Shetty, Sujata and Luescher, Andreas. "When Growth is No Longer the Norm: Teaching Urban Design in a Time of Transformation," in ArchNet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, vol. 4, issues 2/3 (2010).
Over the past few years, there has been increasing interest in cities that are rapidly losing population, so-called shrinking cities. This is becoming a global phenomenon, with shrinking cities found on every continent. The decline has been attributed variously to changing demographics, suburbanization, post-socialist transformation and deindustrialization.
We are just beginning to develop approaches to dealing with shrinkage and its consequences –vacancy, abandonment, and limited public and private resources. However, there is currently little faith in the ability of design-related disciplines to deal with shrinking cities. Some authors argue that disciplines such as architecture, urban design and urban planning have always planned for growth and have reached their limits when dealing with shrinking cities (Oswalt, 2006). Still others suggest that restructuring should be seen as an opportunity (Vey, 2007).
This paper challenges the first view and responds to the second by suggesting that design education can and must respond to these new realities. It critically examines a collaborative urban design studio that was part of an attempt to transform a part of a shrinking city in the American ‘rustbelt.’ The city, once a flourishing manufacturing center, is now facing steep economic decline along with the decline of the auto industry. It is also home to a university that is beginning efforts to revitalize neighborhoods adjacent to the campus. The studio, which brought together architecture and urban planning students from two different universities to work on a section of the city including the campus area, suggests possibilities for preparing students to work in an environment where economic growth is no longer the norm. The following lessons emerged: 1) In a shrinking city, urban designers may need to focus less on designing the solids and more on meeting the challenges of the voids. 2) In spite of urban design’s historical bias towards design, students need to be strongly grounded in the planning context, which interdisciplinary collaboration can help achieve. 3) Now more than ever, even a small urban design project has to be viewed in a larger scale - in the context of the entire city and region. 4) In an era of shrinking resources, the urban design studio can be an important source of ideas for cities facing the physical consequences of shrinkage.