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Interview Philipp Oswalt: We need a new understanding of shrinking cities

“Politicians and economists have tried to counteract the phenomena of shrinking cities for a long time now but up to date this has rarely resulted in a turnaround. I think that we should respect people’s wishes to move elsewhere. To create policy in order to “combat” this problem will not work as there is no proper policy that will stop people from moving from one place to another.” Being interviewed is German architect, Philipp Oswalt. He was involved in the project ‘Shrinking Cities’ which was initiated by the German government as an exhibition project which started in 2002 and ran through 2008. It was funded with over € 4,5 million Euros and it focused on understanding the phenomena of shrinking cities in the US, Great Britain, Russia, Japan and Germany. Oswalt argues that we need a new understanding of shrinking cities.

An artist and an architect’s view on shrinking cities

“I am an architect with a strong focus on research, especially in urban themes. In the project of Shrinking Cities we included not only architects and planners, but also artists, geographers, and sociologists. It was an interdisciplinary project thus. We think that the when considering shrinking cities, not only the expertise of architects and planners is interesting but it is also important to consider the issue from another angle. An artist’s view of the issue will be completely different than that of an urban planner for example. In the second phase of the project we tried to come up with action plans while keeping in mind what the future might bring for shrinking cities. By bringing together people from very diverse professional backgrounds we came up with very interesting views and action plans, which would have been less likely without this gathering of different people from different disciplines.”

 

Shifting cities instead of shrinking cities

Some (historical) analysis on how shrinkage emerged and how it is developing was done for the Shrinking Cities project. It was found that this phenomena is mainly a problem in old industrial cities. This is so in Europe, Northern America and Japan. Since 1990 the Eastern European countries of the socialist spheres have also experienced a growing number of shrinking cities (Poland and Russia for example). “What we have to realize is that shrinkage in these countries is actually marginal, the number of shrinking cities is not enormous and population is not lost as shrinkage is parallel to growth. The main reason for people leaving a city and thus for shrinking cities is because people leave to find work. So what happens is a redistribution of economic activity. What we have experienced in almost every researched country is that people are moving to the larger agglomerations, the large cities. So both on a national as on a regional level we are seeing a shift of population. You could say shifting cities instead of shrinking cities.”

We should not always strive for growth but rather for a good quality of life

Politicians and economists have tried to counteract the phenomena of shrinking cities for a long time now but up to date this has rarely resulted in a turnaround. “I think that we should respect people’s wishes to move elsewhere. To create policy in order to “combat” this problem will not work as there is no proper policy that will stop people from moving from one place to another. Shrinkage can also be a temporary phenomena. After some years cities will grow again or the shrinkage will stabilize. So it’s more of a matter of transformation for a time period. I think that the focus should not be on finding appropriate policy or solutions for shrinking cities but rather to see to it that the quality of life for the people in the cities remains good or becomes better. In other words we need a new understanding of shrinking or shifting cities. This will make the whole process of migration shifts more effective.”


Quality of life does not depend on population density

Changing populations mean for example that people from a certain age category are moving, or immigrants from a certain cultural background are grouping together in a city or neighborhood, there might be a brain drain where people with higher education move to big cities. “Architects or urban planners cannot define where people live but they can give a contribution to the quality of life. There is no proper size for the perfect city. In Scandinavia for example the quality of life is very good whilst there is a very low population density. It just goes to show that quality of life does not depend on population density.” In other words, growing cities do not necessarily mean healthier cities.

 

Citizen participation in shrinking (and growing) cities

“The question of citizen participation is an important one in the matter of shrinking (and growing) cities. Of course we should bear in mind that we are living in a time of economic crisis, a time when there is less private investment in cities. What governments can offer to citizens is limited at the moment. Justly therefore it is so important to include citizens, for example by asking social institutions, schools or neighborhood centers how they would like to contribute to their city. What they would like to see in their city. This does not necessarily have to cost money and if indeed money is invested in the city then at least it’s in an area that is of importance to the citizens and not a rough guess by an urban planner or architect. Sometimes I think the work of an architect is overvalued. In urban planning the focus has been on the entrepreneurial city since the seventies, where a city was largely dependent on private investment. But this model of the entrepreneurial city does not work for shrinking cities.”

So architecture is not the answer to shrinking cities?


The meaning of architecture is changing in this day and age. In many cities architecture does not mean creating a new structure but rather dealing with existent structures. Of course there are some striking examples, like in Bilbao, where the city was rapidly shrinking having lost much of its industrial jobs and growing immensely once the Guggenheim Museum was built. “The image of the city changed, but this is only one example. Generally I would say that creating new structures in a city does not automatically see to population growth. Architecture in and out of itself won’t salvage cities from shrinking. However, like I said earlier, creating a good quality of life in each city, does attract people. So if cities use architecture to update existent structure and make it more attractive then I do think that it could be a remedy for shrinking cities.”

Elizabeth Winkel, EUKN


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