Research focus: The reality of shrinking cities

The popular story about modern cities, in recent years, has been one of urban renaissance, in which run-down cities like Manchester reinvent themselves as fashionable hubs where young people gather in clubs and coffee shops before going home to their light-filled loft apartments.

The reality, however, is rather different. As Dr Vlad Mykhnenko, Associate Professor of Sustainable Urban Development at the Department, points out, figures from the early 2000s show that of all cities and urban areas in Europe with at least 200,000 inhabitants, 42% were shrinking, 30% had been growing continuously, and only 14% were resurgent. (The remainder didn’t follow any obvious trajectory.) Urban shrinkage, it turns out, is a major problem.

Recipe for success

But how do we tackle it? Dr Mykhnenko has led ‘3S RECIPE’: a research consortium of nine European universities and charitable organisations tasked with exploring how to reverse the underlying forces causing cities to shrink and convert them into sustainable, liveable and resilient urban environments. (3S stands for ‘Smart Shrinkage Solutions’.) The research, which received £1.4m in funding from the EU, ran from 2017 to 2020 and looked at the experience of seven cities from all over Europe, with each research team assigned a city in their own country.

The common feature of the seven cities (Stoke-on-Trent in the UK, Timișoara in Romania, Porto in Portugal, Lodz in Poland, Maastricht in the Netherlands, Le Havre in France and Zonguldak in Turkey) – is that they are all ‘underprivileged in their geographical position.’ Le Havre, for example, is three hours from Paris, and on the wrong coast for tourism. Stoke-on-Trent, in central England, is ‘squeezed between Greater Manchester and Greater Birmingham so it’s in the shadow of these massive two cities, which of course suck in lots of resources from Stoke-on-Trent.’

The three major drivers of shrinkage in cities had already been identified as economic decline, population loss and suburbanisation. The research team wanted to look at what the cities themselves were doing to address the problem. They asked, not just local councillors, but also the local business and academic communities, which of their city’s initiatives in the past 20 years had been most successful in tackling economic decline. There have been too many projects, argues Dr Mykhnenko, in which academics tell locals what to do: this one was all about listening.

Once the locals consulted had produced a list of initiatives, they were asked to vote for the most successful. Finally, they were asked to identify the ingredients of success and whether they thought those ingredients would still be in place 40 years from now.

Universities are a magnet

So what were the most successful initiatives? Stoke-on-Trent, Maastricht and Zonguldak had all benefited, says Dr Mykhnenko, from ‘studentification’. They had all either used an existing university, or built a new one, to act as a ‘magnet’ for young people in the region, so that after their undergraduate degree they stay and help the city prosper. Staffordshire University, for example, has been successful in attracting students in the creative arts who stay on to work in local businesses.

Tackling geographical isolation has been important in other cities: in Lodz, for example, one of the most important initiatives has been substantial investment in transport infrastructure that has included building a new railway station as well as redeveloping roads, motorways and tramlines. The city is now much more connected both to Warsaw and the West.

The importance of the local ingredient

The biggest lesson from the research, however, is the importance of identifying a local feature and building on it – or, as Dr Mykhnenko, puts it: ‘Every successful recipe needs to have a local ingredient'. Part of Stoke’s heritage, for example, is Spode pottery, and the original Spode works have been repurposed to house artists’ studios, a café, hotel and visitor centre, with the factory’s main production area now a venue for private events. In consequence, artists are moving from London to Stoke because there are cheap spaces to work in.

At the end of the project, each of the cities was asked to produce a policy brief offering ‘smart city solutions’ in three areas: economic or fiscal decline, connectedness and urban liveability. These will be made available on a website and also form the basis of a book. Each team is making a five-minute animation about their city’s most interesting solution, which may eventually be combined into a longer film.

The important point, says Dr Mykhnenko, is not to think of these as ‘left behind’ cities (a phrase he regards as ‘inherently patronising’), but as cities that have found their own way of adapting: ‘Rather than coming back and helping these “left behind” places, I think you need to see first what they’ve done and how they’ve survived to now.’

Published 27 July 2020