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Shrinking Cities an International Phenomenon


The world's fast-growing megalopolises often grab headlines, but another urban phenomenon is having just as much of an impact on the planet. Many cities around the world are suffering from urban decline. The reasons are many but the net result on the urban landscape is devastating. An international art exhibit is focusing on this phenomenon looking at the causes of city shrinkage and possible remedies. VOA producer Yi Suli caught up with the exhibit in one of the featured cities, Detroit, in the Midwestern state of Michigan. Jim Bertel narrates.

Since the end of World War II hundreds of cities around the world have experienced phenomenal growth. During that same period, however, dozens of other cities have contracted. The Shrinking Cities project examines this urban phenomenon by focusing on four cities in decline: Detroit, Michigan; Halle/Leipzig in Germany; Manchester/Liverpool in Britain; and Ivanovo, Russia through the use of a variety of media.

Recently, the exhibit stopped in Detroit, Michigan where it was presented at two venues: the Cranbrook Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Curator Mitch Cope explains the exhibit. "So it is giving you the international context of why cities and regions have shrunk, whether it is war, or industrial cities or regions (that) have fallen apart (in the) postindustrial era. Also there are environmental disasters and natural disasters that took place that caused shrinkage."

In Detroit, the shrinkage is blamed on many factors including a shift away from heavy industry, crime, and, according to Cope, even a poorly placed highway. "I highlight in red about half inch of where there is an obstructed path or an obstructed view," he says. "It feels like you are not really supposed to be here, doesn't it? It is not for pedestrians."

But all is not lost for cities experiencing shrinkage. In recent years Detroit's population decline has slowed as young people and immigrants move into the city. Gregory Wittkopp, Director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, credits artists with paving the way for these new city dwellers.

"You look around other cities around the world, it is often the artists that have seen the opportunity of a particular neighborhood, have gone into these (areas) as pioneers and got everyone else to think about that neighborhood differently," says Wittkopp.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit itself is an effort to revive the city. Acting director Marsha Miro spearheaded the conversion of a rundown warehouse into a museum. "The kind of idea of the city still is carried in the walls of the building. When we fixed the building up to be a museum space, we left a lot of the rawness, the kind of urban quality, and the industrial quality in the building," she says.

In addition to showcasing the past, the Shrinking Cities project looks at ways to pump new life into the urban environment. Miro adds, "In Detroit we have many people who farm in the city, who own or use the empty lots next to them and they are growing their food there. We have a real urban farming movement."

The Shrinking Cities project has traveled the world, with exhibits in the coming months scheduled for several German cities before ending its tour early next year in St. Petersburg, Russia.

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