Shrinking Cities in Northeast China and the Rust Belt US: A transnational comparison

This project, a collaboration between Professor Brent D. Ryan of MIT, Professor Shuqi Gao of Southeast University, Nanjing, China, and Professor Ying Long of Tsinghua University, China, will permit researcher exchange to conduct a transnational comparison study between shrinking cities in Northeast China and their counterparts in the US Rust Belt.

Urban shrinkage was once deemed as a phenomenon that only happens in the developed world, and few would expect such a phenomenon to occur in China, a fast developing nation. However, due to China’s family planning policy and demographic change, as well as changing regional policies, many shrinking cities are emerging in Northeast China, which once was the most industrialized region in China. At the same time, since the 1970s, once prosperous American cities such as Cleveland dependent on heavy industry have been mired in economic recession and deindustrialization. This has triggered ensuing large-scale depopulation in the U.S. Rust Belt. In the 2000s, the term “shrinking cities” was coined to describe the mismatch between these cities’ shrinking population and remaining built environment.

Many scholars have examined revitalization strategies for cities in the U.S. Rust Belt, but fewer such strategies are available for China’s Northeast, despite the pressing need of disempowered populations and challenged local governments in this region. The study, funded by MIT MISTI, will support the university participants to jointly: 1) collect vital information, relevant data and statistics; 2) conduct initial comparison between shrinking cities’ causalities and spatial manifestations in the two regions; 3) conduct several site trips to Northeast China’s shrinking cities and their counterparts in the US Rust Belt to interview planning stakeholders and residents; 4) hold research seminars with planning experts and public events with local residents to boost cross-countries collaboration and understanding. The study will commence in the Fall of 2023.

Implementation Challenges of State-Led Redevelopment in Shrinking Cities

Unlike shrinking cities in Western countries enduring prolonged disinvestment due to market liberalism, some of their counterparts in Northeast China are undergoing drastic redevelopment under state capitalism. However, the challenges and effects of implementing such redevelopment in shrinking cities remain to be seen. This study examined a specific state-led shantytown (quasi-formal settlement) redevelopment policy entitled “Regulation Methods on Shantytown Redevelopment in State-Owned Forestry Areas” that was designed and implemented in state-owned forestry areas beginning in 2010 to construct affordable housing and compensate local residents adversely impacted by the logging ban initiated in 2000. The study analyzed the implementation of this policy in Yichun, a shrinking forestry city in China’s rust belt (Northeast China). The implementation of this policy differs from China’s typical privately funded market-led redevelopment in other areas, in terms of combining the rigorous implementation of central government’s policy and funding in tandem with the discretionary actions of the local state-owned forestry bureau. Although the Regulation Methods policy has improved the living conditions of participating families’, it has been only partially implemented and is facing three major challenges: the unstable partnership between different tiers of government, social resistance from grassroots, and overdraft of local credibility and capability. This study concluded that the Yichun case represents a case of problematic state-led redevelopment (analogous in some ways to US postwar urban renewal) where state planning power does not adequately address public needs, particularly household socioeconomic considerations and thus will not save shrinking cities from population decline.