Look to Europe for how to proactively manage our declining cities

joshstott2Shrinking cities, managing decline, right sizing – three terms that set alarm bells ringing for any local political party. Well apparently not everywhere, according to the new Shrinking Cities report from URBACT. It tells the intriguing story of the opposition party in Altena (Germany) that ran a successful mayoral campaign openly acknowledging the town’s decline. Was this the beginning of the end for Altena? On the contrary, the Mayor’s vision, realism and bravery have transformed the outlook for the town.

The report outlines the familiar cocktail of issues that shrinking cities typically face:

  • declining revenues,
  • rising unemployment,
  • outward migration of economically active populations,
  • surplus buildings and land together with a physical infrastructure which is oversized for the population it serves

Shrinking cities is not a phenomenon limited to eastern Europe or the American rustbelt. A recent European Commission report, Shrink Smart, estimates that almost half of all medium sized cities in Europe are experiencing population and economic decline.

So what are the options for declining towns and cities in the UK?

Learning from the past, even when money was sloshing around, public investment in regeneration has failed to change the trajectory of many places. The notion of government tackling so called ‘market failure’ in lagging areas was always confusing and investment is now being directed to go with the grain of, rather than buck, the market.

The current growth paradigm leaves no room for shrinkage and decline. Funding is geared towards incentivising growth. Local narratives tell us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear. Burying our heads in the sand and effectively abandoning places is simply storing up social problems and will benefit no one in the long term.

So perhaps our future should rely on proactively managing decline – accurately aligning local land use, public service, economic, infrastructure and skills strategies to the needs of current and future residents. Being creative in rethinking the role and function of places. Acknowledging that shrinking cities which are in close proximity to growing cites will have a different trajectory and a different set of policy challenges compared to more isolated places ‘at the end of the line’.

The URBACT report is clear that perception is the key challenge:

‘Changing perceptions about what represents a viable future for a shrinking city is perhaps the most formidable barrier to unlocking the resources local residents and institutions hold which can be deployed to arrest decline and reverse the fortunes of a shrinking city’, it says.

It is highly emotive. Just look at the response caused by Policy Exchange’s Cities Unlimited report. The Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder, an attempt to align local housing supply to demand by reducing and improving housing stock, was mired in controversy. Going back in time, the furore over the Category D Durham mining villages earmaked for closure in the 50s, is also a reminder to policymakers of the sensitivities of managing decline.

So where are we heading? Populations will inevitably decline in some towns and cities, but even if there were sufficient jobs and affordable housing in growing cities, not everyone will leave. Because no one likes to talk about, there is a real lack of understanding around what managing decline means in the UK. This can’t and won’t be a top down Whitehall led agenda. Some local pride will need to be swallowed. Bold and creative local leaders need to follow the example of Altena. By acknowledging the issue, places are far better positioned to move forwards and raise the quality of life of residents.


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Hans Schlappa
Hans Schlappa
10 years ago

Hello Josh

A colleague of mine drew my attention to your blog (I can’t bring myself to engage with this form of communication) and wanted to say how pleased I am that you have picked this up. I have an FP7 project bubbling away on co-production of older people’s services in shrinking cities which I don’t expect to get support from the EC, anyone interested in collaborating on this please get in touch:


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