Shrinking Cities

‘Shrinking Cities – Reinventing Urbanism’ is the name of a publicly funded project that runs from 2002 to 2005. Initiated by Berlin-based architect and editor Philipp Oswalt, the project includes research into four urban regions in decline: Halle/Leipzig in Germany, Manchester/Liverpool in England, Detroit in the US, and Ivanovo in Russia.

Abandoned house in Detroit

Abandoned house in Detroit / photo Wiki Commons

An important event in the project is an international competition to generate ideas for tackling the problems in the former GDR. Some cities in eastern Germany are starting to shrink as a result of migration to regions in the west of the country that offer better employment prospects. Economic opportunities are greater in the west, while the east has to contend with limited investment, a declining workforce and, consequently, ‘shrinking cities’. Other contributory factors are the increase in singlefamily households and decrease in the birth rate. The events of 1989 and German reunification have led to the disappearance of much industry and abandonment of many dwellings in eastern areas. Up to 30 percent of the housing stock in some cities is vacant, much of it in a state of dilapidation. The German government is even financing the demolition of many of the country’s typical prefab housing blocks. The situation is similar in many regions around the world, and so too are the causes. In recent years the problems have become more apparent and have given rise to detailed public discussion. Needless to say, the process of shrinkage has implications for the fields of architecture and urbanism.

Oswalt and colleagues first formulated central questions. Are there tools with which we can analyse the problems of shrinkage, or do we still need to develop such tools? Since shrinkage seems to be beyond our control, how can we deal with its unpredictable consequences? Are new design strategies necessary or possible? Can we design for shrinkage at all? And can it be viewed as a positive force for change in contemporary society? Do we need to change how we think of the traditional city in order to understand the phenomena mentioned? How important are communication strategies, and what contribution could be made by institutions and inhabitants in ‘shrinking cities’?

The results of the competition have now been made public. A total of 312 proposals from 23 countries were submitted, 36 of which were selected for the second phase. Of these, 9 received an award and will be elaborated further in the coming months. Despite the interdisciplinary aim of the competition, architects and urban designers made up the bulk of the entrants. Very few sociologists, political scientists and historians were among the selected teams. Among the prize-winning schemes was Ich bin drin (‘I am in’), a scenario of subversive strategies to attract immigrants to Halle/Leipzig in what could be termed a process of multi-ethnic re-population. Exterritories proposes a territorial addition to China in the form of a special economic zone in Halle/Leipzig. Presented in the form of a magazine, the project contains various essays that question the integrity of national territory. Bau an! (anbauen means both ’to cultivate’ and ’to extend a building’) proposes transforming the prefab housing blocks into mushroom-growing units run by an agricultural co-operative. Another farming solution is provided by Cow The Udder Way, in which urban agriculture in Manchester/Liverpool generates a range of marketable products. Migrations looks at the potential offered by birds whose migratory routes pass over Manchester and Liverpool. The project proposes a bird sanctuary in a shrinkage zone. Cameras will record the birds’ behaviour and the footage will be shown live in an art gallery in Leipzig/Halle.

None of these are typically architectural proposals, but that is what makes them all the more interesting. There are no Utopias, and no new society or economic system is proposed. But there are, in the words of the jury, ‘utopian gestures’, albeit full of irony. In terms of approach, the winning schemes are more artistic and provocative than problem-solving, perhaps because changing economic and political conditions lies beyond the scope of architecture and urbanism. Perhaps we are witnessing a shift here. Urbanism no longer deals solely with traditional planning methods or techniques. Instead, architects dealing with ‘shrinkage’ leave aside their customary methods to reflect on design and on how they can generate public interest in the issues addressed.

The magazine Archplus is planning an exhibition on the 36 entries submitted in the second phase of the competition. In early 2005, the award-winning designs and a selection of schemes will be discussed in a special issue of Archplus. Later next year the competition designs and the results of further research and studies projects will be gathered in a closing exhibition at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Leipzig.