Conceptualizing urban shrinkage

Annegret Haase, Dieter Rink, Katrin Grossmann, Matthias Bernt, Vlad Mykhnenko

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147 Citations (Scopus)
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Since the second half of the 20th century, urban shrinkage has become a common pathway of transformation for many large cities across the globe. Although the appearance of shrinkage is fairly universal—typically manifested in dwindling population, emerging vacant spaces, and the underuse of existing urban infrastructure, ranging from schools and parks to water pipelines—its essence is hidden from view. Phenomena related to shrinkage have been discussed predominantly using terms such as decline, decay, blight, abandonment, disurbanization, urban crisis, and demographic change. Amongst others, these concepts were typically related to specific national contexts, installed in distinct explanatory frameworks, based around diverging normative accounts, ultimately leading to very different policy implications. Yet there is still a lack of conceptualization and integration of shrinkage into the wider theoretical debates in human geography, town and country planning, urban and regional studies, and social sciences at large. The problem here is not only to explain how shrinkage comes about, but also to study shrinkage as a
process: simultaneously as a presupposition, a medium, and an outcome of continually changing social relationships. If we wish to understand shrinkage in a specific location, we need to integrate theoretical explanations with historical trajectories, as well as to combine these with a study of the specific impacts caused by shrinkage and to analyse the policy environment in which these processes take place. The authors apply an integrative model which maps the entire process across different contexts and independently of local or national specifics; it covers causes, impacts, responses, and feedback loops, and the
interrelations between these aspects. The model does not ‘explain’ shrinkage in every case: instead, it builds a framework into which place-specific and time-specific explanations can be embedded. It is thus a heuristics that enables communication, if not comparison, across different contexts. With the help of this model, the authors hope to find a way in which shrinkage can be studied both in a conceptually rigorous and in an historically specific way. Instead of an invariant ‘process of shrinkage’, they portray a ‘pluralist world of shrinkages’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1519-1534
Number of pages16
JournalEnvironment and Planning A
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2014


  • urban shrinkage
  • local trajectories
  • debates on shrinkage
  • heuristic model


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