Shrinking Cities. Concepts to Action

Philipp Oswalt

Excerpt from Open City by Almudena Ribot, Enrique Espinosa, Diego García-Setién, Begoña de Abajo and Gaizka Altuna. Published by Actar Publishers.

How can the unplanned process of shrinkage be qualified? Strategies for action to date have failed to formulate a satisfactory answer to this question.

If we agree with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu that social space translates into physical space, it must be said that social problems are reflected in the crisis of physical space in shrinking cities, and that without efforts to address this crisis, little of substance can be said about the transformation of cities. But that is not all. Not only are social constellations expressed in urban space —which can be read as a kind of mapping of them— but social problems are reflected in the conception of the models for action themselves (and their crises).

In the days of the High Modernism of architecture and urban planning, people still dreamed —building on the political ideas of socialism and a general faith in progress— of overcoming conflicts, of harmony in an ideal society, of eliminating the contradiction between city and countryside. Essential to this model is the idea of overcoming disparities of social space and producing living conditions based on equal value. The presumption was that economic aid to lesser-developed regions was desirable not only for reasons of social policy, but also for reasons of economic policy, for the funds invested there would have the greatest spin-off effects on growth. Economic and social goals supported each other in a win-win situation —or so the assumption went. Today, the opposite view is prevalent: only in the existing growth areas of large agglomerations can economic development be pursued effectively with the maximum spin-off effect on growth. This view results in a dilemma: should the existing funds be invested for the greatest effect on growth, thus maximising the wealth of the society as a whole, while simply putting up with increasing polarisation of the social geography? Or, should we renounce growth and concentrate on balancing differences in living conditions?

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