Hypotheses ///

Hypotheses on urban shrinking in the 21st century /// by Philipp Oswalt, Project Shrinking Cities

1. In the 21st century, the historically unique epoch of growth that began with industrialization 200 years ago will come to an end. At the end of the 21st century, processes of urban shrinking and of growth will be in equilibrium – as they were before the industrial epoch.

The number of people around the world who live in cities has grown 175-fold since 1800 – an incomparable process of growth. In the next 50 years, the number of urban residents will double again, but at the same time the processes of growth will come to an end. The UN predicts that the population of the world will stabilize and cease to grow at about 9 billion in around 2070. At the same time, particularly in the highly populated countries like China and India, urbanization will be mostly complete; more than three-quarters of the world’s population will live in cities. This is the end of a 300- year period of historically unique population growth. It will not be followed by a phase of stagnation, but of dynamic transformation with increasing polarization. Growth and shrinking will be in a state of equilibrium and mutual determination.

While processes of urban shrinking in the 20th century were caused primarily by processes of spatial polarization and thereby by processes of shifting or by local crises, in the 21st century urban population will dwindle overall in many developed countries. Until now, the essential causes of shrinking in developed countries have been suburbanization (regional shifting of activities and people into the surroundings of the cities), metropolitanization (countrywide shifting of activities and people to the great urban agglomerations), and deindustrialization (the crisis of mono-industrially oriented sites). In the 21st century, the total population, and with it the number of urban residents in the country, will fall in many industrial countries. In these countries, shrinking processes will intensify in comparison with the 20th century. Countries like Japan assume that demographic developments will reduce the gross national product, despite increasing productivity. 


2. The concept of growth has dominated thinking in modern societes; shrinkage has been viewed as an accident and exception. In future, however, a culture of shrinkage is set to develop.
Shrinkage will in future be considered as normal a process of development as growth. It will lose its stigma and come to be seen as a scenario that has advantages as well as disadvantages and that leads to distinct forms of renewal and change. In the discourses on the city in the USA the shift in terminology away from 'urban decay’ and 'urban decline’ towards 'shrinking cities’ indicates that such a change in thinking is underway. The transformations that come with shrinkage will nonetheless involve longterm social and economic conflicts – about the distribution of wealth in society, vested interests and their costs.

3. In the 20th century, industrial buildings and mid- and high-density housing were affected by abandonment and vacancy; in the 21st century, deurbanization will increasingly affect suburbs and office districts.

One-third of the suburbs in the United States already suffer population loses today, so far mostly due to continuing suburbanization into ever more outlying suburbs. In the future, the suburbs will lose population primarily because of total population loss and because of a partial withdrawal into the city centers. Increasing mobility costs and an aging population that has different mobility needs will contribute crucially to the processes of reconcentration.

In the second half of the 20th century, deindustrialization processes caused shrinking in many places; but in the course of the 21st century, office locations of the service economies will be affected by restructuring processes and, with them, by insufficient demand. Office districts will thereby become the fallow areas of the 21st century. In the industrial countries, industrial production processes are mostly already rationalized and automated and are carried out with few personnel; processes of rationalization and shifting are now increasingly affecting office and service activities. The automation of office activities, the shift to home offices, off-shoring, and the uncoupling of office work from office space by means of mobile, wireless equipment will tremendously reduce the need for the space of classical office complexes.

4. The exhaustion of oil wells and other fossil energy sources, as well as climate change, will decisively influence global settlement development in the 21st century.

Climate change, with its heterogeneous effects, will be a new parameter of the development of settlements. While a large part of existing settlement structures will be only trivially and in part even favorably influenced by climate change, a large number of sites will be greatly impaired and in part existentially threatened by heterogeneous climate effects: among the causes will be a lack of drinking water (especially in the arid regions of the South), the danger of flooding (in coastal regions), the thawing of the permafrost (in northern zones), the loss of snow and ice in alpine tourism sites (high mountains), etc. The end of the fossil energy era will have particular effects on the sites that have fossil energy repositoires: in the end phase of extraction, these sites profit from constantly rising revenues. When the local supplies are exhausted, however, the cities must completely reorient their economies. Since this development is foreseeable, such sites – like Dubai and Scotland – are examples of preventive anti-shrinking policies. The riches still generated are invested in a tremendous structural transformation.

5. Shrinking processes lead to dual societies: urban development, economic development, lifestyles, and much more differ fundamentally between the zones of growth and of shrinking.

In growing urban regions, the principle of the entrepreneurial city can develop remarkable dynamics of development; but shrinking regions are increasingly characterized by disinvestment – by a capitalism without capital. In the United States, the principle of redlining prototypically symbolizes exclusion from the established forms of globalized, large-scale capitalism. In shrinking regions, the classical economic elites of major companies and banks are replaced by local, often collectively organized micro-enterprises. In small-scale projects, they use the specific local situation and their intense social networking, realizing long-term projects with little capital on the principle of a “weak urbanism”. State and private-economy forms of governance and processes of development thereby differ fundamentally between zones of growth and of shrinking. We can thus even speak of two societies within one state.

6. Urban planning and architecture in shrinking cities face new tasks. Whereas until now construction has been seen as the goal of architectural/urban planning action, here it is the starting point.

For the last 200 years, urban planning has dealt almost exclusively with processes of growth. The modern epoch was characterized by encompassing processes of growth, and these are the foundations of its ideas, concepts for action, theories, laws, and practices. The key concepts of the modern age’s urban development were colonization, the founding of cities, allotting land for construction, new construction zones, opening land, construction boom, urban expansion, and density.

Construction has so far mostly been understood as an act of colonization, the opening and building up of new areas. But now that the industrial countries have urbanized more or less completely and their populations are stagnating or shrinking, the idea of colonization has lost its legitimacy. In the “postcolonial age”, the focus will be more on construction that has already accumulated over a long period. This is a reversal of view: construction is not the goal, but the starting point.

Post-architecture comprises the tasks arising when architecture – construction – is already present. What in conventional architectural practice is the result, is here the starting point. The issue here is how what already exists can be perceived, used, changed, or removed. 

At the same time, in the context of shrinking, new ways to create architecture must be found. To this end, the narrower field of architecture must be left behind and the debate re-politicized. The question arises: Who builds with what funds to what ends?

Pre-architecture, by contrast, is concerned with the things that precede an architectural practice and that make it possible in the first place. Among them are the production of desire, the imagination of possible new buildings, and the rousing of interest in realizing the latter. Speaking pragmatically, pre-architecture includes the formation of uses, construction clients, and funding.

The necessity to develop new “tools” of planning and building is comparable to the situation of Classical Modernism. The “New Construction” of the 1920s would have been inconceivable without the development of an entire arsenal of new tools for the realization of urban planning and architecture: the formation of communities and cooperatives as new construction clients, the invention of new uses, and the development of innovative taxation and funding models was as essential to the rise of Modernist architecture as was the invention of new building materials and construction methods. Analogously, to shape processes of shrinking, new tools must be developed that enable an effective intervention in the first place.




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