Urbanisation has been a well-established trend in the 20th and 21st centuries. However, depopulation and de-urbanisation in several countries and numerous cities have become serious problems for which few solutions exist at present.
People have steadily moved from rural to urban areas to improve their standard of living and their quality of life. In 1950, 30% of the world’s population was urban. A century later, 66% of people are expected to live in urban areas.
In terms of absolute numbers, the difference is stark. In 1950, 746 million people lived in urban areas. By 2046, this number is estimated to climb to more than 6 billion.
Not surprisingly, global attention has focused on these rapid century-long urbanisation processes and their social, economic and environmental implications. In contrast, de-urbanisation has received limited attention. If one searches for the term in Google, the response is: “Did you mean: urbanisation?”
De-urbanisation happens for three main reasons. First, when the fertility rate of a country drops below 2.1, its total population starts to decline and so does its urban population.
Fertility rates are now 1.17 in South Korea and 1.44 in Japan. Without immigration, a fertility rate of 2.1 is required to keep a population stable. If current trends continue, Japan’s population is expected to decline from today’s 126.5 million to 88 million in 2065, 51 million by 2115, and to zero around the year 3000!
Second, in many cities, jobs in different sectors such as manufacturing and mining are disappearing. Between 1950 and 2010, many American cities lost a large part of their population: St Louis (62.7%), Cleveland (56.6%), Pittsburgh (54.8%) and Cincinnati (41.1%).
Third, some cities have lost residents due to resource depletion or technological changes. Yichun, a city in northeast China close to the Russian border, was transformed from a sleepy village to a bustling town due to unsustainable logging. Later, from 2012-2016, Yichun lost 12% of its population after its natural resources were depleted.
China’s voracious appetite for natural resources to fuel its unprecedented continuous economic growth over the past three decades has meant that some 500 billion tonnes of resources, ranging from coal and iron ore to gold, have to be mined every year. Resource exhaustion and environmental degradation have contributed to the rapid depopulation in many urban centres.
China’s National Development and Reform Commission has reported that 50 of China’s 390 mining towns have already exhausted their resources that can be economically extracted. This has left 3 million people jobless, affecting an additional 10 million people.
The commission has given 44 cities the official status of being “resource depleted”. These cities are receiving central government funding to rejuvenate and restructure their economies by increasing employment opportunities and improving environmental conditions. More cities will earn this distinction unless natural resource management and environmental protection policy measures are formulated on a long-term basis.
Technological development and economic considerations can also contribute to de-urbanisation. For example, Khulna, Bangladesh’s third-largest city, grew 20-fold between 1950 and 2000. Then, as the jute industry declined, it lost more than 150,000 people (11% of the population) from 2001-2011.
Throughout history, as population increased and urbanisation took place, all types of infrastructure for water, energy and transportation had to be built to meet the steadily expanding needs. All societies have had centuries of experience in how to expand infrastructural requirements. Considerable expertise and technology have been developed to meet these advancing standards.
What we are facing now is a different type of problem that is becoming increasingly familiar in both developed and developing countries. How can shrinking cities downsize the infrastructure that has already been built? And how they can they find a usable financial model for its operation and maintenance?
Take Leipzig, Germany. During the post-1990 period, numerous buildings were renovated, water-efficient toilets and showers were installed and piped water and waste water facilities were increased by 50%. Consequently, leak detection and repair received priority, and water tariffs were increased to finance the necessary infrastructure expansion and modernisation. All of these measures contributed to major changes in people’s perceptions of the importance of water conservation.
Water use in the system, which was initially designed to provide 200 litres of clean water per person per day, dropped to only 92 litres. Fewer users, increased efficiency and less water demand by industries dramatically reduced water demands from 700,000m3 to only 165,000m3/day. Leipzig now has the same water demand as it did in the mid-1940s yet a supply network that is significantly larger than what is needed.
This has created new types of challenges. Lower demand means water that stays in the pipes for longer periods, which increases the risk of bacterial growth and microbial contamination, and related risks to health.
Lower water use means lower waste water generation. This contributes to sedimentation in sewer pipes because of low flow velocities. Thus, additional clean water has to be used to flush the sewer system periodically for proper maintenance.
Leipzig’s water utility is facing higher operation and maintenance costs, and also higher long-term investment costs for restructuring the water system, while consumption and revenue are declining.
Another problem is that this unexpected but serious financial pressure is forcing the utility to focus on possible technical fixes due to lower domestic and industrial water use. This means a lower priority to proper operation and maintenance practices, which will have negative impacts on the long-term sustainability of the utility.
Countries like Japan and South Korea and numerous cities around the world are facing similar problems in downsizing their current infrastructure availability in response to reduced demand from their citizens and industries. Prosperous cities like Singapore have to consolidate schools since student numbers have declined. All the resource-depleted cities of China will have to consider how best to balance the size of their infrastructure with decreased demands.
This is an issue that needs urgent attention from policymakers and researchers, especially in cities and countries where de-urbanisation has become a more serious problem than urbanisation. While increasing urbanisation is a serious issue that many developing countries need to manage effectively, a significant number of cities in these countries are witnessing depopulation. They are finding they have constructed more and larger-scale infrastructure than they need and are able to manage.
Both policymakers and academics have not paid enough attention to de-urbanisation and shrinking cities. Within the next decade we need to find cost-effective solutions. While the task may not be easy, appropriate solutions need to ensure sustainability in both operational and financial terms for the future.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect corrections of grammatical errors.
Asit K. Biswas, Distinguished Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore; Cecilia Tortajada, Senior Research Fellow, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, and Martin Stavenhagen, Climate, Energy and Water Policy Consultant, National University of Singapore