Urban shrinkage is a problem in various cities in Europe. Although the phenomenon is relatively more critical in central and eastern Europe, multiple medium and small cities in other places in Europe are also struggling with this phenomenon. 3S RECIPE - Smart Shrinkage Solutions project has case studies in seven cities, including Le Havre, Lodz, Maastricht, Porto, Trent, Timisoara, and Zonguldak (Mykhnenko, 2020). It is my pleasure to have a short discussion with Dr. Marco Bontje about the case study in Maastricht, the Netherlands. The discussion inspired me with intriguing perspectives that could relate to many other cities in the Netherlands.
Author: Mai Nguyen
In general, urban shrinkage is the phenomenon that the population of the city decreases. There could be multiple reasons, or a combination of different aspects such as the dead surplus or ageing, or out-migration. In many cases, urban shrinkage often links with economic problems such as the shortage of jobs, or the mismatch between the workforce and the job market. The latest reason might explain the situation in some Dutch student cities. Except for the Randstad region, some Dutch cities with major universities and colleges are witnessing the phenomenon that graduated students are out-migrating from the city or the region due to difficulties in job seeking, yet local companies constantly look for employees.
Among the seven case studies in 3S RECIPE - Smart Shrinkage Solutions project, Maastricht does not have a noticeable decline in population yet. However, the city is experiencing some critical symptoms of urban shrinkage. Those symptoms include the ageing of the population, the fluctuation in the demographic structure, and the observation that population compensation comes mostly from the student population, especially international students. The last part highlights the function of institutions or higher education in the urban shrinkage phenomenon. Indeed, the university has a major role in solving the economic problem of the area. Additionally, physical infrastructure, accommodating policies and urban attractiveness are among the most important elements (Hochstenbach, Bontje, & Mykhnenko, 2020a).
In the case study of Maastricht, the research team established three policy briefs approaching three aspects, including economic, compact and connected, and liveability, which is described respectively in policy brief number 1, number 2, and number 3.
The first policy brief discussed the economic aspects with an emphasis on the role of institutions for higher education in Maastricht. Officially opened in 1976, Maastricht University was part of the national spatial redistribution strategies. At that time, the university was compensated for the negative economic impact of de-industrialisation (Hochstenbach et al., 2020a). Up until now, the university still has a vital role in mitigating the population decline by attracting, students and especially those from abroad. However, experts are concerned that dependence on the student population might not ensure sustainable growth or might even cause unwanted influences on neighbourhood liveability and cohesion.
One example of the aforementioned negative impact is on the housing market and demographic distribution. Firstly, students usually have a specific lifestyle, and they also have a limit on the renting price. Hence, they tend to concentrate only on particular parts of the city. Since they are the main compensation for population decline, certain services would be redistributed. The level of social integration of students with other residential groups is still not understood. In short, the dominance of the student population could trigger changes in spatial demographic, housing, and public services distribution.
Secondly, it is not certain that the same group of students coming for higher education would remain in the city after graduation. The mentioned “mitigation” might be merely the replacement by the annual newcomers. It is relatively doubtful that this constant change in residents would benefit the economy in the long-term. During the discussion,
Dr. Bontje mentioned the influence of COVID-19. In this particular case, many students could not physically come to the city or became unable to pursue higher education. A study on this particular period might provide interesting insights.
The second policy brief focuses on the aspect of a compact and connected city, which strongly relates to the liveability mentioned in the third policy brief. With awareness of the risk of an imbalanced population, the policymakers simultaneously strengthen the attractiveness of city centres and control the housing market in the manner of accepting the decline of the population instead of forcing it to grow. This approach is called “more city, more rural” (Hochstenbach, Bontje, & Mykhnenko, 2020b).
In term of strengthening the existing city centre, it is worth mentioning the effort of the national government to reduce the negative influence of the A2 highway to the neighbourhoods, especially those adjacent to it. Hence, there are more green spaces and public spaces for citizens. Regarding the control of the housing market, the new housing projects come together with the demolition of old houses. The rationale is that since the population is declining, the overall housing supply should not increase (Hochstenbach et al., 2020b). Overall, the policies focus on: 1) minimising vacancy rates, 2) maintaining levels of liveability, 3) maintaining house prices, 4) preventing regional oversupply through new excessive new production, and 5) helping with the transition towards a more environmentally sustainable built environment.
Although it might be still a bit early to conclude if those policies are sufficient, we could say that those policies have a realistic and innovative foundation. Firstly, those policies do not neglect the actual trend of the population. Instead of trying to fight against that trend, those policies try to “follow the flow” and avoid unwanted risks. Secondly, those policies encourage collaboration with other cities in the region. Indeed, those housing strategies showcase a consideration on the regional scale. The number of houses and housing types is considered at the regional level and adapt to the actual development of the population.
However, from the map provided in the policy brief (Hochstenbach et al., 2020b), there might be a concern about the risk of fragmentation in the region since the different types of residential environments are scattering and the connections amongst those areas are unclear.
The third policy brief discusses the social mix policies thoroughly in the regions (Hochstenbach, Bontje, & Mykhnenko, 2020c). According to the policy brief and the discussion with Dr. Bontje, it is essential to highlight the following three fundamental criticisms:
1) Social mix policies often considered disadvantaged populations as the cause of low liveability in the neighbourhood.
2) Social mix policies could trigger reductions in affordable housing
3) Those policies might conflict with other municipal strategies. It is said that there are multiple necessary conditions to apply those policies successfully. For the case of Maastricht city, and particularly considering the housing strategies mentioned above in which collaboration with other municipalities is required, it is uncertain if all the necessary conditions could be met.
In the context of the Netherlands, some ‘student cities’ are facing a very similar problem as Maastricht. Therefore, this might be an excellent example of approaching urban shrinkage problems in the Netherlands. Considering the broader viewpoint, the case study in Maastricht points out the requirement of a multidimensional approach for the urban shrinkage issues. Indeed, the story of Maastricht city suggests the interrelation among different aspects: solutions for one aspect might contain risks for other aspects. On top of that, the case study in Maastricht is inspiring because it implies that solutions sometimes can come from considering the problem at different scales and from different perspectives.
Hochstenbach, C., Bontje, M., & Mykhnenko, V. (2020a). 3S RECIPE – Smart Shrinkage Solutions: Maastricht (NL) Policy Brief #1. Resilient Urban Economy & Municipal Finance. Zenod. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.3842036
Hochstenbach, C., Bontje, M., & Mykhnenko, V. (2020b). 3S RECIPE – Smart Shrinkage Solutions: Maastricht (NL) Policy Brief #2 Compact Connected City. Zenod.
Hochstenbach, C., Bontje, M., & Mykhnenko, V. (2020c). 3S RECIPE – Smart Shrinkage Solutions: Maastricht (NL) Policy Brief #3. Liveability. Zenod.
Mykhnenko, V. (2020). 3S RECIPE Final Conference (17 March 2020) - Vlad Mykhnenko. Retrieved 25 August 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6pTO7u6UNo