Daugavpils_abandoned factory

Why Cities Must Embrace Getting Smaller

The phrase “Demography is destiny” is repeated more than once in Smaller Cities in a Shrinking World (Island Press). This new book by noted urban researcher Alan Mallach tackles, in meticulous and fascinating detail, the “wicked problem” of shrinking cities in the U.S. and across the globe. But it’s not only our cities that are shrinking—the countries that contain them are, too. I spoke with Mallach about the imperative of planning for this new demographic reality.

KP: Kristin Palm
AM: Alan Mallach


We both live the concept of the shrinking city in our daily lives. You are speaking to me from Roosevelt, New Jersey, not far from Trenton, where you worked in housing and economic development. And I am at my home in what is perhaps the poster child for shrinking cities, Detroit, which you have studied extensively. Still, I’m curious to know in more detail how you came to be interested in the topic of shrinking cities. I’m particularly interested to hear how you decided to approach this as an international, rather than a national, issue.


Back in 1990, I was asked if I would take the job as director of housing and economic development for Trenton, in a new administration with a seemingly dedicated bright young mayor. I did, and I spent the next eight-plus years trying to foster better housing, planning, economic development growth, and so forth. I experienced from the inside what it’s like to live, work, and try to drive change in a city that was losing population, jobs, income, wealth, tax revenues—and let me tell you, it’s not fun.

So then I left Trenton, and I’ve been doing a lot of different things in the last couple of decades, including working for Brookings and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and others. But also, I really wanted to understand the larger issues that I’d glimpsed from the ground in Trenton. Gradually, that took me to Europe and Japan. And I started to realize: Not only are shrinking cities already a significant global phenomenon, but they’re going to increase dramatically over the coming decades, because the world’s population and economic growth are both slowing down visibly and measurably. We’re going to see a lot of change in the next few decades, and one of them is going to be the growth of shrinking cities as increasingly becoming the norm in global urbanism.


One important point you make is that cities are shrinking in the context of shrinking countries. The only parts of the world that will still be growing in the next decade are Africa and the Middle East. But they’re going to be heavily impacted by climate change. So we’re really at a crisis point. What are some of the most salient demographic points that you want to make sure people understand?


When we talk about only Africa and the Middle East growing…I mean, there are many parts of the world like South America and South Asia that will continue growing for maybe another few decades. But if we look long term, past the middle of this century, then it’s going to be just Africa and the Middle East. But the first thing to know is that—and I don’t think all demographers have yet even appreciated this—there seems to be something about the way human beings function, that if four things happen—namely, prosperity, urbanization, significant job and educational opportunities for women, and access to contraception—birth rates decline; and the more those four things happen, the lower the birthrate goes. And not only do birthrates not level off at a point where populations stabilize, they continue to go down until populations actually start to decline.

The other thing about that is—and this will disappoint a lot of politicians, because whether it’s Japan or China or the U.S., they’ll say, “Oh, god! Our population is shrinking. We’ve got to provide free daycare. We’ve got to provide family leave.” And so forth. Now, those are all good things in terms of human beings’ quality of life, but they don’t turn the curve around. They might create a blip. But it’s still on a negative course. And while so far the great majority of the countries that are declining in population are in the Global North, that’s changing. China is now losing population as a country. While areas like Shanghai or Shenzhen are still growing because of migration, large parts of the country are shrinking. Brazil will probably go into negative population growth in the next 15–20 years; India will go into negative population growth in the next 30 years or so. This is a global phenomenon.

Now the big wildcard, of course, is migration. If the United States cut off immigration tomorrow, we would go into negative growth within probably less than 10 years, because we’re clearly on that path. If we continue immigration at roughly the current levels, that’ll buy us another 10 years or so of growth. But the long-term trajectory for the United States, unless we totally change our policies about immigration, is negative growth, which means, of course, there are going to be a lot more shrinking cities. It won’t be a few outliers like Detroit. Detroit is ahead of the curve, but it’s a global phenomenon.

As a population declines, economic growth also declines. And that’s combined with the fact that a huge amount of the economic growth in the world and in the United States over the past few decades has been a product of the globalized economy, which is showing cracks all over the place, along with many other things going on. Climate change might help some countries—it’s doubtful, but it might. But it’s going to hurt an awful lot of others, and it’s going to clearly have a net negative effect on economic growth. We have geopolitical instability. We have aging populations. Older people don’t consume as much and require a lot more services—that’s another factor. Workforces will be shrinking, because, as populations decline, the population gets older. Almost 30% of Japan’s population is over 65. Almost one out of every three people in Japan. That’s almost inconceivable.


We live in a country where the only synonym there is for “economic development” is “growth.” But you say in the book that you believe it’s possible to adopt a downsizing mindset. What makes you so cautiously optimistic?


Given all of this, focusing on growth is not so much bad as irrelevant. It ain’t gonna happen! Now, that doesn’t mean some places aren’t going to grow. But over all, there’s just going to be less and less of it to go around. So if you’re a city, especially if you’re a small city, you’re not New York, you’re not Tokyo, you’re not Beijing, you’re not a place that’s enjoying millions of migrants and millions of dollars of investment. Say, you’re Peoria, Illinois, or Battle Creek, Michigan—you can’t count on the few crumbs you can grab from the globalization table to do anything more than subsist. If you want your city or region to do better than that, you have to start saying, “How can we localize our economy more? How can we do more with the human resources and the tools that we have here, and with the technology that exists, to localize an economy and still benefit from the global resources that are out there?” And I believe that’s possible, and that’s why I’m cautiously, very cautiously, optimistic. 

9781642832273_Mallach_Smaller Cities in a Shrinking World

I think we’re getting into your concept of “networked localism” here, right?


Yes. Now, I’m not a technology geek. I’m very skeptical about big technological promises, and I’ve seen a lot fail to live up to the hype. But there are technologies that have emerged in the last few decades that create opportunities for a community to connect to the global system that are absolutely mind-boggling. In my book, I talk about how Peoria and other cities in the Midwest are surrounded by thousands of acres of good, well-watered farmland. In most cases, it’s being devoted to growing corn and soybeans for the global market. Doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation, I found that if you took 2% of the land in Peoria County, which is currently being used to grow corn and soybeans, and turned that into intensive fruit and vegetable agriculture, you could grow all the fruits and vegetables that the Peorians could eat. Now, obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than that. You need systems. You need distribution networks. But the point is, there are all these opportunities. There are extraordinary opportunities as well to localize other systems: remote education, which works well for a lot of college age and adult students; health care; small-scale manufacturing; energy generation; and more. 


You also talk about thinner, greener cities. I understand the greener part. But can you explain what you mean by thinner?


Actually, it’s a phrase that a since-deceased friend of mine who was an amazing British Anarchist philosopher and urbanist named Colin Ward came up with. It was kind of a metaphor for thinking of a city that has fewer people, fewer buildings, more green space, more open space. It’s gone on an urbanization diet, you might say. This is especially true in the United States, where you have these large vacant areas which used to have houses on them, I think we have amazing opportunities to create greener cities, which are not only critically important for the environmental health of our cities and our country as a whole, but can also dramatically improve the quality of life in the cities. Could we create networks of open space between neighborhoods so that everybody could live within 5, 10 minutes of green space?

I have a couple of pages where I talk about the problem of combined sewer overflow. It’s a geeky issue, but it’s a huge issue for cities, and you could solve it in ways that are less expensive, more environmentally sound, and that would actually enhance the quality of life by using open space as a way to divert stormwater from sewer systems. To my mind, it’s a no-brainer. So population decline can be an opportunity to start thinking about the question: How do we reshape our cities as greener, thinner—but better—cities? 


Correct me if I’m wrong, but this book is not a thought exercise. You truly believe that we can embrace smaller cities. With all that you have probably endured working in the realm of economic development and working with bureaucracy, how are you able, on a personal level, to maintain that optimism?


I don’t know. I mean, partly, maybe it’s my nature. I guess when it comes right down to it, I can’t get over the conviction that we have to change. We can’t continue to go forward with the status quo in a world of climate change, declining growth, etc., etc., and expect things just to work out. I think more people are realizing this. This isn’t going to be a mass movement of everybody doing everything all at once, but I think bits and pieces of the future local strategies are already showing up, and I think it’ll grow incrementally. At least, I hope so. 

Featured image: An abandoned factory in Daugavpils, Latvia (via Google Earth).


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