What are some problems that small towns face

City and society

Since the development of the modern metropolis in the process of industrialization, growth has been regarded as a generalizable pattern of urban development. However, economic decline and emigration expose cities to shrinking processes. Birgit Glock explains their forms, causes and social consequences and describes how urban politics deal with shrinkage.

Library in Halle Neustadt, December 2005. (& copy AP)

The shrinking of cities is actually nothing new. Hardly any European city disappeared from the map after the 11th century. Nevertheless, due to technological, economic or political changes, individual cities lost their former importance and fell (Benke 2005: 49). Since the development of the modern metropolis during industrialization, however, growth has been regarded as a pattern of urban development that can be universalized (Häußermann / Siebel 1987: 7). This growth paradigm shapes our thinking about urban development to this day, even if the industrialized nations have been experiencing the shrinking of cities for several decades.

Forms and causes

Cities in which the economic base has eroded and whose population numbers are constantly decreasing are shrinking. Processes of this kind have been observed in the old industrialized cities of West Germany for several decades. The shrinkage processes were triggered by an economic structural change that was observed in all western industrial nations since the beginning of the 1970s and which led to massive job losses in the manufacturing industry [1]. As a result of job cuts, which could not be compensated for by new employment opportunities, the number of inhabitants in these cities also declined. As the losers of the economic structural change, the cities of the Ruhr area, Saarland and Upper Franconia as well as peripheral industrial locations are confronted with permanent shrinking processes. In these disadvantaged regions, natural population decline is also becoming increasingly important [2].

To person

Dr. Birgit Glock

Dr. Birgit Glock, born 1973, studied social sciences in Berlin and New York. She did her doctorate on "Urban Development Policy in Shrinking Cities". Since June 2006 she has been a junior professor in the department of urban and regional sociology at the Institute for Social Sciences at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

In eastern Germany, on the other hand, almost all cities are recording declining numbers of inhabitants and jobs. Not only the industrial settlement areas of the GDR are affected, but also cities that have a more differentiated economic base. The widespread shrinkage process is the result of a radical structural break caused by the union. With the reintroduction of the market economy and the privatization of state-owned companies, the industrial base in East Germany collapsed within a few years [3].

The job cuts in the manufacturing industry were increased by a parallel job cut in agriculture and forestry, administration and the military [4]. Accordingly, the eastern German cities lost numerous residents, especially at the beginning of the 1990s, due to a labor market-related emigration to western Germany [5]. Long-distance migration weakened significantly in the mid-1990s, instead suburbanization gained in importance [6]. In addition, the dramatic drop in birth rates resulted in a significant population decline in the eastern German cities [7].

Even if, as shown, the timing, extent and causes of the shrinkage differ considerably between East and West, both cases are long-term structural faults that cities will have to deal with, which will become more solid in the future. Forecasts do not indicate that the population in the big cities will increase again. Due to the decline in birth rates, it is likely that cities in particular will continue to lose population, which cannot compensate for the natural losses with gains in immigration.

Social consequences

The cities in East and West are already confronted with the drastic social consequences of the shrinking process. In addition to the permanently high unemployment rates, it is especially the socially and age-structurally selective emigration that causes problems for the cities: On the one hand, there are the well-educated, qualified and younger residents who are leaving the cities in search of new employment opportunities. On the other hand, the processes of residential suburbanization are predominantly carried out by high-income families with children who can afford a little house in the country. Both processes lead to a change in the social composition of the population in the shrinking cities: what remains are those who are too poor, too unskilled or too old to emigrate.

The declining economic and demographic dynamics are currently most clearly manifested in the massive, structural vacancy rate in eastern German cities. The enormous vacancy rate of around 1.1 million apartments results from the combination of population decline and a more supply-oriented new building boom due to government-induced tax depreciation after 1990 [8]. The "tenant market" created by vacancies can have undeniably positive effects such as low rents, greater freedom of choice and more bargaining power for tenants, but also negative consequences [9]. With the concentration of vacancies in certain areas and quarters of a city, a downward trend can be set in motion, in which the mobile population groups leave these areas and only those remain who cannot or do not want to move.

Falling trade and income taxes are eroding cities' financial bases, while the costs of economic, social and demographic change rise. An increasing need for action is offset by decreasing financial resources and thus decreasing control potential. Shrinking processes that are left to the market process alone harbor the risk of a spiral of decline and decline.

Dealing with shrinkage

Dealing with shrinkage presents the affected cities with new and unfamiliar challenges: Up until now, it was the task of urban development policy to make growth processes functional, socially acceptable and later also environmentally friendly. For a future-oriented control of shrinkage processes, there are hardly any tried and tested political strategies or tried and tested political instruments. An empirical study shows how long it took before a lack of growth and persistent shrinkage were even perceived as a long-term problem in urban development.

In my study "Urban Policy in Shrinking Cities" (2006), which compares urban development policy in two cities over several years, it became clear that urban policy is only slowly, and only under certain conditions, in a city in some areas of urban development policy adjusted to the new conditions and institutionalized new instruments, measures and strategies that understood the shrinking process as a long-term problem to be managed politically [10].

In the meantime, many East German cities have started to develop concrete concepts for dealing with vacant housing and to tear down housing stocks [11]. They are supported by the federal-state program "Urban Redevelopment East", which for the first time provides the cities with funds for the adaptation of urban and housing structures under the conditions of declining population numbers, dwindling jobs and rising housing vacancies. Even if a certain narrowing of the shrinkage problem to the vacancy rate is emerging, some cities are at least partially adapting to the new conditions in urban development. It is hoped that the federal-state program "Urban Redevelopment West" adopted in 2004 will also be able to push ahead in the West [12].

Shrinking cities are facing dramatic urban development problems that they are insufficiently prepared to cope with. Nevertheless, it would be too short-sighted to see cities merely as victims of adverse circumstances. In these cities, too, room for maneuver can be explored and at least rudimentary answers to the pressing problems can be found.