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The Shrinking City – The Babuk Report

The Shrinking City

A recent presentation by the President of CEO’s for Cities to the Association of Architecture Organizations spoke of major trends affecting cities, and described scenarios for growing – and shrinking – cities.  The concept of shrinking cities struck a particular note. 

Anyone familiar with the United States will immediately think of Detroit or a variety of cities across Michigan, Ohio, and perhaps upstate New York.  These are cities that relied on a strong manufacturing economy as a basis for municipal growth, a manufacturing economy since vanished. 

For me; I’m drawn to rattle off any of several small towns that may have been founded on transportation and commerce systems that have since focused on being “more efficient”, concentrating on fewer, yet larger distribution centres.  The Small Town Design Center at Mississippi State University has done excellent research and tangible project work on the shrinking small town issue.  In smaller economies – like small towns – a simple change of stores on Main Street or realignment of a highway has a proportionally greater impact than it would on a larger economy.  Small towns are particularly sensitive to shrinkage.

Overall; how does a shrinking city get its residents to invest in buying a house when there may be so many abandoned properties around town? How does a shrinking city encourage new business to take root when so many other businesses – and the potentially “synchronicity” that occurs when businesses network and interact with other businesses – have disappeared?  How can a shrinking city retain and develop quality services like schools, and develop opportunities to retain that prime demographic group of 18 – 34 year olds whom can build a lasting economy?

The message was to discourage those cities from taking on municipal debt to finance potential growth, as that debt would become impossible to retire on shrinking revenues.  Municipal debt would become detrimental to attracting business and providing services.  Another comment struck a note, and was foreshadowed in previous postings herein: cities have strayed from providing quality public services – schools, libraries, recreation, entertainment and the like. Instead, people are seeking these services from commercial sources (bookstores rather than libraries) or themselves (home gyms and media rooms rather than public parks and cinemas).  It was part of the “McMansion” and “Cocooning” phase that we’ve been through, which one may hope is behind us.

The message for shrinking cities was to maintain quality municipal services, while holding the line on taxes as a way of attracting the influential “young” population.