Most Typical Shrinking Cities Architecture Essay


Sheffield is one of the most typical shrinking cities in England. Its shrinkage started from the late-19th century when the economy grew steadily but the population decreased.

The main purpose for the study was to find out why has Sheffield city centre shrunk and how it shrank? Due to this question, we have suggested documents and observation these two research methods. Literature review has shown relative evidence and academic points on declining city centres.

As an old industrial city, Sheffield experience prosperous industry revelation age. However, during the time of social and economical transformation, it witnessed decline and regeneration subsequently. In this period, retail revolution, transport development, and land use policy affected Sheffield centre dramatically. They leaded to the shrinkage to some extent.


13rd, November 2009, the first time we boarded on the train to Sheffield, hoped to explore how the respectful giant, which was one of the most prosperous industrial city in England, had shrunk today. Not intended to dishonor something, but to our surprised, the first sight Sheffield gave us was absolutely chilly-we could not find any convenience stores around the bright newly built train station to buy something emergency needed, excepted food shops. This is really a good beginning for us to think about why less and less people wanted to live in this city centre and more and more firms and companies tried to move out?

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The first section of the essay proposes the research question bases on the historic context, explains why there is a need for the research. The second section explores how to undertake the research. The following section gives some basic information of Sheffield which could be useful evidence to the research. The fourth section profiles what have been studied on the topic and the understanding of the literature. Finally, the essay ends by giving out the expected answer to the research question.

What we want to find out?

There has been continuous concern about city centre from the very beginning of the urban development. Traditionally, city centre has almost apotheosis state in most citizens' daily life. It is the heart of the city, which contains all of the functions that residences need. It is an integrated synthesis where "a multitude of commercial, retail, cultural and governmental activities and functions are uniquely concentrated" (Evans 1997).

Unfortunately, in the past few decades, our city centres had a dramatic experience, especially in some typical industrial cities in Britain. Industrial revolution brought these cities enormous prosperity. Industrial production increased, trade grew, a great deal of human labor flocked into the city...However, from the late-19th century, the tired old industrial society began to transfer to service-oriented society. With the emergence of out-of-town shopping centres, mono-functional central business district, increasing unemployment of less educated work force, growing crime, and slum clearance, city centres face an incredible decline. The geographic spread of the boundary cannot stop the decentralization of the city centres, although some designers and planners thought that would be a good opportunity to redesign urban spaces( Knute Berger 2009).

Sheffield is the most typical one of these so called shrinking cities. In the 19th century, Sheffield was famous for its steel industry. The development of the industry brought Sheffield almost tenfold increase in the population which peaked in 1951 at 577,050 during the industrial revolution(Roland Lovatt 2007). However, Sheffield also saw the decline since the late 19th century, even its economy has experienced steady growth. The population decreased to 512,242 in 2002(Roland Lovatt 2007). Especially, in the city centre, a lot of office buildings and projects are almost empty, firms and small companies moved out, together with the urban residents.

All of these events lead us to think about that why Sheffield city centre has shrunk in the past few decades and how it shrank. We want to find out which aspects of urban design and/or planning in Sheffield urban regeneration result in the shrinkage of the city centre. That is the key question we want to research. As a typical case study of shrinking industrial city, it will offer Sheffield a helpful understanding and idea of its regeneration. Moreover, it will be useful evidence to the general research of shrinking cities.

How to find out?

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According to research questions, we suppose this research to be a qualitative research. It typically explores our conclusion through the observation of field study and the review of archives, documents, and literatures.

As a single case study, we give an in-depth research of Sheffield city centre. We use the following two basic methods to complete the date collection: documents and observation.

Academics books and journals from the library of the University of Nottingham are the main source of documents. We also dropped in the Sheffield City Archives to get detailed historical demographics and urban transforming maps. The Sheffield city council website is pretty useful to our research. Though its Sheffield city centre masterplan 2008 describes Sheffield as a prosperous regenerating city, we all see what it is actually. So it is good evidence to remind us finding out the difference between the representation and the essence.

Observation means watching social processes as they are actually happening (Platt S.). Participant observation is one of the most key steps in our research. In order to get direct information and insight of Sheffield city centre, we went to there and had a field study. That's the first time we had a shocked visual sense and intuitionistic feeling about Sheffield. It gives us chance to know what exactly happened there and have a holistic understanding about Sheffield city centre. We use the most direct way -take photos, to record what we have seen as much as possible. During the term, we tried to make a photo essay as an auxiliary tool to help us do the research and final essay.

What we know about Sheffield?

What's official words

Sheffield is a city and metropolitan borough of South Yorkshire, which is the third largest metropolitan in England and one of the eight largest regional English cities that make up the English Core Cities Group. The city has a population of 534,500.Sheffield grew rapidly during the industrial revolution. In 1801 its population was 60,100. By 1851 it had increased to 161,500 and by 1901 it was 451,200. At its peak, in 1951, the population numbered 577,050.Sheffield's population declined between 1974 and 2002, from570,000 to 512,242(Roland Lovatt 2007).

Decline and regeneration

Sheffield has grownbased on its great industrial fertile soil.It obtained world-wide recognition during the 19th century for its production of steel andmany innovations in the industry were developed locally including crucible and stainless steel.

A recession in the 1930s was halted by increasing international tensions as the Second World War loomed; Sheffield's steel factories were set to work manufacturing weapons and ammunition for the war effort. As a result, the city became a target for bombing raids, the heaviest of which occurred on the nights of 12 and 15December 1940, now known as the Sheffield Blitz. More than 660lives were lost and many buildings destroyed.[16]

In the 1950s and 1960s, many of the city's slums were demolished, and replaced with housing schemes such as the Park Hill flats. Large parts of the city centre were also cleared to make way for a new system of roads.[3] International competition in iron and steel caused a decline in traditional local industries during the 1970s and 1980s, coinciding with the collapse of coal mining in the area. The 1980s saw the worst of this run-down of Sheffield's industries, along with those of many other areas of the UK.[17] The building of the Meadowhall shopping centre on the site of a former steelworks in 1990 was a mixed blessing, creating much needed jobs but hastening the decline of the city centre. Attempts to regenerate the city were kick-started when the city hosted the 1991 World Student Games, which saw the construction of new sporting facilities such as the Sheffield Arena, Don Valley Stadium, and the Ponds Forge complex.[3]

The 21st century has seen extensive redevelopment in Sheffield and in other British cities. Sheffield's GVA (gross value added) has increased by 60% in recent years, standing at £8.7billion in 2006. The economy has experienced steady growth averaging around 5% annually, greater than that of the broader region of Yorkshire and the Humber.

Sheffield is changing rapidly as new projects regenerate some of the more run-down parts of the city. One such, the Heart of the City Project, has initiated a number of public works in the city centre: the Peace Gardens were renovated in 1998, the Millennium Galleries opened in April 2001, the Winter Gardens were opened in May 2003, and a public space to link these two areas, the Millennium Square, was opened in May 2006. Additional developments included the remodelling of Sheaf Square, in front of the recently refurbished railway station. The new square contains The Cutting Edge, a sculpture designed by Si Applied Ltd[18] and made from Sheffield steel.

What we have seen

Literature Review

Defining city centres

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To research the regeneration of city centres, firstly have to understand city centres. Defining city centres provides a compass direction for the research.

There are different perspectives upon the understanding of city centres (Evans 1997). Practitioners focus on the physical and mechanistic aspects of distinguishing city centres as particular functional districts. While theorists on the other hand think more about "underlying processes and the institutional power relations shaping the built environment in central locations" (Evans 1997).

Physically, as geographers and planners think, city centres are areas which contain higher-level mix of land uses, usually refer to commercial and retail functions. Whereas, this point is now "widely recognized as narrow, excessively physical and lacking in theoretical justification and explanatory power" (Evans 1997). Economically, in Christaller's(Christaller 1966) view, city centres are places that are able to serve surrounding rural areas by providing a range of goods and services. Some researchers focus on the cultural significance of city centres; maintain that city centres are centres of public social life because they contain a concentration of public cultural assets (Evans 1997).

Recent changes in city centres

Not as the same as many European city centres, medieval English city centres had relatively physical separation of functions. Seats of government, administration, religious, retails and other civic buildings were" likely to be some distance apart". However, up to nineteenth century, in order to obtain convenience and safety, English city centres had been becoming more and more mix used. They contained all the key civic functions, cultural uses, commercial functions and most other forms of business. "The main point about the concentrated, multi-functional character of central areas until the nineteenth century was that it bred a sense of solidarity, mutual interest and common endeavor despite the fundamental injustices of the feudal system" (Evans 1997). Recently, the multiple stores in high street developed rapidly which mean that city centres are dominated by retail and commercial functions. The development of commercial demands more space, this leads to the depopulation of the city centre to some extent.

The function of city centres

With the increasing control from governments and investors, as well as the impact from the development of economy, the function of cotemporary city centres tend to be similar day by day. They also face the pressure comes from "continuing decentralization and competition from new centres". However, these changes cannot be allowed to stand in the way of city centres which suppose to have significant functions as the core of the city(Evans 1997).

City centres still gain specific economic status due to its accessibility and attractiveness to labors. It is still "regarded as the logical location for key decision-making functions and specialist retail and business functions serving extensive urban and regional areas" (Evans 1997). They are also attractive to tourists; especially due to the growing interest is urban heritage. Furthermore, City centres could be great choices for business conference(Oc 1996).

Despite commercial role, city centres play important part in social and psychological aspects. They are places for "public events, festivals and most important civic spaces and buildings". They are always something special in citizens' hearts(Evans 1997).

What decentralizes city centres?


"Retailing has recently proved the most dynamic and most important town centre activity" (Evans 1997). There is no doubt that one of the main purpose for people come to city centres is not to visit friends, see an exhibition, or go to church, but shopping. However, this activity has been disrupted by out-of-town retails.

Before 1960's, people in and around city centres prefer to shop within walk distance or public transport distance because of the undeveloped motorways. Yet, with the development of economy, city centre congestion and high land prices made investors have to seek more valuable sites. Out-of-town shopping centres and hypermarkets were given birth one by one ( Schiller,1986); "warehouses selling furniture, carpets and DIY, rapidly developed into better designed retail parks with leisure facilities and fast food restaurants" (Evans 1997). All these factors threatened the centralization of city centres


Transport is regarded as the blood vessel of a city. The economic and social development critically depends on the condition of transport. People in city centres need easy, cheap, effective and comfortable transportation to connect them with homes, offices, shopping centres, gyms and restaurants.

Just as a coin has two sides, the developed transportation burned city centres up, as well as declined them. Sawyer said "Cars come gift wrapped in sex, freedom, potency, money, glamour and individualism" (Sawyer, 1994). Yet, what have come along with cars were not only convenience but also congestion, pollution and the lack of lands for housing, retail and public space (Jones, 1991). For this, both residents and employers tried to move out of city centres although it would bring more problems(Ravetz,1985).

Land use

In the 19th century, many cities pursue a rigid zoning policy. Jane Jacobs(1961) argued that lively neighborhoods comes from the overlapping and interweaving of activities and areas. Lately, Leon Krier(1984) pointed out, "the principal modern building types and planning models such as the skyscraper, the ground scraper, the central business district the commercial strip, the office park, the residential suburb, etc. are invariably horizontal or vertical over-concentrations of single uses in one urban zone, in one building programmer, or under one roof"(Krier,1984). Mono-functional land use make environments dead outside working-times. Clearance and replacement of traditional housing with affordable flats increased the depopulation of centre areas. Jacobs argued that "a range of different building types and ages, with their variety of renting profiles, was vital to the life of urban areas" (Oc 1996). At the meanwhile, this separation result in long car journeys, which promoted sustained problems of city centres. In a word, This functional zoning of urban areas made city centres lost their vitality definitely(Evans 1997).


In summing up, we inevitably return to the central question: why has Sheffield city centre shrunk and how? The preceding part has explored why it is a valuable research question. As a typical shrinking industrial city, Sheffield gives meaningful evidence to the general research about shrinking cities. Based on the research question, we have suggested documents and observation as two main research methods. Literature review has shown relative evidence and academic points on declining city centres, which could be main reason of the shrinkage of Sheffield city centre. Retail evolution is one such intervention. The second intervention relies on transport development. Thirdly, land use policy affected city centres dramatically. Although we have done some research, it is just the very beginning. It would be very useful to replicate the study with more effort; equally, it could be replicated in another city for comparison purposes and general conclusion.


  • Christaller , W. (1966) Central Places in Southern Germany (translation by C.W. Baskin), Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
  • Evans, R(1997) Regenerating town centres, Manchester University Press, Manchester
  • Krier,L (1984) Houses, places, cities, Architectural Design, Vol. 54 (7/8).
  • Jacobs,J.(1961) The death and life of great American cities, Random House, New York.
  • Jones,P. (1991) Public attitudes to options for dealing with traffic congestion in urban areas-what the pollsters say, Institute of British Geographers Annual Conference, Sheffield, 2-5 January.
  • Knute Berger 2009) The incredible shrinking city
  • Ravetz, A. (1985), The government of spaces: town planning in modern society, Faber and Faber, London
  • Roland Lovatt, Developments in the Sheffield Population
  • Oc, T. and Tiesdell, S. (1996) Revitalizing Historic Urban Quarters, Architectural Press, Oxford.
  • Sawyer, M. (1994) Driving the men wild, Guardian, 18 May.
  • Schiller, R.(1986) Office decentralization, lessons from America, Estates Gazette, 4, pp.20-2.