Shrinking without degrowth: Growth-oriented shrinkage in the case of Japanese cities


  • Sachi Abe Technische Universität Wien


Shrinking city, Degrowth, Postgrowth, Compact city , Japan




Degrowth city or degrowth planning is often confused with shrinking city, though the two concepts have a clear difference. The word “shrinking city” describes the phenomenon of a city shrinking in size, while the word “degrowth city” or “degrowth planning” describes an alternative planning ideology.

Khmara and Kronenberg (2023) provides a distinction between a shrinking city and a degrowth city and acknowledges the usefulness of applying urban degrowth concept to shrinking cities. Schindler (2016) gives the example of Detroit to showcase the possibility of incorporating degrowth concept amidst a city’s shrinkage. Though these studies lay out the differences and relations between the two city concepts, there is still a lack of research on why incorporating degrowth concept is inherently necessary for shrinking cities.

Compact city is one of the concepts often endorsed when countering city shrinkage. By condensing the socio-economic infrastructure to the city centre and increasing its density, a compact city aims to maintain a high quality of living, limit environmental impact from urban sprawl, and reduce public expenditure. Though being one of the prominent city concepts, Bibri (2020) argues that compact city planning can result in a disproportional focus on economic benefits, sidelining environmental and social improvements. This study highlighted the case of Swedish cities, but the same argument can be applied to Japanese compact city planning. 

Japan is one of the leading countries in its aging and declining population: 29% of the population was over 65 years old in 2023, and the total population is expected to halve in the next 100 years. In 2014, a governmental report brought attention to the acute shrinkage of Japanese cities by declaring that 49.8% of Japanese municipalities will become “potentially extinct” by 2040 (Masuda, 2014). As a countermeasure for future shrinkage, many cities have incorporated the concept of compact city into their spatial planning agendas. Toyama, for example, is a city of 410,000 people that adopted compact city planning in 2005. The city’s initiative is regarded as a successful case, with increases in the use of public transport, city centre population, and real estate value (Onodera, 2023).

The objectives of compact city in Japanese cities focus heavily on economic benefits such as decrease in public expenditure and increase in real estate value. Though social and environmental aspects such as walkability, mixed land use, and CO2 reduction are mentioned, they are oftentimes overlooked or simply not measured when discussing the outcomes of these city plans.

This paper will adopt a descriptive case study method to analyze compact city planning in two Japanese mid-sized cities: Toyama and Kumamoto. By studying their official documents and secondary sources as well as conducting interviews, the paper will analyze the narratives behind the adoption of compact city planning and how their results were measured. The paper will then discuss the limits of compact city planning when endorsing a growth-oriented view and argue the necessity of incorporating postgrowth planning perspective to achieve social and environmental sustainability in shrinking cities.


Bibri, S.E., Krogstie, J., Kärrholm, M. (2020) ‘Compact city planning and development: Emerging practices and strategies for achieving the goals of sustainability’, Developments in the Built Environment, 4, 100021. Available at: (Accessed: 30 January 2024).

Khmara, Y., Kronenber, J. (2023) ‘On the road to urban degrowth economics? Learning from the experience of C40 cities, doughnut cities, Transition Towns, and shrinking cities’, Cities, 136, 104259. Available at: (Accessed: 30 January 2024).

Masuda, H. (2014) [Future national land transport strategies in view of the 'era of regional extinction’] ‘Chiikishometujidai wo misueta konngo no kokudokoutuusennryaku no arikata ni tuite’ (Japanese PowerPoint presentation). Available at: (Accessed: 30 January 2024)

Onodera, K. (2023) ‘Study on the Effectiveness of Compact City Plans and 'Projects Implemented in Local Cities. - Case study of Urban Structural Reorganization and Revitalization of Central City Area in Toyama City-’, Bulletin of the society of the study for life and environmental science at Tsu city college, 2, pp.1-7.

Schindler, S. (2016) ‘Detroit after bankruptcy: A case of degrowth machine politics’, Urban Studies, 53(4), pp.818-836. Available at DOI:10.1177/0042098014563485 (Accessed: 30 January 2024).