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Shrinking Cities Reading Series Part I: Design After Decline

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Manager of Research and Policy

In his book Design After Decline, author Brent Ryan explores the historic role of urban and architectural design in combating (or accelerating) decline in cities and explores how good design can help shrinking cities boost quality of life for residents. Design After Decline argues that shrinking cities may not be able to reverse decline, but they can make cities more equitable for residents living in them.

Ryan begins by looking back at the legacy of urban renewal in the United States, and argues that the end of urban renewal was a double-edged sword for declining cities. It was positive in the sense that it ended the often brutal treatment of existing neighborhoods and residents, but negative because it meant the end of a comprehensive and optimistic government-backed vision for the future of urban communities. Although urban renewal tore apart neighborhoods in favor of massive concrete high rises, government planners (wrongfully, unfortunately) believed that these Modernist buildings could help transform neighborhoods for the better by virtue of the way they were designed.

In a reaction to the overreaches of Modernist urban renewal, the next generation of planners and designers abandoned innovative architectural design in favor of traditional, suburban-style development in what Ryan calls the “era of nonexperimentation”. In Detroit, the city became less dense as existing homes were torn down, leaving either vacant lots or new, low-density suburban style development in their place. Additionally, new development only occurred in a few relatively stable neighborhoods in the city, leaving other neighborhoods to decline. According to Ryan, little of this new development was driven by the interests of residents, which led to relatively limited success. In Philadelphia, however, redevelopment in declining neighborhoods also took a suburban form, but was driven largely by the interests of local residents instead of developers. In part due to its location, North Philadelphia is now contending with the challenge of gentrification instead of decline.

Ryan finds that neither the approach of urban renewal nor suburban-style development has had much positive impact on the trajectory of shrinking cities, especially as it relates to outcomes for low-income residents. Instead, Ryan sets forth a series of proposals for promoting “social urbanism” in shrinking cities. The idea of social urbanism comes from Medellin, Colombia, where dealing with social issues has been linked squarely to urban design and architecture. The city hopes to create “the most beautiful buildings in the poorest parts of the city,” a lofty goal that Ryan admits will be challenging to achieve in the U.S. Still, he suggests pushing for change even while accepting the constraints of the current system.

Ryan proposes five principles for social urbanist, shrinking-city design. The first is palliative planning, or the recognition that intervention cannot reverse decline, but can only improve quality of life for remaining residents. The second is interventionist policy, or the idea that cities should not hold back from taking risks through bold action. The third is democratic decision making, or an explicit focus on improving the lives of poor residents directly or indirectly. The fourth is projective design which “provides residents with a sense of achieved aspiration and conformance with social ideals” – in other words, housing is attractive and thoughtfully designed, but is still comfortable for the average family. The final principle is patchwork urbanism, or the understanding that development across the city will not be uniform and may create new urban forms over time. Through these urban design interventions, Ryan believes that shrinking cities can be more effective in creating equitable communities for residents.

This article is part of a blog series exploring books and articles written about shrinking cities, or communities that are losing population and dealing with housing vacancy and abandonment. For more information on this series, see the first post “Reading Series on Shrinking Cities”. These summaries are provided only for educational purposes and opinions expressed in these summaries do not necessarily reflect those of Greater Ohio Policy Center.