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Shrinking cities call for effective countermeasures

LIU XUELIANG | 2019-05-30 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Pictured above is a market in the new urban area of Yumen City, Gansu Province. Yumen has been experiencing urban shrinkage since the relocation of the Yumen Oilfield and the municipal government, but the government has actively taken measures to revitalize the city. Photo: FILE


While worldwide urbanization is centering economic activities and populations in cities, for various reasons some cities face continuous population outflow and loss, along with reduction in size.


Global phenomenon
In Western countries, many cities have been shrinking. Because the urbanization process in these countries is coming to an end, economic slowdown, restructuring and zero demographic growth, even negative growth due to accelerating aging, have led the population of some cities to decrease relentlessly.

In Britain, while large cities like London are stable, cities like Manchester and Liverpool are shrinking. And in the US, Rust Belt cities represented by Detroit are the most typical examples of city shrinkage.

Shrinking cities have brought about multifaceted problems, including declining fiscal revenues, massive cases of abandoned housing and public infrastructure, and lowered quantity and quality of services as a consequence of debts from public service projects.

Urban shrinkage is a new concept, but it is not a new phenomenon. Before the concept was proposed by German scholars Hartmut Häußermann and Walter Siebel in 1988, terms like decline, decay and abandonment were used to study issues of this kind.

With the worsening of city shrinking in the West after 2000, the problem gradually aroused the concern of academics, particularly urban planners and urban economists. In 2006, two volumes of the monograph titled Shrinking Cities, a result of the research project “Shrinking Cities” funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, received extensive attention.

Scholars have enriched the concept of urban shrinkage from a simple focus on changes in the population to studying its driving forces and consequences, and they have moved from phenomenal description to an academic research framework. As a research framework, urban shrinkage includes the consequences of and reasons for population loss, discussion of the trajectory and types of such cities, and further reasonable measures to address city shrinkage.

Studies have found that some Chinese cities have also exhibited features of urban shrinkage. In November 2014, Chinese scholars built a research network on shrinking cities to follow relevant global studies while carrying out theoretical and empirical research domestically.

The issue has also been heeded at the policy level. On April 8, 2019, the National Development and Reform Commission released an announcement on the key tasks for a new type of urbanization construction in 2019. It requires small and medium-sized shrinking cities to streamline themselves, change their conventional thinking about incremental planning, strictly control increments and revitalize existing resources, thereby guiding the population and public resources to concentrate in urban areas.


Domestic studies
From a global perspective, deindustrialization, suburbanization and population aging have been among the common causes for urban shrinkage since World War II. In China, the phenomenon is a special outcome from the interplay between rapid urbanization and regional development. Apart from the abovementioned causes for city shrinking globally, China’s actual development conditions are also attributable. In recent years, domestic studies on shrinking cities have focused on the following three aspects:

First, scholars have analyzed data from demographic censuses and the like to identify which regions and cities have been shrinking, thus determining their research objects. Findings show that China has had 180 shrinking cities, accounting for 27.5 percent of the total number of cities. They are distributed in the eastern, central and western parts of the country.

Among the 180 cities, 139 are of the county level, constituting the largest share of shrinking cities. Despite their wide distribution, these cities have not shrunken as much as the world’s average shrinking city. The population reduction is less than 10 percent in most cases. Some scholars therefore argued that the shrinking of some cities in China is temporary.

Second, efforts have been made to examine the phenomena and characteristics of city shrinking and generalize certain types. According to related research, some cities have displayed obvious signs of shrinkage, but their planning remains grounded upon the assumption of the population rising and city space expanding in the future. The underlying tendency to forecast for growth indicates that urban managers and planners still entertain hopes of population growth, alongside motives for practical benefits such as land finance and attracting investments as a result of urban expansion.

Based on existing studies, city shrinking can be divided into partial shrinking in city clusters, partial shrinking in less developed areas, shrinking due to adjustments to administrative division, resource-related shrinking and shrinking of old industrial cities.

In addition, academics have investigated countermeasures to city shrinking, in other words, how local governments should adjust urban planning, how to formulate infrastructure investment and operational strategies, and how to manage adverse effects or reduce negative influences from shrinking to maximize public benefit.

Generally, three strategies can be adopted to cope with city shrinking. The first one is laissez-faire, namely, to do nothing. In the second case, some governments are unwilling to accept the reality of city shrinking and try to reverse the trend by stimulating population growth and urban expansion. Third, some governments accept the reality and don’t seek further city expansion. Rather, they take measures to deal with and manage the consequences of shrinking.

Current domestic studies focus more on introducing and summing up foreign experience in addressing city shrinking, or concepts like smart shrinkage, which fall short of summarizing the conditions in China.


Chinese preliminary experiences
To cities of a certain size, the laissez-faire approach is rarely adopted, as responsible urban managers will want to take action. The problem of the growth-based strategy, however, is that if city shrinking is irreversible, the countermeasures might instead result in greater waste and idleness, thus exacerbating the situation.

Under the circumstance of irreversible city shrinkage, it might be more advisable to downsize the cities. City shrinking doesn’t mean recession amid decay. It means a city evolving from one form to another, so the opportunity should be taken to transform and regenerate the city.

International experiences suggest that when a city shrinks, the following coping strategies can work to some degree: The first is to demolish deserted old buildings and transform the derelict land into a green space, farmland or back to its original condition, thereby beautifying the urban landscape. The second is to encourage residents to reside in a concentrated fashion in what are dubbed “city islands” in some countries, in order to lower costs of public services and infrastructure operation while ceasing the operation of scarcely used infrastructure. The last is to establish land banks to recollect and sort abandoned houses and plots to improve the utilization of land and housing.

China differs greatly from other countries in handling (potential) city shrinking. To some extent it has an edge in handling the problem. For example, land nationalization is practiced in the country. From the perspective of land property rights, this can facilitate the government to plan and dispose of idle land and assets resulting from urban shrinkage.

Moreover, Chinese primary-level governments are good at mobilizing residents to relocate and live together, so as to cut the costs for city operation. Also local governments are more capable of resource mobilization, which is conducive to the organization and disposal of idle assets.

Some Chinese cities have accumulated preliminary experience in grappling with city shrinkage. In Yumen City in Gansu Province, for instance, the relocation of the Yumen Oilfield and the municipal government caused the number of citizens in the old urban area to drop markedly. Many plants and living quarters downtown related to petroleum enterprises were left unused.

Given the situation, the Yumen municipal government, first of all, didn’t give up the old urban area. Since the production work of the oilfield continued in the area, there were more than 20,000 residents living in old urban blocks. In tandem with the relocation drive, institutions for social administration and services were set up, such as a management committee, a Party working committee and a neighborhood committee, in an effort to ensure the operation and development of the old urban area.

Meanwhile, the strategy of shrinking the periphery and growing the center was employed. Left-behind citizens were concentrated in the Beiping District to bring down public service costs. In addition, the government capitalized on idle resources to found a leader (cadre) college and strived to revitalize tourism and forge a film industry base in the old urban area.

Currently the measures are still in trial. Whether they can succeed has to be tested in practice. Nonetheless, many of them are logically reasonable.

In general, city shrinking has existed in China for only a short time. It is not a severe problem, and related cases and practices are few. To help small and medium-sized shrinking cities to streamline themselves, academia should take action early to sum up countermeasures based on China’s national conditions. In the meantime, the government should adjust its urban development strategies in a timely manner, wisely planning ahead to safeguard the interests of the people.


Liu Xueliang is an associate research fellow from the Institute of Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and concurrently a research fellow at the National Institution for Finance and Development.


edited by CHEN MIRONG