The Upside of Shrinking

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Last month, Newsweek produced a list of "dying" cities in the US with "bleak" futures based solely on population loss over the past few decades. For the Love of Cities author Peter Kageyama made quick work of the dismantling of this rather lazy list over at The Infrastructurist: "As human beings," he notes, astutely, "we stop 'growing' in our early 20s, yet we hardly think of a 25-year-old as dying — still, at a cellular level, they are dying in the same way that these cities are dying. Losing population is not the same as losing hope, losing purpose, or losing life."

The loss of population does not guarantee a continued slide toward obsolescence. Conversely, an influx of educated creative types does not necessarily result in an economic boom. Everyone has the potential to be creative, but not everyone is cut out to start (and successfully run) a business. The entrepreneurial spirit is something that needs to be sparked, and then cultivated. On the list of things that can serve as that spark: watching an exodus from a place that you love. In the above-linked Burgh Diaspora post, Jim Russell shares a story about Doug Dwyer, a former First Data employee who chose to stay in Boulder when his employer moved to Atlanta. The decision to stay required Dwyer to "think like an immigrant," and he has since founded a company, Mocapay, that employs 20 people.

When it's possible for the upwardly mobile to leave, those who stay behind by choice are bound to be more invested in their cities. These passionate people are some of the greatest assets that a city can have, and the fact that there are fewer other people around inherently makes it more likely that these passionate residents will bump into each other, share ideas, and perhaps start something exciting--as long as shrinkage is managed through smart urban planning to maintain some level of density, and to preserve downtown areas as places of economic and intellectual exchange. Especially when large areas begin to empty out, it's important to think about how to encourage interaction.

In a recent promo video for the new book Living in the Endless City, Saskia Sassen was asked what makes a city successful. She answered that "It’s their incompleteness that gifts them their longevity. A city does not become obsolete." Population loss does not equal death: it's just part of the process of rebirth.


John said...

You seem to be arguing that risk takers are the entrepreneurs that help grow an economy. I agree. However, who are the risk takers, those who leave or those who stay? The Urbanophile has argued that the risk takers are the ones who leave. On the other hand, I can see how staying in Cleveland or Detroit may feel riskier than leaving these days.

Brendan Crain said...

Thanks for linking to Aaron's post -- I hadn't read that one, and it's pretty great.

In response to your comment, I think that there are different reasons that people choose to stay. Some do it out of a preference for the "devil they know," sure. But then there are those who stay because they really love their city, and they want to find a way to make it a better place against whatever odds may be in play.

My point here wasn't so much about policy, as I won't pretend to be wonkish enough to make any sort of prescription for *how* we encourage the people who choose to stay to start businesses, much less how we help those businesses grow. My objective was merely to point out that, while the picture can look pretty dire at times for shrinking cities, there are unintended benefits to having a smaller population; managing those benefits will determine whether or not a city can turn itself around.

I think that, when we use the old "is the glass half empty or half full" trope, we tend to forget that both answers to that question are right. It's all about perspective.

Samantha said...

Shrinking cities are in denial of their shift in population. There is little or no alignment in planning practices between downtowns and suburbs, triggering sprawl and creating unnecessary hardship on the center city. There may be inviduals within these cities dedicated to smart growth and preservation; however, many local governments collectively are hesitant to admit that their cities are indeed shrinking. A shift in their "growth is good" paradigm is necessary to faciliate innovative urban planning. Until these cities can overcome these barriers, there is little upside to shrinking cities.

Brendan Crain said...

That seems like a pretty broad generalization; there are a lot of cities that are starting to look proactively at population shrinkage. Youngstown and Detroit are probably the best examples stateside.

Also, the fact that upsides aren't being taken advantage of doesn't mean that they aren't there...