Time, demography, politics, space
There are several ways of approaching and investigating the phenomenon of shrinkage. From a
politico-economic point of view, for example, there is the shrinkage of ‘development space’,1
while in urban planning and sociology ‘the shrinking city’ is an established term denoting cities
where the population is declining sharply in what looks to be a continuing process. Ultimately
these various manifestations of shrinkage can be grouped into four main dimensions: time,
demographics, politics and space. After briefly describing each dimension and its expression in
space, I will suggest some possible strategies for dealing with the different forms of shrinkage.
One of the images called to mind by the word ‘shrinkage’ is one in which large corporations
were caricatured as oversized, slow moving and inefficient. To the extent that they recognized
this image, they looked to flexibility for a solution. Flexibility, it was hoped, would allow them
to respond to the changes and uncertainties in their networked markets, markets that were being
dramatically altered by the forces of technology, globalization and time–space compression.
The focus of corporations accordingly shifted to downsizing and restructuring.
In the worlds of work and everyday life these corporate responses were accompanied by
a trend towards the flexibilization of work and the erosion of collective rhythms. As result of
this flexibilization, time patterns are transformed and activity times in commerce and the service
industries are extended. Also changed are collective rhythms, such as the alternation of work
and leisure time, of working week and weekend.2 The extension of activity times can be
observed practically everywhere in the western world. Companies operate around the clock, in
the evening, at night and at the weekends, and consequently require around-the-clock
emergency and repair services, catering and disposal services. The service demands of private
people are also extending further and further into the night hours and the weekend. Together,
the two areas are generating a 24/7 pattern of non-stop operation.
Because of these increases in activity time in all forms of work, the number of stable,
long-term jobs with relatively constant working hours is being continually eroded. Such work,
which was primarily characteristic of industrial society, generated stable rhythms. Although it
still forms the shrinking core of current production, it is true to say that societal rhythms and the
loss of temporal structure are closely related to the shrinkage and dissolution of traditional
forms of work.
In parallel with this development, managers also sought to shrink their companies by
shedding all non-core activities (a major one being real estate). This they accomplished by
outsourcing non-core activities to a specialist ‘facilities management company’ that took over
the responsibility of managing the contracts with various service suppliers on behalf of the
This step presaged a broader approach to service, or flexible occupation, in the property
sector. The business of real estate development shifted to the provision of real estate services.
Thus, while traditional approaches to property ownership and management were being
challenged, the typically fragmented property supply chain was also being transformed. And as
the supply chain realigned and became more integrated, so new products aimed at a more
flexible use of business premises began to emerge, for example in the form of fully serviced
instant offices rather than real estate.
These products are chiefly characterized by the temporal expansion of activity patterns.3
Thus, the pay-as-you-go serviced office, where contractual commitment is minimal, operates
rather like a hotel servicing a clientele that requires flexible and temporary space, such as
smaller firms and the self-employed. These firms are characterized by expanding working and
contact hours, and thus by an erosion of standard employment conditions and the dissolution of
traditional working rhythms. The urban spaces where this occurs – traffic hubs, spatial
agglomerations of IT firms, business districts – are characterized by almost uninterrupted
These urban spaces are part of a more open, decentralized, self-organizing, ‘matrix’
created by the organizational, technical and territorial evolution of industrial corporations that
have decentralized their production, first regionally, then nationally, now globally. The
problems this dispersed organization causes in the landscape are obvious: a proliferation of
sprawling cities, gated enclaves, residential communities, mega-malls and theme parks. It is the
expansion of this dispersed system that seems to be fuelling the rapid decompression and
shrinkage of industrial cities and the decentralization of both mass production and mass
consumption. The organizational and urban impact of this decompression is the re-colonization
of the city centre by corporate investors, resulting in surprising juxtapositions of uses: cheek by
jowl with these corporate investment enclaves with extended activity patterns, one finds the
surreal spectacle of decay and abandonment characteristic of the shrinking city.4
A quick reading of this phenomenon from a time perspective would seem to suggest
that the temporal expansion of activities through flexibilization does not affect everybody
equally. This diversity in impact generates an urban temporal topography of different time zones
characterized by very great differences in activity patterns, spatial distribution and spatial
conditions. Everywhere one finds places that almost completely escape the loss of temporal
structure. The forces that generate extended working hours (business and industrial changes,
structural change, international networking of companies or markets, changes in private
demand, et cetera) are distributed differently from area to area and from city to city, and thus
produce very different time–space constellations.
Given this decompression, post-industrial cities are faced with the question of what to do about
the spatial and temporal voids – these reserves of ‘indeterminacy’, these places of potential
action – produced by industrial logic. But before we move on to this, we must first look at other
aspects of shrinkage, namely, its demographic, political and spatial dimensions.
The industrialized countries are currently experiencing a number of demographic processes:
more and more people are leaving the cities and moving out into the surrounding area, industrial
production is relocating to countries with low-wage economies and in Eastern Europe global de-
industrialization and post-communist democratization processes are superimposed on each
other. The rich world is standing still, its populations contracting, while the developing world’s
populations are rising fast.
Shrinkage as a phenomenon of depopulation (rooted in a combination of
suburbanization, de-industrialization, unemployment, the exodus of young people seeking
opportunities elsewhere and declining birth rates) afflicts all parts of Europe but it manifests
itself most intensely in East Germany. In Cottbus – a city located two hours south of Berlin –
the population has dropped dramatically, from 130,000 a decade ago to little more than 100,000
today; it loses seven per cent of its residents every year.
The city is engaged in an expensive, long-term struggle to appear normal as its
apartments and streets become ever emptier. Schoolteachers have been laid off for lack of
students. More than 5000 apartments are being taken apart one by one and the city is struggling
to find a way to reduce the size of its sanitation and water systems, whose underused pipes often
carry stagnant water which is becoming a health hazard. For at least a century, the first instinct
of European city planners was to build for ever increasing populations. But in Cottbus the talk
in city hall is how to manage – and pay for – a shrinking city. Towns and villages in southwest
France, southern Italy, northern Spain and eastern Germany, among other places, are also
shrinking or in some cases disappearing. Maintaining roads, telephone networks and other basic
services is becoming expensive in areas that are not economically self-sustaining.
Europe is facing three interrelated challenges: rural areas and cities are getting emptier,
the continent is ageing rapidly, and Europeans, except for the French and the British, are not
having nearly enough children to replace the current population. Europe’s population trends are
worrying because they could make the continent much less competitive. An ageing population
makes it more difficult for an economy to grow. This is certainly the experience of cities like
Cottbus. The reduced population means that taxes make up just one quarter of the city
government’s revenue today, with the rest of the budget covered by money from Berlin and the
Europe’s shrinking populations do not provide enough tax revenues to pay for old-age
pensions. Almost all experts agree that governments will be forced to push back retirement ages
and pare back pension benefits. The abandonment of early retirement schemes will save
governments money because people will spend more time contributing to the system. But who
will deliver this news to voters dreaming of early retirement? The depopulation crisis is
threatening to wreak havoc on the European Union as it expands to the Russian border in the
coming months. The Eastern European states have suffered the most acute population decline,
with Bulgaria’s population falling by two million over the past 10 years. Because fiscal growth
relies on population growth, shrinkage leads to economic and emotional depression. In fact,
many economists attribute Germany’s current economic malaise to its population shrinkage.
Across Europe, people fear their cities will become like Cottbus. Nobody really knows
what to do about shrinkage and depopulation. How to tackle shrinkage?
As far as the demographic dimension is concerned, countries should spend more on
initiatives to boost the birth rate. Immigration could also help and countries should therefore
pursue a more open immigration policy. One possible problem here is that immigrants are
inclined to move to major centres, such as Berlin, leaving places like Cottbus still denuded.
There is also a trend towards the shrinking of more open immigration policies.
During the 1990s, the recent Dutch history of building an anti-racist and multicultural norm and
city was increasingly challenged by a wide variety of politicians and intellectuals. The support
shown for such new ideas quickly discredited anti-racism and multiculturalism. Today,
multiculturalism in the Netherlands is associated with a simplistic interpretation of the recent
past as a time when immigrants were not told how to ‘behave’, as a period when their
‘integration’ into Dutch society ‘failed’ because public policy was too ‘soft’.
In general, the term multiculturalism is avoided nowadays in favour of ‘integration’.
What integration means is that minorities have to learn to do what we (‘the Dutch’) want them
to do: they have to become like us. The call for the deportation of asylum-seekers who have
failed to procure legal status but remain illegally in the country is one of the most urgent items
on the political agenda. The production of security seems to be the leading force here and it is
fast becoming the key factor in the transformation of the city. The ‘integration city’ prescribes
security as a life style.
At the very moment when the anti-racist norm is under attack and the multicultural city
is giving way to the integration city, a city of remembrance is also emerging: this is the city that
recognizes for the first time the role played by the slave trade and slavery in Dutch history. This
recognition resulted in the unveiling of a national monument in Oosterpark, Amsterdam, on 1
July 2002, in the presence of Queen Beatrix and the prime minister. The original initiative came
from Surinamese women’s organizations, whose plans had received the go-ahead from the then
minister for urban policy and integration, Roger van Boxtel, five years previously. Several
related initiatives have followed: a research centre was opened in 2003; large exhibitions are in
preparation, the first of which will take place in Rotterdam; there are theatre and music projects
But it is significant that this growing awareness is happening at the same time as the
anti-racist norm is under attack. Thus, the harder questions facing Dutch society concern ethnic,
racial, economic and spatial segregation. In spite of decades of anti-racist and more or less
multicultural policy and multicultural cities, Dutch cities, and in particular the schools, have
become completely segregated. The multicultural city is shrinking. This embarrassing state of
affairs poses the following question to the post-industrial city: how to encourage mixing in a
situation of structural ethnic apartheid? Where, one might ask in conclusion, is the old Dutch
image of the tolerant city with its acceptance of minorities?
Given the importance of immigrants for resolving the depopulation problem, it will be
interesting to explore whether the shrinking city could become the site for a renaissance of the
multicultural city and the aforementioned city of remembrance.
Space and the implications for design
In addition to abandoning early retirement schemes, paring back pension benefits, boosting birth
rates and pursuing more open immigration policies, another interesting problem is what to do
with all the newly empty space? That is, decompression and urban shrinkage present post-
industrial cities with the question of what to do about the abandoned factories and acres of
vacant workers’ housing and redundant commercial strips. How should once mighty cities
shrink, disappear, die back and dissolve into the landscape? What, apart from demolition and
waiting, are the possibilities? What idea of the city can provide the basis for the process of
remodelling shrinking cities?
Certain areas could be given up and transformed into more forest. But convincing voters
that certain parts of Europe should be abandoned will be just as difficult for governments as
cancelling early retirement schemes and designing more open immigration policies. This is a
radical notion in countries where citizens expect the same level of government services no
matter where they live. Europe’s geographical imbalances may be exacerbated by yet another
trend: the southward migration of the elderly. According to current projections, some decades
from now parts of Europe will resemble a giant retirement home.
Management of time is another issue. An analysis of urban time topography, like the
one suggested here, promises to make an important contribution to understanding the city and
opens up design potential at the level of spatio-temporal planning. We are currently in a phase
of transition from rigid and homogeneous time structures to flexible and heterogeneous
structures, the consequences of which have at present to be borne largely by the individual. In
my view, only a mix of binding and flexible times can produce appropriate solutions for
complex societies. The opportunities offered by the flexibilization of working hours and the
expansion of operating times can only be exploited if collective times and rhythms are ensured.
A totally non-stop society can be had only at the price of social de-synchronization and high
societal costs such as those encountered in the spatio-temporal voids of the shrinking city. To
achieve this balance requires a social debate about the kind of time organization we want in our
society. How can design contribute to this debate?
First of all we must decide how to achieve a balance between flexibilization, the linear
movements of flows that seek to increase speed (and save time) by prioritizing the faster means
of movement and the collective times and rhythms of the city. Targeted interventions in the
public transport system offer possibilities for this.5
The combination of different transport modes (bus, bike, walking, and so on) through a
strategy of land-scraping6 generates an urban form that is composed, puzzle-like, of different
time–space relationships, an urban form that is more complex than can be obtained with the
usual urban design palette of spatial elements. The leftover void spaces of the shrinking city
could then become potential ‘commons’7 that would permit the emergence of social patterns and
group alliances that could eventually inhabit these surfaces in provisional yet significant ways,
thereby ensuring the development of collective times and rhythms. What design does here is to
provide the setting – a prepared ground – for programmed and unprogrammed activities on land
owned in common.
This process forces us to reflect on the reversal of the traditional approach to
colonization, from building to un-building, removal and erasure. This reversal of processes
opens the way for an urbanism with dense clusters of activity and the reconstitution of the
natural, cultural, urban and social landscapes; more ecologically balanced inner cores can form
in the voids.
But even if we start to see the residual spaces of the shrinking city as potential
commons, the problem remains that such an approach is useless without people to activate and
surround the space, to make it their commons. In addition, these design strategies tend to avoid
fundamental issues of social justice and equity that are just as much a part of the foundations of
a true urbanity. This is where the design strategy of land-scraping has to be tied up to strategies
directed to the demographic and political dimensions described above. Thus, the objective is to
organize a creative ecosystem characterized by a climate of innovation where talent can
develop. The production and application of creativity and culture, of knowledge and innovation,
should be understood as the key raw materials for new urban developments.
To conclude: an interesting challenge to be investigated on some other occasion is how
to prevent the pursuit of creativity from becoming compulsory and the values of creativity and
culture from taking on the force of a moral agenda and of a conservative norm. This is not to
claim that there is no such thing as creativity; on the contrary, my concern is to stay as far as
possible from any determinate sense of what creativity should be, from any particular doctrine
1. As a result of various international regulations, the ‘development space’ for a policy of
diversification and quality improvement in developing countries is shrinking, legitimized by the
rhetorical commitment to universal liberalization and privatization. This causes shrinkage not
only of development space, but also of the space for ‘self-determination’. It ties the hands of the
governments of developing countries to the agenda of opening up the market according to the
North’s interpretation. On the other hand, globalization ensures that the North can no longer
remain aloof from the South’s approach to poverty, inequality and subordination – including
migration, imploding states, civil wars, religious fundamentalism and the destruction of the
symbols of dominant structures.
2. For more on this, see C.H. Betancourth. Living on multiplicities of times, RPD
Ontwerpatelier, Ministry of VROM, The Hague, 2001.
3. These are sectors where extension of working and operating hours are expected. They include
financial services (investment banks, securities trading), more recently management services
(software development, call centres, internationally interlinked research and development), and
tourism and commercial services.
4. Such as Detroit’s $350 million Renaissance Center (1976–1981) and the federally financed,
driverless, empty monorail system endlessly circling the city of ruins.
5. I have recently explored some of these strategies with OPA International in a competition
entry for the design of the public spaces and stations for the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems
in Cartagena, Colombia. Cartagena is far from being a shrinking city. The similarity lies in the
temporal, political and spatial dimensions.
6. The strategy of land-scraping works with different tempi: disconnecting parts of the city from
the continuous, rapid forms of transport gives rise to ‘slow areas’ which remain accessible but
acquire their own development logic.
Carlos Betancourth is ....