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Can Shrinking Cities be Communities for All Ages?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daniel Hummel
February 3, 2017

What is a community that supports all ages? It is a community structured to support all age groups in various stages of life. It is not a topic of debate those in their 20s and 30s have different needs, desires and expectations than those in their 60s or older. An overemphasis on one of these age groups will be to the detriment of the other group, possibly leading to out-migration. The problem with this, besides the issue of inequality, is due to the nature of aging, everyone who has the privilege of living a full life will experience both youth and old age. Does that mean those communities which were once suitable for their age group will no longer be suitable upon old age necessitating out-migration?

The planning for all ages movement is built around the idea communities can be good for all generations. The Intergenerational Center at Temple University has been working on this since 2002 and the World Health Organization created the Global Age Friendly Cities Project in 2006. The consensus in this movement is outdoor spaces, transportation, housing, employment, healthcare, public safety and engagement are important areas to address from an intergenerational perspective in an age friendly city. The goal of this movement is to improve wellbeing across generations which would involve intergenerational interaction and engagement. AARP has developed a network of age friendly communities with over 130 communities across the United States committing to this concept.

Very few of those cities listed with AARP are shrinking cities. The literature on shrinking cities rarely addresses the topic. Shrinking cities are cities which have continuously lost population over several decades. The definition is loose and contested, but as most things are in the world, one knows it without properly defining it. Cities such as Detroit, Youngstown, Gary and Flint typically feature extensively in this discussion. Interestingly, these cities have populations which are relatively young. Per figures from the census, the average median age of these cities is around 35 as of 2015 while the average median age of the listed 29000 plus cities, towns and census designated places is around 41. This may account for the lack of attention to this topic as well as the more pressing immediate concerns of financial solvency.

Some of these shrinking cities are undergoing a little renaissance with young college graduates relocating there. This gentrification has driven down the median age in these cities and along with this incomes and homeownership has increased which are positive developments in the short-term. For example, Joe Cortright of the City Observatory noted in a 2014 report college educated people between the ages of 25 and 34 were relocating to areas close to the central business districts in these cities. These short-term gains need long-term planning so those relocating to these places do not choose to leave as they enter later stages in life. In addition, there are older populations already in these cities which would merit an adoption of this approach today.

One important point that is made in the planning for all ages movement is intergenerational contact needs to be recognized as a sharing of resources. Age segregation is just as detrimental to city life as other forms of segregation. Those who study urban scaling and the effects of urban density and size note any benefits to urban life dissolves as there is an increase in segregation. Resources can be both tangible and intangible such as the fact increased positive social contact has significant health benefits and prolongs life. Susan Pinker has dedicated a book to this topic which she labels The Village Effect. When city leaders plan for an all ages approach, support and assistance is more accessible to all.

Shrinking cities have suffered from a series of poor choices coupled with economic factors beyond the control of city administrators. Still, it would be foolish to assume these cities are ghosts from the past, doomed to perpetual failure. It would be especially foolish not to strive to retain current and incoming residents to these cities. The younger populations are using more public transportation, so cities are investing in rail projects like the M-1 Rail streetcar in Detroit. Green space is being developed in previously abandoned neighborhoods and vacant lots turning them into parks and urban gardens and addressing food insecurity such as in Cleveland and Buffalo. In Chicago, conjoining lots are being sold for $1 to residents who now see the size of their property doubling allowing for larger families. There are opportunities here for not only attracting new residents, but retaining them throughout their life as well as their future generations. This will contribute greatly to stability in these cities.

Pittsburgh, PA, which is an AARP age friendly city, has also been a shrinking city that is currently undergoing a transformation and revitalization. (Photo belongs to the author)

Pittsburgh, PA, which is an AARP age friendly city, has also been a shrinking city that is currently undergoing a transformation and revitalization. (Photo belongs to the author)


Author: Dr. Hummel is an assistant professor in the Management, Marketing and Public Administration Department at Bowie State University. He teaches classes on public policy analysis, inter-governmental relations and public administration. His research interests are urban resiliency / sustainability and right-sizing cities. His office # is 301-860-4003. His email is [email protected].Ā 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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