News on Detroit … And why cities decline

Detroit has experienced a major economic and demographic decline in recent decades. Its population has decreased from almost 2 million in the 1950s to around 700.000 in 2013, causing significant problems in unemployment, crime, poverty, urban decay, and budgetary planning.

The recent documentary on Detroit and its history is called “Detropia”. It focuses predominantly on the causes and the consequences of the decline of Detroit’s economy and population by using Detroiters, which present their everyday life, experiences, difficulties, and hopes.

Check the documentary here:


Why do cities decline? The following text is a suggestion to explain urban shrinkage as an international phenomenon in urban development.


The on-going trend of internationalisation has affected not only global and national economies, societies, and political power structures, but also the development of cities. In the era of globalisation, the transformation of local productive systems has resulted in a polarisation of regional spaces and a growing imbalance among urban territories. The process of globalisation has led to agglomerations of economic activities and urban growth in some regions and cities. Other regions have suffered a decline that reinforces prior trends toward an uneven economic and urban development (Cunningham-Sabot et Foul, 2009). Therefore, the process of internationalisation has had a profound effect on urban development, resulting in growing cities, which have benefited from this process, and declining cities, which have lost economic activity and population.

The polarisation and uneven development of cities is predominantly caused by the shift from Fordism to post-Fordism, and therefore by the transformation of national economies and the welfare state into a globalised economy ruled by neoliberal policy. Post-Fordism can be seen as one aspect of the increasing role of globalisation and an international orientated economy, but also as the end of the era of the economic growth. Furthermore, it is characterised by the positioning of states, or even cities and region, in the global economic network to compete for international capital. This approach is facilitated by a declining role of the state and free market policy. While national governments had strong influences on the economic development in the Fordist era, there are now global factors affecting large to small-scaled economic developments in post-Fordism (Pacione, 2005). Both Fordism and post-Fordism are very broad-ranging concepts used to analyse not only changes in economy and society, but also processes in urban development using cities as the scene and mirror of these changes (Hall, 1988). Whilst Fordism led to the transformation of the traditional city into a Fordist urban landscape that produced uniformity, the processes of post-Fordism and a more global economy resulted in an uneven development of urban territories.

Cities that were able to react to the shift from Fordism to post-Fordism further grew in terms of economic activity, and population. New spatial consequences developed in the cities due to information and knowledge-based economies. Other factors include new technologies, flexibility of labour power, delocalisation of manual power, as well as individualisation processes, and cultural changes. The economic globalisation has resulted in more international trade and movement of capital. Moreover, the capital is “spatially fixed” (Harvey, 1989). Thus, the economic and social changes have resulted in the physical upgrading and cultural revival of inner city neighbourhoods. Furthermore, the concentration of economic power has eventuated in the revitalisation of the city core, and the teritarisation of the city centre (Paland, 2005). Cities are no longer positioned in a national economy, but in economic processes on the global scale. Hence, cities have to compete in this environment by providing infrastructure and financial conditions to attract international capital. As a consequence of the restructuring process of economy, society, and politics, a small number of “global cities” (Sassen, 2001), which gather high-level financial and service activities, as well as information and communication networks, have emerged.

The globalisation of economy, global financial flows, and the internationalisation of production processes are also main causes of shrinkage in numerous industrial cities, which were not able to compete in the international economic environment (Sassen, 2001). Firms engage in a “spatial fix” to cope with profit crises by geographically relocating production units to lower-wage locations (Harvey, 1989). This in large part explains the increasing occurrence of urban decline across the world. Indeed, the mobility and the volatility of capital and foreign investment, for which cities are now intensely competing, are unprecedented in their speed and scope. In the era of flexible accumulation, international outsourcing and lean production (Soja, 1992), footloose enterprises have abandoned obsolete industrial plants and infrastructure, and deserted many urban places giving way to the post-industrial city, whose economic basis is increasingly oriented towards services. However, the gains of employment in the service sector could not compensate for the loss of industrial jobs. Thereby, internationalisation has led to movement of labour, unemployment in former industrial cities, exodus of inhabitants, and finally to the destruction of the economic fundament of cities. Migrating companies and inhabitants have left abandoned buildings, streets, and infrastructure behind. As a result, cities created temporary or permanent decline.

Internationalisation has resulted in growing inequalities between cities and regions, which are either integrated into the global economic network or those that are not. Moreover, innovation and knowledge economies are local development engines, whose future is more than ever influenced by the strategies of international corporations. Thus, while certain cities have become attractive to investment and to most qualified workers, other cities are the losers in the fight for international capital and relevance, losing their economic base, jobs and population (Martinez-Fernandezet al., 2012).


Cunningham-Sabot, E. et Fol, S. (2009) Shrinking Cities in France and Great Britain: A Silent Process? The Future of Shrinking Cities: Problems, Patterns and Strategies of Urban Transformation in a Global Context. Berkley IURD: University of California.

Hall, P. (1988) Cities of Tomorrow. Oxford: Blackwell.

Harvey, D. (1989) The Urban Experience. Oxford: Blackwell.

Martinez-Fernandez, R. et Audirac, I. et Fol, S. et Cunnig-Sabot, E. (2012) Shrinking Cities – Urban Challenges of Globalisation. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Volume 36. Issue 2.

Pacione, M. (2005) Industrial-Modern Cities. Urban Geography – A global perspective. Second Edition. New York: Routledge.

Paland, R. (2005) Chancen und Risiken postforditischer Stadtentwicklungspolitik. Kassel: Kassel University Press.

Sassen, S. (2001) The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo. Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press.

Soja, E. (1992) Inside Exopolis: Scenes from Orange County. In Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. Ed. Sorkin, M. New York: The Noonday Press.


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