Monday, November 22, 2010

The Shrinking City

We live in cities. About half the global population is now living in urban areas. But urban growth is a "Zero-Sum Game" - - where winning means there must be a loser. In just the United States, for every two urban areas that are growing, three are shrinking. Since the 1950s, 59 cities with a population of 100,000 or more have lost at least 10% of their inhabitants. Remember when clinging to a flawed image of the world, no amount of dexterous policy execution can save you from disaster.

Engineering plays a key role in designing the controlled contraction of certain cities. Smart growth is about finding a better way, smart contraction is also about finding a better way. Engineers need to think about concentrating infrastructure and services in those neighborhoods with better prospects and encouraging disinvested areas to revert to agricultural or otherwise productive open space. Engineering needs to think about what tools and strategies are available to proactively implement with the goal of successfully managing the shrinkage of cities.

The concept and language of shrinkage needs to be thought of as smaller and better - - with more opportunities and alternatives. Shrinkage to some will always be related to diminish, lessen, decline, and retreat. Strategic shrinkage, with a stronger base and foundation, must start with engineers thinking in terms of matching resources with opportunities, infrastructure with population densities, sustainability, and coming to the table with scrappy pragmatism. Engineers need to understand that growth is not an end in itself, and it is not a synonym for prosperity. We should remember that the beginning, and the end of growth is nothing other than opportunity. The smart city of the future will need to be flexible enough to meet the demands of the future - - however it may be broadly interpreted.

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