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Friday, 23 March 2007 06:42

Shrinking Cities | icon 017 | November 2004

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photo: Tom Wood photo: Tom Wood

words Kieran Long

In 1981, Jerry Dammers of The Specials wrote the lyrics to the song that would sum up the experience of the young urban working classes in the early days of Thatcherism. Ghost Town at once described the desolation of the inner city (as riots raged in the streets of Liverpool) and satirised a rose-tinted view of urban life in “de boomtown”.

It evokes a declining population (particularly among the young) combined with an impulse to make music that could express frustration, or provide escape from the realities of these distinctively urban phenomena.

But 1981 was just a stage in the population decline in the former industrial powerhouse cities of northern England. Between 1981 and 2001 Liverpool lost 11.6% of its population. Manchester lost 9.1% in the same period. Despite the vaunted urban renaissance now happening in both cities, the legacy of these times lingers. The gap between rich and poor is wide, and the top-down masterplanning approach is unable to offer more than a token consideration of the rich and complex cultures of these cities.

A new exhibition that has just opened in Berlin is the first serious and in-depth survey of this phenomenon. Shrinking Cities, a programme funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, is the beginning of a debate about how to deal with shrinking populations in urban areas. It also examines how the social fracturing and physical deterioration that occur in these areas can breed new movements in music and art, giving new identity and pride to cities.

Shrinking Cities examines four geographical areas – Leipzig/Halle in the former East Germany, Detroit in the USA, Liverpool/Manchester, and Ivanovo in Russia – and asked curators in these cities to put together research and commission artworks about the various areas.

The statistics of the decline of these cities are abstract, but shocking – Halle has lost 70,000 of its inhabitants since the reunification of Germany, Leipzig 100,000. Both have well over 20% unemployment. Ivanovo went from being one of the USSR’s primary textile centres to a region that lost 78% of its population in the ten years following glasnost. One third of the buildings within inner Detroit are lying unused, and the effect of the extreme division between centre and suburbs is racial and economic segregation.

Philipp Oswalt, director of the Shrinking Cities programme, first brought attention to the issue in 2001 when, with artists Sybil Kohl and Albrecht Schåfer, he made Verlassene Stadt (Abandoned City), an artwork consisting of a mock estate agent’s directory of empty buildings in eastern Germany. In total, the artists estimated these buildings could provide housing, retail, entertainment, factories and places of worship for 2.3 million people. The only way local planning offices knew how to deal with this vacancy was demolition – a desperate attempt to raise land values. This project was followed by Ungebaute Stadt (Unbuilt City), a directory of buildings then on the drawing boards of developers in Germany. The situation was starkly clear – architects and developers know how to propose new bits of city, but it is demolition teams who know how to deal with old and unused bits.

Research and artworks from the four subject cities are now on display at Berlin gallery Kunst-Werke. A €120,000 architectural competition has also been launched inviting creative propositions about how to handle cities affected by the problem.

The German government was motivated to fund the project because it was interested in any research that might alleviate the extreme problems faced by cities in the former East Germany. However, it is a global issue. Over the last 50 years 400 cities with populations of more than 100,000 have seen their populations drop (see background map), mostly as heavy industry has declined in the Western world. While ex-Soviet bloc countries contend with economic hardship and mass migration, other cities struggle with suburbanisation and the stigmatisation of the inner city as a place of poverty and crime. Shrinking Cities attempts to address the physical and economic along with the cultural.

Architect Joshua Bolchover, local curator for the Manchester/Liverpool section of Shrinking Cities, says: “The idea is, I think, to work towards an urban design toolkit for these kinds of places.” This section of the exhibition is a laudable contribution to formulating these tools. Bolchover has commissioned artworks, as well as bringing in existing ones, such as Further Up in the Sky - a project in which artists temporarily occupied a tower block in Liverpool slated for demolition. A facsimile of a room from the tower block has been reconstructed for the exhibition and contains an interactive archive, including work from Will Self, Paul Rooney and Catherine Bertola. While this ersatz piece of a demolished building is atmospheric and literal, some of the other works are more lyrical. Imogen Stidworthy’s Scotland Road mixes three video screens with a soundtrack of interviews with residents of a Liverpool street torn down and rebuilt in the 1980s. The quaint attempts to remember its former physicality are revealing and tragi-comic. One resident comments on the phenomenon of streets being replaced by modernist tower blocks, leaving just the corner pubs as the remnants of a now illegible city grain.

Perhaps the work that most obviously examines the relationship of culture to lost pieces of the city is Dave Haslam’s nostalgic Tribute to the Hacienda. It consists of portraits of people who bought interior fittings of the legendary 1980s Manchester nightclubclub when it was closed in 1997. The Hacienda was the epicentre of the “Madchester” scene in the city’s Hulme area. Even as this notorious chunk of the city was being demolished and rebuilt, something about it accommodated a cultural movement that defined an era in Britain and beyond.

There are as yet only tentative plans to bring even this part of the exhibition to the UK. Manchester and Liverpool are now growing again, and the city fathers do not like the idea of their being branded “shrinking”. But as the government now seems to have accepted the exponential growth of the South-east of England, there is a pressing need to deal with vacancy in other parts of the country. The post-urban dereliction of Detroit, or the extreme self-sufficiency of the suburban residents of Ivanovo demonstrate the resilience of communities, and the culture to adapt to extreme conditions. It is a lesson that could be learned in Glasgow, Salford, Gateshead and other so-called regeneration hotspots. Shrinking Cities presents convincing local views of a global problem.


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