Urban Shrinkage Is Not Just a Phase… And That’s OK

Blog by Maxwell D. Hartt

20 Nov 2017, 2:16 p.m.
Maxwell D. Hartt



Like a parent reassuring a teenager that a rough patch at school is just a phase, academics and practitioners have traditionally viewed urban shrinkage as a temporary, but normal, part of a natural evolutionary cycle. Population loss and economic decline have been perceived as not only intrinsically intertwined, but often as a necessary precursor to bigger and better re-urbanization (Hoover and Vernon 1959; Van den Berg et al. 1982; Friedrichs 1993). But in the modern world of globalization and the concentration of monetary, human and knowledge capital in megacities, do these theories still hold? Are demographic and economic changes cyclical? Are they even interdependent? Is Savannah, GA just experiencing an awkward teenage phase or Detroit, MI a mid-life crisis?

            In order to shed light on these questions, I examined the economic and demographic trajectories of the 100 largest American cities from 1980 to 2010. I found that, contrary to the hypotheses of early cyclical models, the population of the majority of cities either grew or shrank continuously. This trend supports Martinez-Fernandez et al.’s (2012) assertion that contemporary urban shrinkage is no longer a temporary stage of a cyclical process, but an enduring spatial symptom of globalization. Although the population trajectories of the 100 cities were predominantly continuous, the economic trajectories of almost all of the cities (84) were cyclical. This demonstrates the potential disconnect between economic and demographic processes. The divergence between economic and demographic trajectories was especially clear in shrinking cities. Of the 20 largest shrinking cities, 12 experienced overall population decline while per capita income simultaneously grew. New Orleans exemplified the potential disconnect between economic and population trajectories with per capita income growth and population loss in every decade. The stark divergence in New Orleans also demonstrates the complexity of shrinkage and the need for in depth context-specific analysis. Despite its many charms, few would argue that New Orleans is a utopian paradise free of economic or societal challenges.

            The notion that population loss is potentially permanent and not inherently coupled with economic decline gives credence to Pallagst’s (2010) call to rethink planning in shrinking cities, investigate the principles upon which planning has traditionally been based and to move away from the necessity of population growth as a precondition for prosperity. Local decision-makers in shrinking cities may need to prepare for the possibility that their population may never surpass or even return to historic highpoints. A shift in focus from trying to increase population to increasing quality of life for the remaining residents is necessary. My findings support this notion while highlighting the complexity and diversity of shrinking cities. Shrinking cities come in all shapes and sizes. For example, Detroit may be the poster child of urban shrinkage, but few would argue that it is overly similar to Boston (which has also experienced substantial population loss). In order to stymie the stigma of shrinkage and shift to a focus on quality of life in shrinking cities, we need to step back, take a wider view of population loss, and reconsider many of our fundamental assumptions about urban change and prosperity.


Friedrichs, Jiirgen. 1993. “A Theory of Urban Decline: Economy , Demography and Political Elites.” Urban Studies 30 (6): 907–17.

Hoover, E.M., and R Vernon. 1959. Anatomy of a Metropolis: The Changing Distribution of People and Jobs within the New York Metropolitan Region. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Martinez-Fernandez, Cristina, Ivonne Audirac, Sylvie Fol, and Emmanuèle Cunningham-Sabot. 2012. “Shrinking Cities: Urban Challenges of Globalization.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 36 (2): 213–25.

Pallagst, Karina. 2010. “Viewpoint: The Planning Research Agenda: Shrinking Cities – A Challenge for Planning Cultures.” Town Planning Review 81 (5): i–vi.

Van den Berg, L, R Drewett, L Klaasen, A Rossi, and H Vijverberg. 1982. Urban Europe: A Study of Growth and Decline. Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press.



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