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Shrinking Towns and the Riddle of Resurgence

It’s not easy to get a smaller city that’s been losing population growing again. Every town can’t be a high-tech hub. But an urban scholar has some ideas that might help some of them.

Caterpillar Visitors Center
The Caterpillar Visitors Center in Peoria, Ill. The global company’s presence in the city makes it reasonably prosperous, but if Caterpillar pulled out Peoria would descend into the world of declining cities.
If you are middle-aged or older, there’s a good chance you will remember the days when the words “population explosion” were a staple of dinner party conversation. Population was expanding alarmingly in countries all over the world, and there was widespread fear that within a few decades we would be running out of food, natural resources and simple elbow room. Much of this was triggered by Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, in which the Stanford University entomologist and biologist declared that “in the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”

There are two interesting things to say in 2023 about the panicked population predictions of half a century ago. One is that they were spectacularly wrong. The other is that quite a lot of intelligent people haven’t recovered from them.

The facts are indisputable. Population growth has slowed down dramatically in the entire developed world. In all these countries, couples are not producing the 2.1 children they need to replace themselves. China and Japan are already losing population. The United States is gradually moving in that direction. The only part of the world that is not experiencing a population bust is sub-Saharan Africa. People do starve in the present-day world, but this is due to war and political dysfunction, not population growth.

In most countries that are seeing the numbers go down, there are large cities where the bust has not taken significant effect. This is largely the result of immigration, not natural increase. But outside the mega cities that are growing or holding steady, there are many more smaller cities where serious population losses are creating serious problems.

This is dramatically true, as we all know, in the older manufacturing towns of the American Northeast and Midwest. Sometimes the effects are blatantly visible. I was once given a tour of McKeesport, Pa., an old steel-producing town outside Pittsburgh whose steel industry had largely moved out. The population had shrunk from 55,000 in 1940 to 24,000 in 1990. The downtown was lined with large, empty storefronts desperately seeking tenants. “You know,” my guide told me, “McKeesport is like a man who has lost a hundred pounds and is still trying to wear his old clothes.”

The fate and future of places like McKeesport are the subject of Smaller Cities in a Shrinking World, a new book by one of America’s most pragmatic and incisive urban scholars, Alan Mallach of the Center for Community Progress. Mallach believes that the first step in dealing with population shrinkage is to face the fact that it is happening. “Reality is changing in front of our eyes,” he says, “and we are still largely caught up in ways of thinking that were instilled in us 50 or more years ago.”

Mallach describes the mindset of most shrinking cities as “How do we get back on the growth train?” The comments of many local leaders bear that out. Without a focus on growth, then-Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings said a decade ago, “you’re resigned to a slow death.”
Alan Mallach
Alan Mallach (Center for Community Progress)

But the hard realities of shrinking cities, large and small, make that problematic, to say the least. Nearly all these cities confront a combination of unpleasant demographic facts: The number of older residents who need support is growing, while the population of young people is declining. Deaths are running ahead of births. Out-migration exceeds in-migration.

More than half of the cities in America with more than 50,000 residents — 424 cities in all — lost population between 2020 and 2021. This wasn’t all a consequence of COVID-19 — it began earlier in the decade before the virus struck.

In the more extreme situations, transfer payments, mostly from the federal government, become the single largest component of the local economy. Cities got a boost from the federal relief programs enacted in the early days of the pandemic. But this was a temporary infusion. As Mallach puts it, “The cavalry isn’t going to ride up and save them.”

SO WHAT IS TO BE DONE? One thing that doesn’t seem to work for most shrinking cities is a campaign to rebrand themselves as 21st-century high-technology centers. “A vision of a shrinking blue-collar city as a future hub of high-technology activity, a popular idea among many shrinking (and other) city leaders, is a non-starter,” Mallach argues. “It is unlikely to resonate with the city’s working-class population.”

Nor are cities that are declining in population likely to recover much of it by encouraging their young people simply to have more children. Pro-natalist policies have not been tried to any significant extent in this country, but Mallach surveys these programs in a number of European countries, including extensive publicity campaigns, efforts to appeal to patriotism and generous subsidies for additional births, and none have made much difference. “Pro-natalist efforts by government to increase the birth rate,” he finds, “are likely to lead to short-term blips, or at most sustained but only limited increases in total fertility ratios. … Once a nation’s fertility rate falls significantly below the replacement level, it is likely to stay below.”

So shrinking cities are drawn in the end toward more mundane strategies. Perhaps the most common one is to demolish the vacant and deteriorating buildings that have become centers of crime and drug use. Many large American cities have enormous numbers of these buildings. From 1990 to 2010 Detroit demolished or otherwise removed more than 70,000 housing units, and at the end of that period it had more vacant properties than it did in the beginning.

Since the start of this century, Mallach writes, "buildings by the thousands have been demolished in American cities with no idea of what possible use might be made of the vacant land that would result from the demolition.” Proponents of this strategy often argue that reducing a city’s housing inventory could ultimately lead to an increase in demand for the remaining viable properties. Here too, though, there are few instances of major success.

ALL OF THIS IS SO BLEAK that one reaches the final chapters of Mallach’s book ready to brand him as an incurable pessimist. In fact, though, he concludes by outlining a strategy he believes might work for many of the cities in demographic and economic trouble. He calls it “networked localism.’’

I’m not sure I understand all the details of what Mallach is proposing, but I’ll explain it as best I can. He believes that America’s smaller cities are locked in a dependence on the globalized economy that leaves them utterly reliant on the whims of multinational corporations. He cites the example of Peoria, Ill., which is reasonably prosperous at the moment but vulnerable to the machinations of the global Caterpillar industrial equipment company. If Caterpillar pulled out, Peoria would descend into the depressing world of declining cities.

Cities like Peoria, Mallach argues, need to develop homegrown industries. That means neither cutting themselves off from global trade nor depending on international corporate benefactors, but creating a local competence without withdrawing from the world altogether.

It’s an economic middle way, not a substitute for international trade but a supplement. Networked localization, Mallach writes, is “the process by which a region, county, city or even neighborhood frees itself from an overdependence on the global economy and invests its own resources to produce a significant portion of the goods, services, food and energy it consumes from its local endowment of financial, natural and human capital.”

TO SAY THAT NONE OF THIS WILL BE EASY is to make a huge understatement. Shrinking cities have stubborn commitments to the status quo and influential local interests that still benefit politically from keeping things as they are. Many find it difficult to wean themselves away from dubious costly panaceas, such as casinos and convention centers.

Just how does a declining American industrial city go about launching itself into networked localism? I wish Mallach were a little stronger on the specifics of this process, but he offers a few clues. One way is to establish its own electric power grid, as Danville, Va., has done. Another is to invest in small-scale manufacturing through the use of the 3D printer and open source software design. A third is to offer subsidies to highly skilled entrepreneurial professionals willing to relocate and work remotely. Tulsa, Okla., has the most extensive program of this kind, and claims to have attracted 1,200 such workers and their families since 2018. Some of this can be done with the aid of local foundations, as has been the case in Reading, Pa., and Warren, Ohio.

“Collectively,” Mallach writes on his final page, “we are something like the frog in the slowly heating water that doesn’t know to get out until it’s too late.” Something like that frog, but not exactly like it. “We will not solve all our problems,” Mallach concedes, “but we will, I believe, jump out of the pot before it’s too late.”
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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