Skip to content

News & opinion

2 NOV 2018

The rise and fall and rise(?) of the post-industrial city

There are few images of urban decay as striking as that of Detroit. At one time the midwestern city defined American mass market capitalism as the centre of the auto industry.

But when Ford, General Motors and other great auto brands lost their dominance, “Motor City” began a downward spiral that featured a population flight from the centre to the suburbs. The hollowing out of Detroit’s centre resulted in a landscape now littered with gutted, once-grand buildings.

Detroit’s experience is not unique. Many other rust-belt cities in the US, including the former “Steel City” of Pittsburgh and manufacturing centre Cleveland, are losing residents, in contrast to a global trend of rising urban populations around the world. Even capital cities such as Copenhagen and Madrid are having to face the challenge of shrinking populations by finding ways to develop their centres.

Sameh Wahba, the World Bank’s director for urban and territorial development, disaster risk management and resilience, says there are plenty of consistent features that characterise shrinking cities. And while it might be economic decline that triggers an initial decrease in tax revenues that limits the ability to deliver good-quality services, other factors then come into play. “When you have roads that are getting less maintained and health and education services that are declining in quality, it may result in a flight to the suburbs or relocation to other places,” says Wahba. “The second challenge is the inability to manage negative externalities such as congestion and pollution.”