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Designing for Loss: The Shrinking City

May 06, 2011
Designing for Loss: The Shrinking City

by Amanda Bryan, VIA Architecture
Photo: Philipp Oswalt; Shrinking Cities Volume 1: International Research © 2005, Germany


Philipp Oswalt and Tim Rieniets; Atlas of Shrinking Cities © 2006, Germany

Whether we’re comfortable with saying out loud or not, the American Dream is based on the idea of expansion and acquisition. First exemplified by the Louisiana Purchase, then modernized by the Interstate Highway Program, and now globalized by our corporate prosperity in countries around the world, we have gotten very good at dealing with growth. If there is one thing that Americans know how to do, it is expand, expand, expand (and yes, I know the same can be said of our waist lines). But do we know how to deal with the antithesis of expansion – shrinkage? To be specific, I’m talking about The Shrinking City, a phenomenon synonymous with the words suburbanization, deindustrialization, and decentralization.

While the issue of the Shrinking City is not unique to the United States, having found perch in old industrial belts like Eastern Germany and post-socialist regions of Russia, our Shrinking Cities are a little different because they are not the products of war, natural disaster, or governmental upheaval. The American Shrinking City is a once vibrant urban center, formerly dependent upon a highly industrialized local economy, which finds itself subject to a rapid population decline within its city boundaries and bloated with an excess of abandoned spaces and buildings.

If we look at the poster child of our nation’s car manufacturing industry, Detroit, we can see that its population has decreased more than 50% over the course of the last 60 years. According to the newest census report, this declining trend is still continuing with a population loss of 25% over just the last decade. The physical reality of this drastic population means that The City of Detroit is now facing the demolition of 10,000 empty residential buildings, 3,000 of which are slotted for demolition by the year’s end. The economic reality is an eroding tax base while the cultural implication is a culture of resignation that pervades the psyche of those left behind.

Philipp Oswalt; Shrinking Cities Volume 2: Interventions © 2006, Germany

So how can a city like Detroit move forward from its shrinking urban form? There have been many ideas proposed over the years, all of which focus on the reclamation of excess space and concentration of existing residents. One such proposal came from the Community Development Advocates of Detroit, a nonprofit trade group of local development organizations, which suggested that Detroit could be classified into 11 neighborhood zones like homestead sectors, village hubs, and traditional residential sectors.

The vision for one of these urban homesteads involves instituting rural living conditions geared toward agricultural uses in exchange for disconnecting from city services like water. Another community group, Detroit Declaration, has suggested creating urban farms in areas deemed as “weedy wastelands” and consolidating smaller parcels to promote urban infill. These ideas represent just two groups’ efforts out of the half dozen who are turning the notion of the city on its head in order to rethink the possibilities of a shrinking city.


http://www.takeabite.cc/category/blog/•urban-agriculture-community-gardening/

However, one thing that these groups have not done is specify which areas should be demolished and which should be preserved because there is a strong belief that this decision belongs to the city. While some skeptics are worried about placing this decision in the hands of government out of fear of a huge land grab, the general belief is that the doing nothing is only a recipe for continued shrinkage and misery. According to Richard Florida, the key to reimagining The Shrinking City is not to hand over whole sections of the city to the government or developers but instead to enable residents to spearhead the revitalization and build quality places they can identify with.

I would dare to suggest that maybe the City of Detroit ought to be the facilitators of a large-scale collaboration between the developers and residents because as Jane Jacobs put it, “The key is to engage the residents of the area, the business owners, the shopkeepers, the workers and the commuters. They’re the ones that can show the way to rebuild.”

Why not use our best asset, a culture based on growth, and harness it within a framework that can be held accountable by the people?