Urban shrinkage as a catalyst for transformative adaptation

Mabon, Leslie; Sato, Manami and Mabon, Naoko (2024). Urban shrinkage as a catalyst for transformative adaptation. Buildings and Cities, 5(1) pp. 50–63.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bc.395


Transformative climate adaptation is argued to reduce underlying vulnerability whilst adapting to impacts. However, transformative actions may face resistance in post-industrial shrinking city contexts. Resources to act may be limited and social, cultural and economic links to high-emitting industries make conversations on climate action difficult. This paper assesses how transformative adaptation may be initiated in a post-industrial shrinking city, by evaluating the former coal mining city of Yubari in Hokkaido, Japan. Interviews with organisations and a residents’ discussion group assess how citizens of Yubari experience social and environmental changes. A review of policies that support transformative adaptation in Yubari is undertaken. Although strong ties to Yubari’s mining identity have constrained discussion on climate action, the need to physically shrink the city’s size and engage third-sector organisations beyond local government created opportunities for transformative actions that also support adaptation. The findings support the existing shrinking cities literature. Place attachment can energise residents to take action and defend their locality against the worst effects of urban shrinkage. This highlights the value of intermediary organisations outside local government in initiating discussions on transformative actions towards climate adaptation.

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The study contributes a climate adaptation angle to applied research and practice for cities facing demographic or economic shrinkage. Shrinkage can initiate transformative and disruptive actions, but limited resources can make it difficult for urban planners and environmental policymakers to promote resilience. The findings from Yubari show that planning decisions can reduce vulnerability from hazards and enhance resilience to shocks and stresses by reducing the physical footprint of the city and engaging third-sector organisations in managing the natural environment. When trust in local governments is low because of a perceived failure to anticipate problems of shrinkage, then intermediary organisations are needed to facilitate dialogue with citizens on significant changes to place that enable transformative adaptation.

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