focus on strengthening the intrinsic characteristics of their place will make a bigger difference than the relentless pursuit of growth.

Drawing tighter boundaries around cities and building to a greater density is one approach to shrinkage: the Japanese city of Aomori has been reconfigured as a ‘compact city’, while in the UK Manchester and Leeds have revitalised their city centres as residential areas. Such approaches prevent sprawl and make better use of a city’s resources, creating urban spaces more fit for purpose for a low-carbon future.

Britain still has a long way to go; even our highest density cities are low compared to other European countries. Small towns that expanded their centres with out-of-town sheds and shopping malls in the last two decades are now retreating back to their core, and building on their assets.

Dudley in the west midlands was hollowed out in the 1980s when retailers moved to the nearby Merry Hill shopping centre – a dedicated enterprise zone under the previous Tory government. Now new plans for the town include renovating its 1,000 year old market and creating a tighter-knit space that builds on its rich cultural heritage.

‘Town centre regeneration is crucial. That’s where identity is embedded,’ says Mr Gulliver.

He wants to see town centres filling smaller geographical spaces that are more densely populated with flourishing small businesses, social enterprises, cultural attractions, historical connections, housing and even quality charity shops.

The key to such an approach is consistency. In the last 20 years of regeneration the needs of a place have often played second fiddle to those of business and the mantra of growth. Smaller, better planned and more realistic ambitions for the future will become a necessity in these cash-strapped times, but they may well reap longer-term rewards too.

Maximising the skills of the resident population and the production of the businesses that already exist will become a greater priority as the infrastructure-based approach to development is withdrawn. The failure of large-scale interventions like the Kingsway Business Park in Rochdale – which struggled to attract businesses – could have been averted if local skills had been invested in first. In many regeneration zones new buildings and the infrastructure of growth sit empty, a testament to the failure of policies that put buildings before people.

City-regions will begin to take on even greater importance as towns experiencing shrinkage find protection and support from their neighbours. Despite the dismantling of the regional sphere, areas are unlikely to cast off their regional ties as the benefits of a partnership-based approach become even more apparent.

But in our growth obsessed world, will cities admit they are in decline? Michael Ward, former chief executive of the British Urban Regeneration Association and now an independent consultant, says describing the process of decline as ‘managing change’ is more palatable. Many former mining communities in North Wales have gradually reverted back to being rural areas, and discovered that introducing a new economic function to an area does not have to be painful.

Government intervention must be part of the picture, however.

‘It remains the responsibility of government, particularly one that wants to be judged on prosperity, to extend that to the whole country,’ Mr Ward says.

Elsewhere in the world cities that have lost their primary economic function have rediscovered their prosperity by focusing more clearly on what they have – on their people and social and cultural assets – rather than seeking growth from outside.

Julian Dobson, founder of consultancy Urban Pollinators, argues in a recent blog that the Freiburg charter and its 12 principles for ‘sustainable urbanism’ – including diversity, tolerance and walkability – is a better way to thinking about the future of our cities.

Flint in Michigan is reinventing itself around its parks and green spaces following huge population shrinkage, while rural areas of Japan are coming to terms with ‘living beyond growth’.

These are places that were prepared to – or forced to – step outside the paradigm of growth and discover a more heterogeneous future. While not an easy process, it is one that will become more necessary as cities left behind by recent policy slip into decline and lose the ability to find growth.

As Hilary Burrage, a regeneration consultant based in Liverpool, says, city leaders will need to navigate a delicate path between highlighting the decline of their local communities while talking up their assets to potential investors. But, as areas of Japan have discovered, naming and confronting the process of shrinkage could be the first step towards a more prosperous future.

Ms Burrage compares confronting the decline of communities to dealing with the needs of an ageing population: the parameters and needs of the population shift; just as older people are dismissed, communities in decline could get left behind if measured only on the basis of their economic potential.

Shrinkage is inevitable and, as we move towards a more sustainable future, is in many cases to be welcomed. Local communities struggling to find growth could set their sights higher by looking beyond the mantra of growth.

For as Ms Burrage says: ‘There are several senses of small. Decline need not be negative.’


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