New Narratives for Shrinking Cities: Creating a Sustainable Future in Suzu City, Japan

Event: Annual Meeting of the Architectural Institute of Japan
Date: September 7-10, 2021. Online
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Urban shrinkage contradicts the normative assumption of cities as growth machines. Shrinking cities are stigmatised as wretched places, prone to high unemployment rates, low quality of life standards, and urban blight. Compelled by this dominant narrative of loss, planning responses have focused on reversing declining trajectories and returning cities to the growth paradigm. Only in a few instances have cities accepted shrinkage and implemented smart decline planning approaches. This is the case of Suzu City, a small and geographically isolated city of 14,625 inhabitants in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, where local authorities are reconsidering their planning outlook based on sustainable principles. In particular, Suzu’s approach is focused on harnessing the natural capital of its social-ecological landscapes—Satoyama and Satoumi in Japanese—in order to realise a new development model in which growth is no longer the key metric measuring urban success.

By reflecting on the case of Suzu, this paper explores how cities can depart from the growth paradigm to envisage alternative development pathways. It argues that rather than fighting against decline, shrinking cities should look for other more sustainable options and different metrics to measure urban performance. In doing this analysis, the paper offers a critique of the dominant narrative of loss surrounding shrinking cities and calls for careful reconsideration of pro-growth approaches to urban planning—that still represent the preferred option for planners and policymakers around the world.