Resilient Design for Shrinking Cities

by Bill Ball

“Shrinking cities” has become a topic of much research in geography and planning circles in recent years. A phenomenon that has become surprisingly widespread across communities, the reality of long-term population loss has substantial implications for planning and design that aspires to be just and resilient.

Traditionally thought of as solely a “rust belt” problem in older urban cores, the comprehensive research by Weaver and colleagues (2016) establishes just how widespread and varied is long-term population decline in specific localities, even in a nation that is growing overall. Certainly, the core cities of the rust belt are continuing to lose people, albeit at a slower rate than in the past. Yet both inner core suburbs and many rural regions elsewhere are now losing population to new exurban centers that lie between these bands. This is happening at a higher rate outside the old metro regions of the Northeast than inside. In fact, these researchers discovered that the geographic center of the shrinking city phenomenon in the US has been moving steadily south and west for years.

The immediate response to population loss is to design new uses for the existing built environment to make it seem less empty while preserving a revenue stream. Adaptive reuse of big box stores and other typically suburban infrastructure as a response to the new experience of population loss in the suburbs has become common for many planners and designers (Williamson and Dunham-Jones, 2021). 

Of course, many campuses also have experience in adaptively reusing nearby homes and other small properties to house ancillary services and specialized student centers. Yet this is mostly done based on the nearby properties the campus already owns and the convenience in terms of travel time for staff and students. A deeper dive into the culture of shrinking cities nominates new priorities.

Reminiscent of the supposed five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), shrinking city governance tends to respond by first trivializing population loss, then attempting to counter it, while avoiding both accepting it and ultimately utilizing it, because the powerful are deeply locked into the mindset that anything other than growth is failure (Weaver, et al., 2016). Governance regimes in shrinking cities focus on attempt to regain past population size, often turning to “eds and meds” to populate signature large projects that will somehow bring back their past numbers. This has not worked. 

How can shrinkage be accepted and used? Kim (2019) outlines what he terms shrinking-sensitive urban design. The three goals of this approach to design are to build a more visible safety net, creating place-based social networks, and reconfiguring the stigmatized image of a declining city. This would effectively require cities and their partners to strategically select rallying points throughout a shrinking city where services would be amalgamated and visibly enhanced while other areas are intentionally de-densified. The shrinking sensitive scale of individual projects is small but highly and visibly inclusive and the geographic distribution of them is selectively dispersed rather than concentrated.

Palliative interventions like these that relieve the civic pain of shrinking while accepting its reality offer many opportunities for greater justice and equity in design, planning, and policy. They are much better opportunities to build resilient social capital through localized collaborative design and new, more diverse models of ownership and governance than a large signature development controlled by a few decision makers (Weaver, et al., 2016).

Colleges and universities have a different and distinct role to play in using shrinkage than in attempting to reverse it in cities experiencing population loss, one that is more impactful on the human scale. Locating engagement and pre-professional training programs in human services, education, arts and business fields (as examples) grouped together in a range of neighborhood service centers strategically selected in collaboration with a city (and however far from campus) enhances their impact and provides opportunities for students and residents of a distinct neighborhood to develop individually meaningful relationships. Becoming a collaborative partner in the stabilization and revitalization of key neighborhoods permits modeling of more just community functioning through a small scale and localized empathetic approach to design and planning. 


Kim, Saehoon. 2019. “Design Strategies to Respond to the Challenges of Shrinking City.” Journal of Urban Design. 24(1): 49-64.

Weaver, Russell, et al. 2016. Shrinking Cities: Understanding Urban Decline in the United States. Routledge. ISBN 978-1138796867.

Williamson, June and Ellen Dunham-Jones. 2021. Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Strategies for Urgent Challenges. Wiley. ISBN 978-1119149170.

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