Release Date: September 14, 2016
BUFFALO, N.Y. — A new book by geography and planning experts examines several decades worth of data to provide an analysis of the state of shrinking cities across the United States.
Among the questions addressed: Which areas of America are declining in population today? Is population loss stabilizing in these regions? And how does shrinkage influence the quality of life for the residents who remain?
“We hear about shrinkage all the time — people remember the heyday of a city and talk about how everything is going downhill, but what does that really mean?” says Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen, PhD, a professor of geography in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences. “We wanted to explore what shrinkage is, and how it affects the people who live in a place that is shrinking.”
The book, published in August by Routledge, is titled, “Shrinking Cities: Understanding urban decline in the United States.” Bagchi-Sen co-authored it with three former doctoral students at UB: Russell Weaver, PhD, an assistant professor of geography at Texas State University; Jason Knight, PhD, an assistant professor of geography and planning at SUNY Buffalo State; and Amy E. Frazier, PhD, an assistant professor of geography at Oklahoma State University.
The book’s first chapters use national census data to identify “shrinking” census tracts that experienced severe and persistent population loss during the four decade period from 1970 to 2010. Utilizing additional methodologies, the authors then identified tracts that have had more recent experiences with severe population loss, and are on pace to be classified as “shrinking” in the coming decades should these patterns of population loss prove to be persistent.
Some key observations:
Given the close ties between shrinkage and economic distress, the authors devote the latter chapters of the book to a discussion of how shrinking places can stem economic decline.
“Almost invariably, the general response has been, ‘We have to reverse the population decline and grow out of this problem,’” Knight says. “So you get pro-growth strategies across the board: Build a stadium. Develop the waterfront. But the reality is that in most cases, this has not worked.”
“Attractions can create the illusion of a booming city, but in fact, people are driving in from other places to enjoy a city, and then leaving afterward,” Bagchi-Sen says. “It’s not having the desired effect in surrounding areas: Within shrinking tracts, the economic distress continues.”
So what are alternative strategies?
One emerging idea is right-sizing — accepting that a city’s population will remain at a smaller size, and implementing policies that benefit this smaller society, the authors say. Youngstown, Ohio, is a prominent example of a place that is experimenting with this concept, which can include actions such as tearing down vacant homes; creating land banks to rehabilitate such houses; or reusing vacant property in productive ways, such as for urban agriculture.
While it’s too soon to gauge the impact of this relatively new strategy, the authors point to it as one to watch.
Another potentially important trend that the book identifies is the value of social capital, loosely defined as relationships among people that help a neighborhood function well. Shrinking tracts that withstood severe decline tended to have stronger social capital, displaying qualities such as stable homeownership rates, a relatively high number of civic organizations and government offices, a greater disposition to trust others in transactions characterized by asymmetric information, and more.
Such information can help guide governments and planners as they map out the future of shrinking places, but the most important advice, perhaps is this: The desire for a one-size-fits-all solution is and may always remain elusive.
“There is a desire for a solution where we can say, ‘Do A, and B will happen; build a museum, and things will turn around,’” Bagchi-Sen says. “But it’s not so straightforward. Every shrinking city is distinct, with different infrastructure, different transportation needs, different housing stock, and different groups of people coming and leaving. To begin to address the problem of decline, we need to understand the nuances of their city and region and the people who live there.”