Shrink Smart

To shrink smart is about taking control. Liabilities and risks need to be reduced while local assets and resources are nurtured. This creates new opportunities to re-grow valuable elements of a town’s social, physical and economic fabric.

Urban development is often seen as a cyclical process with periods of growth and decline which correspond to regional, national or global shifts in production and consumption. Larger cities have been found to be better able to recover from periods of decline than smaller ones. Research also shows that the largest cities experience almost linear growth. Smaller towns, in contrast, struggle to escape from the downward spiral of decline. There are examples which show how smaller towns have managed to gain control of the shrinkage process and regrow parts of their social, economic and physical assets, but all to often such deliberate action is lacking and the settlement continues to decline.

Schlappa and Nishino, 2021 (SMT = small and medium sized town)

Urban shrinkage and decline is a widespread problem – in Europe it is estimated that approximately 40% of all settlements with less than 250,000 inhabitants are shrinking or stagnating. A group of mayors shared experiences on dealing with declining and ageing populations in small towns ( They conceptualised the shrinkage process as a ‘negative development spiral’. Loss of jobs is seen as the starting point for a downward spiral of decline that diminishes the town’s relevance for government policy and also as a place to live.

Urban shrinkage means that the economic, social, political, and environmental foundations on which a settlement is built are in long term decline. It is a ‘wicked’ problem that has no readily available solutions. Short term measures do not address the root causes of decline and politicians together with inhabitants are frequently in denial about the reality of long term decline. Most shrinking towns are very unlikely to see a return of the prosperous days they enjoyed in the past.

José Antonio Lopes led a working group in Melgaço, a town of 9,200 inhabitants in northern Portugal. He created the picture below to capture the impact long term decline had on the town. The analytical tool he used is called ‘problem tree’. It helps in distinguishing between the symptoms (leaves and branches), the ‘problem’ (tree trunk) and the ’causes’ of the problem (the tree roots). Sketching out what shrinkage meant to local people was an effective way to overcome denial and lower resistance to experimentation with new methods. Check out the ‘Network’ page for more information on the work in Melgaço.

Long term decline of a small town often means that the whole settlement is in a state of crisis. There is no money and often burdensome liabilities arising from oversized services, surplus infrastructures, buildings and land. Taking a pro-active stance to gain control of the shrinkage process is about difficult choices and tough decisions, such as which school or kindergarten to close. But at its core shrinking smart is a constructive process because it reduces current costs and future liabilities. Aiming to ‘shrink smart’ conveys a positive message about wanting to create a better future. Re-envisioning a better future marks the beginning of a strategic process in which new opportunities are identified, experimented with and exploited. The diagram below captures this cyclical process.

The small town of Altena in Germany is a well know example of successfully initiating and then implementing a shrink smart and re-grow smaller strategy – although it was not called that. More details on the case of Altena and models presented here are in the resources section at the bottom of this page.

The URBACT funded RegrowCity network tested simple, low cost methods to activate civil society and encourage interim uses of shops and buildings. Go to the ‘Network Page’ to find out more.


Join the network for the small towns of Europe. Check out this page for more details.