Shrinking cities: Implications for urban policy

Much has been said about the world’s growing urban population but many cities are in fact shrinking. This under-researched phenomenon has implications for urban policy. The SHRINK SMART research project is studying several shrinking urban regions in Europe and their governance systems. Its analysis indicates that shrinkage depends on the interplay of three major causes: economic decline, suburbanisation and demographic changes. In turn, these are influenced by contextual factors, such as the political system, regeneration policies and the physical structure of the city.

Around 40% of large European cities have experienced a decrease in population over the previous decades, especially in post-socialist countries. The cities that have experienced the greatest losses are struggling with underused infrastructures, housing vacancies, unemployment and low investment. The SHRINK SMART project aims to understand the triggers, impacts and challenges of shrinkage, and their implications for policy.

Seven case studies were chosen with a focus on disadvantaged urban regions in Eastern and Southern Europe. These were: Leipzig/Halle (Germany), Liverpool (the UK), Ostrava (Czech Republic), Sosnowiec/Bytom (Poland), Genoa (Italy), Timisoara (Romania) and Donetsk/Makiivka (Ukraine). The level of urban shrinkage was defined by population decline.

From examining statistical data and information at the municipal, regional and national level, the project identified three major causes for urban shrinkage:

  • Economic decline and migration out of the city to find employment.
  • Suburbanisation of cities and subsequent shifting of settlement.
  • Demographic changes, such as an ageing population and fewer younger people.

The combination of these three causes varies according to the city studied. For example, a mix of economic decline and suburbanisation was more influential in Liverpool, whilst in Genoa demographic ageing and suburbanisation were the main drivers. The shrinkage also depends on intervening factors, such as the state of the housing market, national welfare policies, regeneration policies, the physical structure of the city and cultural factors. This is why there is no set path for shrinkage, and its trajectory varies depending on the city. For example, Leipzig and Liverpool are cases of long-term shrinkage which date back to the 1930s, whereas Bytom and Halle experienced rapid short-term shrinkage during the 1980s and 1990s, mainly due to the transition from socialist to market economies.

Just as the trajectories of shrinkage differ, so do the impacts. The SHRINK SMART project identified seven major areas of impact relevant to policy:

  • Segregation and social cohesion – The case studies gave evidence of the possible impacts of shrinkage on segregation. When there is an increase in suburbs there tends to be an out-migration from the city centre of better-off social groups. However, some urban areas can be revitalised as in Liverpool where urban regeneration policies have supported the development of the service industry. In other cities there is ethnic and social segregation, especially if there has been economic decline leading to unemployment and low income, such as in Genoa.
  • Impacts on business and employment – As mentioned above, shrinkage is often a consequence of economic decline and loss of jobs. Out-migration from shrinking cities is in many cases job-related. Shrinking cities have shrinking labour markets, especially old-industrial cities or cities suffering from deindustrialisation. It is particularly challenging for shrinking cities to attract new investment, and only some cities have been successful in this matter.
  • Social infrastructure and education – In most cities studied among the project’s case studies, shrinkage has had an impact on education. All cities have experienced a decrease in the numbers of children at school and have, therefore, closed or merged schools. At the same time, increases in the ageing population have triggered a growing demand for medical and personal care services. In addition, decreasing demand for water, electricity and transport can lead to rising costs for local suppliers, which are passed on to those still living in the area.
  • Housing – As populations decline so housing vacancies increase and real estate value decreases. The research indicates that this is a major problem only in the case study of the Leipzig/Halle city area which is addressing the issue by state-sponsored demolition of vacant housing and urban development plans. However, the research suggests that the consequences of demolition must be monitored closely as they may create more imbalances.
  • Technical infrastructure – It has been difficult to provide clear and comprehensive results in this area due to a lack of data on water, waste and central heating. However, a number of impacts are predicted. For example, the underutilisation of water networks can lead to corrosion of pipes and possible contamination. Nevertheless, if dealt with correctly, adapting the infrastructure for reduced demand could be cost-effective but it would require initial investment.
  • Land use and environment – The greatest impact in this area is the increase in ‘brownfields’ i.e. areas that were used for industrial production and that are now vacant. Of greater concern are ‘blackfields’, which are highly polluted areas of former chemical and mining industries. There are a number of initiatives to revitalise brownfields and blackfields but these depend on funding which varies from city to city. For most of the post-socialist countries there is very little funding available.
  • Municipal budgets and finances – Most of the case studies suffer from declining tax revenues due to a loss of inhabitants, particularly those with higher incomes. Those municipalities with changing demographics are providing more support than they are receiving. Often those who live in suburbs use the facilities of the city centre without directly contributing to them.

Building on the information gathered from the case studies, SHRINK SMART will explore the possible governance systems for urban shrinkage. The evidence to date suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach will not be appropriate, but identifying certain combinations of causes and factors could help assess future risk of shrinkage. By holding workshops with local and European stakeholders, such as municipal politicians and planners, and spokespeople from civil society organisations, the project intends to examine how best to govern shrinkage. In particular, it will explore whether it is better to perceive shrinkage as a problem to be solved with growth policies and recovery, or to accept shrinkage and develop new strategies for the changed circumstances. It will also analyse which national policies can support shrinking cities to cope with the impacts, particularly in terms of fiscal gaps where local authorities are simultaneously burdened with low income from tax and high expenditures to support the city.

SHRINK SMART – Governance of shrinkage within a European context (duration: 1/5/2009 – 30/4/2012). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 2 “Combining economic, social and environmental objectives in a European perspective", Research area 2.2 "Regional, territorial and social cohesion". Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).


Contact: Professor Dieter Rink,