Ecology for the shrinking city
“Ecology for the city” reflects a recent application of urban ecological theory to shape urban form and processes to promote sustainability and human well-being in urban ecosystems. Overall, urban populations are expanding – in some places quite rapidly. Accordingly, urban transformation work has largely aligned with adapting to rapid urbanization or on revitalizing slumping neighborhoods. However, many cities are experiencing or have experienced substantial and entrenched decline in economic activity and population size. Ecology for the shrinking city recognizes that the transformations of form and process that promote sustainability may be radically different for a shrinking city compared to an expanding city. We propose shrinking cities as a specific city mode – set of conditions and dynamics – for which applications of urban ecological theory need to be adapted or developed. In this talk, we present the constraints and opportunities in shrinking cities in a social-ecological framework meant to guide transformation of shrinking cities into sustainable cities. We apply lessons from research in Detroit, MI and Cleveland and Cincinnati, OH.
While shrinking cities can provide different kinds of opportunities for progressive transformations, systemic issues have entrenched abandonment in parts of the cities that we have studied. Institutional actors have tried with mixed success to prevent or remediate regressive transformations through subsidies for traditional economic and housing activities. Alternatives to renewal that achieve resilience and sustainability can be achieved through non-traditional means using ecologically innovative solutions that make use of the emergence of vacant land. We identified several leverage points for sustainable transformations in the shrinking city including retooling demolition practices and aggregation of vacant parcels to identify new opportunities based on emergent extent and connectivity. Ecologically-based approaches to transformation also highlight the contested governance of biophysical processes in the shrinking city. Rigid cultures of urban management combined with stark boundaries of social and economic inequality create barriers to implementing ecological approaches. The search for equity, however, may serve as a window of opportunity for transformational change since demographic transitions common to cities with declining populations often are based upon or perpetuate circumstances where environmental injustices arise.