Matthias Bernt

Matthias Bernt

The Limits of shrinkage: Conceptual Pitfalls and Alternatives in the Discussion of Urban Population Loss

Just recently new articles on shrinking cities, Urban shrinkage as an emerging concern for European policymaking (2) and Varieties of shrinkage in European cities (3), appeared in well-known academic journals. In these papers relevant and longstanding research on shrinking cities has been repeated: occurrence of the phenomenon, legacy of the Shrink Smart project, governance issues in shrinking cities, etc. Although offering relevant information, these papers are still dealing with rather known issues. Indeed, these papers help raise awareness about the shrinking cities phenomenon but one can argue the innovation in the research field of shrinking cities has been slow.

As a matter of self-critique and critique of the current literature in general, Matthias Bernt (co-author of one of the papers (3) and well-known name in shrinking cities research community) reflects on the state of the art of shrinking cities research in his newest essay The Limits of shrinkage: Conceptual Pitfalls and Alternatives in the Discussion of Urban Population Loss (1).

In this paper the author reflects on the conceptual underpinnings of research on shrinking cities and criticizes conceptualization and definitions of urban shrinkage.

The author specifically discusses definitions of shrinkage highlighting the non-uniformity and a vast variety of interpretations. For example, population loss, main indicator of shrinkage according to most definitions, varies from 10 to 25% across or just in parts of the city. Even city is a contested notion: it refers to cities, urban regions, neighborhoods within cities, etc. Additionally, definitions are torn not only across different disciplines but also between description, theorizing and policy advice.

Moreover, the author questions the choice for cities as a spatial distinction in shrinking research. He elaborates on cities as relational positionalities: focusing on singular cities, easily runs into the trap of place-centrism. Shrinking cities are not containers that are emptied out. Instead, places are relationally constituted, polyvalent processes embedded in a broader set of social relations. Moreover, shrinking cities research forces different urban areas into a universal model of shrinkage.

Furthermore, the author argues that the relation of the concept of shrinkage and subthemes (such as: local governance, poverty, infrastructure, etc.) should be reversed. Shrinkage should be understood as one of a number of contextual factors which impact the actual dynamics in these topics.

Finally, shrinking cities are in the literature treated as a universal form rather than as ensembles of historically changing socio-spatial relations. In other words shrinking cities debate so far shows insufficient understanding of cities as historical processes.

What is needed is a different set of questions rather than a better way to come up with answers. The essay ends with suggestions for widened conceptualization of shrinkage and a new research agenda. Bernt’s attempt to critically assess main aspects of shrinking cities discussion so far and rethink shrinkage makes this essay recommended reading for shrinking scholars.

  1. Bernt, M. (2015). The Limits of Shrinkage: Conceptual Pitfalls and Alternatives in the Discussion of Urban Population Loss. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, doi:10.1111/1468-2427.12289
  2. Haase, A., Athanasopoulou, A., & Rink, D. (2016). Urban shrinkage as an emerging concern for European policymaking. European Urban and Regional Studies, 23(1), 103-107. doi:10.1177/0969776413481371
  3. Haase, A., Bernt, M., Großmann, K., Mykhnenko, V., & Rink, D. (2016). Varieties of shrinkage in European cities. European Urban and Regional Studies, 23(1), 86-102. doi:10.1177/0969776413481985

Maja Ročak, March 2016