Re-City: improving the quality of life in shrinking cities

An international consortium of universities, led by Technische Universitaet Kaiserslautern in Germany, has recently received a $3.3 million euro ($3.9 million dollar) grant from the European Union to explore ways that the quality of life in shrinking cities can be improved, focusing on infrastructure, urban food production, culture, and migration. The CUDC is excited to be part of this consortium, which also includes research teams from Europe, Mexico.

In the US, the term “shrinking cities” has negative connotations. Few US cities would refer to themselves this way. But in Europe, the term is quite common and there is a growing body of research aimed at understanding and addressing the challenges of cities that have lost substantial population and now need to manage growing inventories of vacant buildings and land.

Cleveland_vacancy_560Vacancy in Cleveland. 

Ruhr_vacancyVacancy in Ruhr Valley.

Professor Dr. Karina Pallagst is the professor at TU Kaiserslautern who is leading this project. In the grant proposal, she noted that the city of Cleveland was once a flourishing metropolis, thanks to its steel and automotive industries. But in the last century, with the opening of world markets and the associated steel and oil crises, decline began: Population has declined significantly and vacant properties are impacting entire neighborhoods. Cities in the Ruhr Area and in eastern Germany, for example, have similar challenges. “This phenomenon of shrinking cities can be found all over the world. Reasons for the ongoing decline are demographic change and economic factors such as job losses and corporate migration,” says Professor Pallagst, who has been working on the subject for a long time. “In Japan, for example, the population in almost all cities has already aged. This is why various measures and techniques have been developed in many places,” Professor Pallagst continues. For older people, for example, there is a transport service for shopping, but also a “piggyback” service, where seniors are carried to shopping in hilly terrain.

In the new research project, teams of 16 universities, research institutions, foundations and companies from Europe, the USA, Mexico and Japan will work together on an interdisciplinary basis to find new ways of maintaining or improving the quality of life in shrinking cities. “We look at these processes from a historical, geographical, planning, engineering, social, and economic point of view,” says Dr. Pallagst, who is in charge of the overall management and coordinates the project. “We will compare how different cities deal with these problems.”

One of the issues is how infrastructure networks can be maintained if population decline population causes reduced tax revenues of the cities. This is a topic of interest to the CUDC, tied to research that Dr. John Hoornbeek from Kent State’s College of Public Health and CUDC Director Terry Schwarz initiated in 2009 on Sustainable Infrastructure for Shrinking Cities.

Other topics include the use of alternative energies, the conversion of vacant urban spaces for fruit and vegetable production, and the sustainable design of cities to better protect them against natural disasters. This is closely tied to the CUDC’s work with on vacant land reuse through Re-imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland, and our work in neighborhood-scale climate resilience through the Cleveland Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunity Initiative, both led by Cleveland Neighborhood Progress.

The role culture and migration can play in making shrinking cities more livable is also part of the research project, as is the question of whether and how the social conditions in these cities will change. “The knowledge produced by the RE-CITY project can be incorporated into new interdisciplinary concepts in urban planning,” says Pallagst. “Shrinkage can thus also be seen as an opportunity in the years to come.”

The project also promotes young scientists: 13 PhD students will conduct research in this international network. The project partners will offer intensive training courses to specifically qualify the participants to address the specific concerns of shrinking cities once they graduate and take on roles in public authorities, research institutions or in the private sector.

The project starts in October with a kick-off event on the campus of the TU Kaiserslautern.


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