The opportunities of shrinking cities on a road toward urban resilience: Martin Grisel

Martin Grisel

EUKN Director

Interest in local politics and wider societal challenges led Martin to switch careers and focus on urban development policy, founding the EUKN in 2005. Convinced that cities are one of mankind’s most fascinating creations, Martin is driven to create more sustainable urban futures through co-designing strategy with policy-makers and researchers. He enjoys working as a trusted strategic advisor to policy-makers from local to global level, and is proud to work with a team of highly dedicated colleagues. 

On 17 March 2022 in Kaiserslautern, Germany, the EUKN director Martin Grisel spoke at the RE-CITY panel of experts tackling the theme of shrinking cities. This event was the final conference organised by the project RE-CITY INT which aims at reviving shrinking urban areas. Shrinking cities are urban areas experiencing a decline in economic and social bases with an out-migration of population and/or low fertility rates. The reasons and factors for this to occur are complex and multidimensional and have numerous economic, demographic, geographic, social and physical impacts. Shrinking urban areas have been materialising across Europe, especially in low-income regions.

Even though there are many downsides to such processes, shrinking cities can also provide opportunities and help cities gain resilience: bouncing back or adapting to shrinkage through digitalisation, improved public transport connections and a new appreciation of suburbia and rural areas. The EUKN Director Martin Grisel approaches the topic from a constructive perspective and gives us more insight into embracing challenges such as shrinking cities.


What are cities’ possible responses to the processes of urban shrinkage?

To respond to the challenge of shrinking cities, there are two main possible approaches.

  • Countries and regions can chose to ‘fill the gap’ through family policies and supporting or encouraging fertility rates in the region. For example in Poland, where the fertility rate is 1.44, and lower than the European average of 1.53, the state offers housing care and financial incentives to young parents. The gap can also be filled by strengthening cohesion between regions on a national and EU level. The 8th Cohesion Report shows that capital metropolitan regions perform better than other regions. Numerous measures can be taken to reduce disparities between regions and support a diversified and connected economy. Investments in transport and IT infrastructure need to be accompanied by policies creating a favourable environment for companies to grow and workers/ families to access areas outside of cities.
  • The second response to urban shrinkage is accepting the gap while offering a good quality of life to the population in less dense areas. Through a strong cooperation between public bodies on a national, regional and local level, the issues of housing and social services, their availability and interconnection can be tackled and support a balanced development of shrinking urban areas and their surroundings.
"A number of opportunities can arise from the process of urban shrinkage, both for cities and non-urban territories."
How could embracing and adapting to urban shrinkage benefit the quality of life within, and around cities?

With new emerging trends like rapid digitalisation, increased remote working and housing crises in many European cities, a new appreciation for the periphery has emerged with an outward migration of populations from urban centres. This has been the case all over the continent, one example being the Ranstad region of the Netherlands, with four of the country’s main cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. Young families are now leaving these cities not only because they can work remotely but also due to high costs of living and housing in urban areas and a preference to live in the rural environment.

Even though there is no silver bullet or perfect solution to shrinking cities, embracing the phenomenon has a number of evident benefits and opportunities. There is a new work life balance and more flexibility within employment, especially jobs which can be done remotely. This creates new prospects for smart services and interconnectedness between urban and rural areas in terms of mobility and social interactions. Appropriate compactness and density in urban and rural areas can provide optimal connections within cities to minimise distances between housing, work, leisure, education, local shops and services. Urban policies embracing shrinking cities could contribute to regulations such as buying off and demolishing abandoned buildings or converting plots to other purposes such as green spaces. Greening areas can make shrinking cities more attractive and healthier, both for the people and the environment.

Due to depopulation and ageing, there is also a growing demand for workforce in cities and less urbanised areas, e.g. farming and forestry. A growing demand for workforce can create opportunities for migrants or refugees. National urban policies could guide the incoming migrants through dispersal policies to balance the new population out between big cities and smaller areas. It is especially important for an international and national cooperation on such urban strategies as responses to crises and sudden migrations, such as the influx of Ukrainian war refugees in the past weeks.

Overall, a number of opportunities can arise from the process of urban shrinkage, both for cities and non-urban territories. Policy responses to issues such as shrinking cities can help urban areas gain resilience and learn how to respond to suddenly changing circumstances of contemporary times.