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Shrinking Cities: Volume 1, International Research; Volume 2, Interventions Edited by Philipp Oswalt.Hatje Cantz, 2006. 736pp and 864pp. £29.99 each. Distributed by Art Books International 023 9220 0080

The chief characteristic of shrinking cities is that they are growing. That's to say, their context is generally a city region that is growing and adapting to new economic, social and technological conditions. But the concept of shrinking cities doesn't prove to be particularly useful in characterising current processes of urban change. Friedrich von Borries and Walter Prigge write in their essay that 'what has been called growth in China - the emergence of islands of wealth within a generally low societal level - is identical in meaning to what has been called shrinkage in Europe, that is, the emergence of areas of poverty within a generally high societal level.'

No matter if the title's not quite right. In two massive, well-edited, profusely illustrated volumes of essays and case studies, Shrinking Cities brilliantly illuminates what is happening in today's urban regions. It recognises that conventional approaches to urban planning - conceiving a physical form for future development and steering it towards realisation - are rarely adequate. To Rem Koolhaas, the solution is 'to abandon what doesn't work - what has outlived its use - to break up the blacktop of idealism with the jackhammers of realism and to accept whatever grows in its place'. Most of the contributors to Shrinking Cities, though, do see possibilities for managing change.

They admire projects like the Potteries Thinkbelt, Cedric Price's 1960s vision of a future for North Staffordshire. The region's traditional industries were crumbling and the railways that had served them were underused. Price's solution was to develop a post-industrial knowledge society. Mobile units would be moved on atbed railway cars to wherever they were needed, serving 20,000 students. The basic infrastructure needed to be planned, but the detailed configuration did not.

The Shrinking Cities project, led by the architect and writer Philipp Oswalt, relates particularly to the eastern-German experience.

No UK city is deliberately shrinking itself, unlike Halle in eastern Germany, which used that phrase in the title of its application to become European cultural capital.

Even where some northern English cities are demolishing significant numbers of houses in the face of what is called 'market failure', the policy is still part of a strategy for regional growth.

How can we manage city regions whose parts shrink and expand unpredictably? Oswalt calls for planning based, not on physical development, but on softer tools - 'because often cultural development, forms of communication, and the rise of social networks and processes shape urban development more than construction itself does'.

Shrinking Cities' descriptions of cultural developments - new ways of engaging urban space such as urban farming, BASE jumping, free-running and, yes, the new art of door recycling - are among its most enlightening contributions.

Volume 2 presents four fields of action. 'Deconstructing' examines how the process of de-urbanisation can be shaped and the qualities that can be gained by what remains. 'Reevaluating' explores how the traditional and the abandoned can be reappropriated.

'Reorganising' asks how processes, structures and programmes can be conceived differently. 'Imagining' focuses on mental processes of communication, memory and the search for identity.

Robert Fishman's essay reminds us that even in the late 19th century, Ebenezer Howard was advocating shrinking cities.

London, he argued, should be reduced to only 20 per cent of its population. Those who remained would enjoy the green spaces that would replace the intolerably congested city.

'The shrinking city was seen throughout most of the 20th century as a positive development, ' Fishman writes.

'Virtually the whole planning profession was dedicated to shrinking the city; so too were virtually all governments.'

Today, traditional urbanism is back in fashion in some circles. Fishman sees, in the USA at least, a process of reurbanism in the emptied city cores, due to revitalisation programmes, gentrification, immigration and the rise of the black middle class. The result is a strange form of regional pluralism in which growth is occurring simultaneously at the centre and at the edge.

Shrinking cities? It is more complicated than that. The picture comes into focus only at the regional scale.

Rob Cowan is director of the Urban Design Group and author of The Dictionary of Urbanism

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