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Cities for a Small ContinentInternational Handbook of City Recovery$

Anne Power

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781447327523

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447327523.001.0001

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Lessons from cities in a crowded continent

Lessons from cities in a crowded continent

(p.1) One Lessons from cities in a crowded continent
Cities for a Small Continent

Bruce Katz

Anne Power

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces the core idea that Europe is an old and crowded continent of dense, productive cities. They have survived the loss of major industries and adapted. Without these cities, Europe cannot survive. This handbook shows how former industrial cities are uncovering new breakthroughs to a different kind of future. Chapter One sets our framework for understanding Europe’s industrial cities in three phases: growth and decline; recovery and new crises; and an alternative “greener” future.

Keywords:   crowded continent, breakthroughs, industrial cities, recovery, greener future

We are the first generation that through its neglect could destroy the relationship between humans and the planet, and perhaps the last generation that can prevent dangerous climate change

Nicholas Stern, Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency and Promise of Tackling Climate Change

Introduction: Europe’s troubled and beloved cities

Europe is a small, crowded continent with compact crowded cities, often so close to each other that their boundaries almost touch each other. In between, there are also great green expanses, of forests, mountains and farms, increasingly populated by wind turbines and solar panels. Cities are connected by a dense network of long-established railways and new high speed trains as well as fast, modern roads, bridges and imposing motorway fly-overs. The economy of cities is like a large, thick tapestry, woven together with thousands of threads and multiple colours, each making the other stronger, working as a whole.

Europe’s historic city centres look dense, busy, cared for, populated with cafes, small shops, monuments, churches, public squares and traffic. On the centre’s edge, even in smaller, poorer cities, there are often concrete towers, gestures to modernity, banking and internationalisation. But there are also abandoned buildings and derelict spaces. It is easy to see the potential in Europe’s battle-worn cities and their multi-tongued people, just as it is easy to see the broad sweep of world-shaping history. The paving stones and old buildings, the traffic and noise, the statues and war memorials tell a story of struggle, survival and resilience. People from all corners of the earth are crowded into them, banking on their future. But many city cores around the centre have become run down, underinvested, unloved, with too many jobless youth and too few enterprising job creators. All of Europe’s cities were not long ago producers of goods. Today, most of those goods come from afar and too many hands, machines and spaces are idle.

This international handbook draws together ten years of ground-level research into the causes and consequences of Europe’s biggest urban challenge – the loss of industry, jobs and productive capacity. The handbook explores the potential of former industrial cities to offer a new and more sustainable future for a crowded continent under severe environmental constraints and extreme, economic and social pressures. It focuses on cities that not only were the most productive and wealth creating in the not too distant past, but the most reliant on major industries and therefore the hardest hit by their demise. These (p.3) cities have lived through many phases of growth and decline and they are experimenting in alternative futures. So they may show us new ways forward.

Why cities dominate in spite of loss of industry and jobs

Around 80% of Europe’s over 500 million inhabitants live in around 500 large and thousands of smaller cities and towns.1 Most of these cities are traditionally ‘producer cities’, where goods are made and services created to support production. Most still are in some measure producers, but large-scale heavy industries have often moved their investments and jobs to Asia, to cheaper labour markets, leaving behind underused assets and underemployed populations. They also left behind thousands of smaller functioning enterprises, and a huge public infrastructure on which far wider metropolitan areas depend – universities, hospitals, transport interchanges, housing, financial and legal services, cultural activity and much more.

With so much underused potential, cities are gaining rather than losing prominence as they continue to dominate the world’s largest and densest economic union in Europe, now with 28 member countries and over three quarters urban. For in spite of Europe’s economic troubles, its cities remain a major magnet for new opportunity, for living space, for social, cultural and economic activity. They also cause environmental damage far beyond their boundaries and a legacy of pollution and depletion that cries out for action. Yet these very problems offer potential solutions to our current dual crisis of financial unviability and finite environmental limits.

Europe’s old industrial cities are famous today for their ugly, left-behind wastelands and underused buildings, their poverty, and their inability to catch up with their prosperous capitals or historic tourist centres. Yet they are rich in skills, ideas, connections and inventions. They are using their traditional engineering knowledge and expertise to rebuild entrepreneurial and problem solving skills. This could make them the cities of tomorrow, not yesterday.

Most things about them are undervalued: their railway lines, canals and rivers; their universities and small engineering companies; their vast and impressive town halls, civic institutions and 19th century factory buildings; their public libraries and swimming baths; their neglected neighbourhoods, underemployed young people and cast-off older industrial workers.

New breakthroughs may be around the corner. For as fast as old industries – coal, steel, textiles, shipbuilding – all but disappeared (p.4) from the small continent, a massive new threat became an unforeseen opportunity for cities on the edge. Environmental damage and a warming climate caused through man-made activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels like coal, affect Europe profoundly through our longer, more intense, industrial history, and our population density. Industrial cities paid a heavy price for the environmental damage they caused, losing not only their mainstay industries, but much of their wealth and status. They also destroyed their local environments and turned their social structures upside down. Yet below the radar over a 20-year recovery period starting in the late 1980s and 90s, they created a unique blend of invention, advanced engineering and manufacture, reclamation and social investment, giving them a head-start in tackling the largest global challenge of all times – planetary climate change.2

Producer cities across Europe have gone through booms, self-destruction, major industrial collapse, attempts to rebuild their fortunes, economic and environmental unravelling. The 21st century needs their high level engineering traditions and skills to remake the world of cities with their high consumption into a world of environmental care for the precious natural and man-made resources of an urbanised, crowded, city-dominated continent. This is the most challenging, yet most hopeful basis for a viable, carbon-light future.3

As scientific evidence of human-driven climate change becomes overwhelming, green innovations in which Europe is a leader are emerging in older, formerly declining industrial cities as a result of their engineering, technical and inventive traditions. The discovery in 2003 of graphene at Manchester University, a new ‘miracle material’, offering many energy saving possibilities, is one spectacular example.4 Even cities with a long and deeply scarred industrial past have many surviving industrial workshops, innovative enterprises and start-ups, attractive vernacular architecture, historic parks and reclaimed wastelands. Dortmund in the Ruhr, Roubaix in Northern France, Stoke in the Potteries, Hull in North East England, and Burnley in Lancashire offer monumental examples of civic pride in the midst of decayed and abandoned industrial landscapes.

Yet these places formed the backbone of Europe’s transformative industrial revolution. Former industrial giants and their ancillary cities, such as Manchester and the surrounding cotton towns, matter today to the health of capitals like London and Paris which also have their past industrial histories. But many cities are working to combat fierce decline. Cities like Lille, Saint-Étienne, Belfast, Torino, Leipzig, Bilbao and Sheffield are taking impressive strides towards recovering (p.5) their position as wealth-creators. These are the cities whose stories we draw on.

This study picks up threads of change and signs of recovery, rediscovery and rebirth in cities across Europe, following our earlier study, Phoenix cities.5 Thanks to strong public efforts at reinvestment across the continent since the late 1980s, the most acute decline was slowed and even reversed. However, just as these hard-hit cities showed signs of a fragile recovery, they were once more undermined by the international banking crisis of 2008. New resource limits emerged as this crisis threatened to swamp progress and the Eurozone entered a phase of deep instability, lasting until today. Former industrial cities like Sheffield were particularly hard hit by public spending cuts; while cities like Saint-Étienne were affected by the wider problems of the French economy and its own overhanging debt; and Torino found itself with an unfundable debt burden due to changes in national policy.

European cities under pressure

Cities in a small and crowded continent now face extreme challenges, taking different forms in different countries, shaped in part by different histories, cultures and economic paths. But five interconnected pressures influence the prospects of Europe’s former industrial cities:

  • The financial, banking and public funding crises across Europe are compounded in the Eurozone by the restrictions on a common currency, which affect all European Union countries.

  • The great recession of 2008–14 and high unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, led to shockingly high levels of joblessness among under 25s, hitting over 50% in Spain, 30% in parts of France such as Saint-Étienne and over 40% in Italy.

  • Insecurity of energy supply, price uncertainty and diminishing reserves of key resources, including land, raw materials, even food, are undermining people’s confidence in the future.

  • High levels of immigration from developing countries and Eastern Europe, particularly during a long, deep recession, create political and social tensions that cities must broker and manage.

  • Unpredictable weather events, such as flooding, extreme heat and drought, all affecting cities, point to the biggest threat of all with the highest costs attached – climate change.6

These problems have created a political climate of great uncertainty where votes are harder to win, taxes harder to collect and jobs harder (p.6) to find. Urban change in an already highly built-up, heavily exploited, urbanised environment does not ‘start afresh’, as America has so often done and as China is now attempting with its giant new ‘eco-cities’.7 How we rediscover, remake and reuse our urban pathways, worn deep into our cities and our landscape, will shape our urban future.

Europe’s cities are forced to invent ways of coping with land pressures that offer a useful model to developing countries where cities are growing and spreading and to developed countries where cities are surrounded by vast, sprawling, car-born suburbs that have fatally weakened their cores and are highly energy intensive.8

European cities became the global hubs of modern industry in the 19th and 20th centuries – Sheffield’s steel, Belfast’s ships, Torino’s cars, Lille’s textiles. Today they again show clear signs of resilience and recovery; their 200-year-old industrial traditions, which were their life blood, have fuelled innovative ideas about recovery. The lessons of the past shape their path. Ten years of visits, close observation and on-site workshops about their survival and rebirth provide evidence for this handbook.

The rise, fall and rebirth of Europe’s ex-industrial cities

Ground-level stories from seven struggling and reforming cities in six countries, representing seven distinct European regions, opened our eyes. Northern Ireland, with Belfast as its capital, part of the island of Ireland, is distinct from the rest of Britain, separated by the sea, with strong nationalist movements, and its own government; Leipzig in Eastern Germany was part of the former Communist Eastern bloc and bears many marks of that history; Saint-Étienne, a small and formerly almost exclusively industrial city in Southern France contrasts sharply with Lille, the dominant regional capital of north east France and one of Europe’s most important international transport hubs; Bilbao is the industrial centre of the Basque country, a uniquely autonomous region of Spain, and a popular tourist centre; Torino, famous as the home and headquarters of Fiat, is also the historic capital of Italy;9 Sheffield was the world’s leading steel and knife producer. We could have chosen dozens, even hundreds, of similar cities, and much of our evidence draws on a wide urban canvas: Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool in Britain; Essen, Dortmund, Bochum, Hamburg and Bremen in Germany; Barcelona and Sevilla in Spain; Milano, Genoa and Napoli in Italy; Larne and Londonderry in Northern Ireland; and many more.

(p.7) We chose the particular seven cities because they represent seven geographically and culturally distinct European regions, but share four common characteristics:

  • rapid growth in population, jobs and wealth creation during the first industrial revolution;

  • significant loss of population, jobs and industrial prowess during their steep and rapid decline in the late 20th century;

  • a private, public and civic alliance committed to reinvestment, recovery and reversal of decline in the 1990s and 2000s; and

  • clear signs of resilience and recovery in spite of crisis.

Our grounded methods allow us to understand the lived experiences of citizens and city leaders alike, as they struggle to respond to wave after wave of change.

The long roots of Phoenix cities

The rise, fall and rebirth of great industrial cities in Europe calls up the image of the magical bird of ancient folklore, which in glorious plumage lives for hundreds of years until exhausted, it builds a giant funeral pyre, in which it self-immolates, but in which it has laid a giant egg. From the ashes rises a new Phoenix, to live again and endlessly recreate itself. Cities, like the Phoenix, arise and display powers of creation, energy, beauty, and wealth that are unrivalled, until they figuratively and sometimes literally burn themselves out and their prosperity turns to ashes, seemingly consuming their vitality. By a similar magic, cities are reborn, regrow in new forms that both mirror and transform the old. They find ways to reinvent themselves by reusing the form, legacy and talent of the old – as also happens in the film The Full Monty.

The Full Monty tells the tragic story of former steel workers in Sheffield, made redundant by mass closures of giant steel works. It captures the guts, determination and inventiveness of the ‘stranded assets’ of struggling cities, their people. The redundant workers feel ‘stripped bare to the bone’ and in a moment of genius, they turn their left-behind, discarded talents to good, earning money and restoring pride in revalued and newly discovered theatrical skills. This touchingly, hilariously true-to-life story captures the fate of Europe’s former industrial cities. It seemed they had been stripped bare, like Sheffield’s discarded steel workers, but they are reinventing themselves. The recession, banking failures, job losses and euro crisis, harsh and (p.8) uncertain as they are, are together generating green shoots of new growth. We do not yet know if the green shoots are strong enough.

The story of the seven cities mirrors the story of Europe’s rise, fall and hoped-for recovery. The seven cities all enjoyed a prominent pre-industrial history, giving them national and international status, which underlines their strategic importance in location, natural resources and political cross-connections. As these influences came together, they fed their manufacturing growth and accelerated their development when the industrial revolution got underway. For example Torino, at the gateway of the Italian Alps, was from Roman times a vital crossing point between Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. Lille had long been the strategic military and trade link between France, the Netherlands, Northern Germany and the Baltic. Belfast was a historic port close to the west of Scotland through which the British could settle on rich farm land in Ireland and reinforce their dominance. Sheffield held a royal prisoner in the castle. Leipzig was a critical trading centre between East and West. This history laid the ground for their future growth. Table 1.1 shows the historic origins of the seven cities.

The seven industrial cities went through an unprecedented population explosion in the 19th century, attracting migrant workers from poorer regions and more recently in the 20th century, from former far-flung European colonies and other regions around the globe. They were the pioneers in materials extraction, machine building, engineering and mass manufacture. They generated immense wealth not just for the cities themselves, but for whole countries, and the continent of Europe, by extracting valuable resources both from their surrounding land and from their colonies. For example Saint-Étienne developed its wealth and fame on the back of artisan crafts in metals and textiles dating from the pre-industrial era, eventually becoming the biggest centre of arms manufacture in France from which Napoleon commandeered vital military supplies for his foreign armies. It built France’s first railway line and first bicycle.

The environments of the seven cities were rich in valuable resources like coal, iron, water, and their exploding populations quickly acquired skills which fuelled their growth. But both land and labour were overexploited during 200 years of intense growth. Table 1.2 shows the scale of early growth, where city populations sometimes doubled in a decade or two. Sheffield’s population increased 7-fold in 150 years, Leipzig’s 12-fold.

By the late 1970s Europe’s industrial cities were losing populations, jobs and economic vitality. By the 1980s, their image was polluted, ingrained with soot, possibly obsolete, their workers deskilled and (p.9)

Table 1.1: Historic origins


Medieval trading centre on major international routes across Europe

Home of Johann Sebastian Bach

Medieval university

Rich coal deposits


Medieval regional centre on frontier of several countries – France, Belgium, Flanders – highly strategic location for international armies

Inland port

Rich coal deposits

Early textile industry – linen


Small pre-industrial craft based centre – became important for arms manufacture under Napoleon

Rich coal and iron deposits

Early lace making and iron goods

Early development of mining technique


Medieval capital of powerful city state at foothill of Alps – critical crossing point between countries

Confluence of major rivers

Textiles, engineering, finance


Trading and fishing centre for ancient Basque kingdom

Important port shipping

Early extraction of iron

Early engineering


Small pre-industrial settlement with famous medieval castle where Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned

Rich coal and iron deposits

Early metal works


Early settlement with strong links across the Irish sea to Scotland – became an important entry point for Scottish settlers in 16th and 17th centuries

Major port shipping; textiles – linen; engineering


All the cities had some pre-industrial functions, often helping industrial development.

All had a combination of mining, textiles, port activities, trading and engineering.

Source: City visits, 2006–15

underemployed. Large, factory-made housing estates, built for the mass of workers, became marginalised islands of poverty, underused, unpopular and increasingly home to poor migrants. Their economic raison d’être shrank as manufacturing giants sought out newer, cheaper, more profitable production centres. For example, Sheffield was the world famous inventor of Bessemer Steel, which allowed cheap mass production on an unimagined scale. Sheffield steel is still used for the advanced manufacture of engines, machinery, domestic and commercial goods, but in the 1980s, Sheffield lost most of its major steel companies (p.10) and saw its economy shrink dramatically, even though some steel production continued. The threads of these old skills led to new inventions, such as fine precision cutting for advanced manufacture, and laser technology. But our cities still struggle to overcome their past and build their future.

Table 1.2: Population growth from the industrial revolution (1750–1980)



Population number

Increase, 1750–1980







































































Sources: Plöger (2007a, 2007b); Winkler (2007a, 2007b); Power et al (2010)

(p.11) Recovering cities need external support

The drama of de-industrialisation played out in city after city, until the local leadership was forced to abandon attempts to protect established but dying local industries and find new ways forward. In an attempt to fuel such recovery, national governments, with underpinning from the European Union, began to reinvest. European governments converged around the need to compensate for and make good the massive damage caused by industrial overexploitation. Every city we visited, along with hundreds of other cities like them across Europe, attracted major public investment to restore their environments, upgrade their infrastructure, reclaim landmark buildings, restore neighbourhoods and rebuild their skills.

Funds were levered in with public backing in the first phase of recovery, to restore city centres and inner areas, to reorient existing infrastructure, remodel city buildings and develop a new skills base. The most disadvantaged and most depleted regions, cities and neighbourhoods became conspicuous targets for European and national funding, particularly focused on regions hard hit by industrial decline. This helped equalise conditions and encouraged innovative projects. Private investors were gradually drawn back to join this public effort. The new shock waves of the 2008 international banking crisis, the bailouts, the austerity that followed, only made the value of reinvestment starker.

For example Bilbao, with its troubled, nationalist history, its terrorist attacks, the devastating loss of its giant steel furnaces and heavy engineering, attracted huge compensatory investment in the vast port areas and older inner neighbourhoods that were the legacy of its dying heavy industries and shipping. These public investments were not simply a disguise or cover-up for the inevitable shrinkage such cities were experiencing. They were both restoring liveable conditions and responding to local plans to create new out of old – an urban Phoenix. The external public support within countries was part of a much bigger, Europe-wide challenge. We set out to discover what real change this reinvestment has brought about, and what potential for new growth it now offers, given the loss of large-scale public funds since 2008 and the severe environmental constraints within which Europe lives.

Gathering concrete evidence of cities coping with change

A handbook for European cities cannot possibly capture every detail of the long struggle to reform, nor project accurately the rollercoaster (p.12) trajectories of cities following the financial and employment crises of the past eight years. But cities surviving such turmoil can teach us a great deal about cycles of growth, decline and recovery, about how cities revive and renew themselves amid the ashes of the old.

This is a people story – how people created wealth, consumed and destroyed it; then laboriously built it up again; how communities were damaged by the very wealth creation these cities are famous for; and how city governments all over Europe attempted to integrate poorer areas into the mainstream. Will they now break through into what we think of as a new industrial revolution, following the first phase of extreme over-growth and exploitation; then the second of extreme decline and efforts at recovery? The third phase will point along a very different road to recovery, one that has few signposts and many unknowns – yet it is emerging in unlikely places as the ultimate Phoenix.

Cities for a small continent examines the actions that shape the course of cities for the future, and the global forces beyond their control that drive the changes. Did public reinvestment help cities bounce back? What actions helped most – skills or buildings, people or place? How did industrial cities come through the 2008 recession? Is a new economy emerging?

The value of this handbook is to demonstrate:

  • what is being tried;

  • what works;

  • what the costs and benefits of different approaches are;

  • what the pitfalls are and how they can be avoided;

  • what the differences are between cities; and

  • what common rationale and patterns of change emerge and what these patterns tell us.

The problems facing Europe’s former industrial cities are so serious that economic, social and environmental conditions must be transformed. This long-term task involves building on and intensifying the partial recovery process that is producing many visible green shoots. Live examples which we document demonstrate action-learning in real places, showing what is possible, and inspiring further experiments. Hard-won experience generates confidence, which in turn attracts support. The ongoing upheavals of the last eight years make anything other than action-learning immediately out-of-date.

Cities do not work to prescribed recipes and procedures. They cannot simply be ‘fixed’, as their history, their geography, their flows of people and ideas make them bounded and fluid simultaneously. So (p.13) this handbook is not a ‘toolkit’, but a guide to how cities are reshaping themselves. These cities have a history of learning by doing, of coupling research and innovation with producing things, of trialling ideas by turning them into practical experiments. There is no prescription, but many models, examples of what works and opportunities for places with leftover capacity – skills, people, buildings, transport, land and waterways. These cities are right now laboratories of change.

The unrealised potential of post-industrial cities has risen up the European agenda in part because of the financial crisis and the resource pressures on governments as European economies struggle to emerge from the worst recession since before the war. Former industrial cities point to a different kind of future, which is more than a cosmetic upgrading, a culturally or politically driven revival. The response of producer cities during years of upheaval and austerity creates a new and distinctive approach to city reform and recovery – truly transformative innovation. For although most of the big industries are now gone, there are literally thousands of surviving small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in each city, often the direct descendants of companies that operated as part of the powerful industrial supply chain, but now filling valuable engineering and production niches in the new economy. There is the potential for many new jobs through these SMEs.

A combination of reinvestment in infrastructure, backed at national and European levels, and the development of new specialisms, based on long-run expertise and skills, helps to shape a new economy within Europe’s industrial cities. The 2008 crash reinforced this sense of direction as cities survived better than expected.

Learning from American suburban sprawl

Europe’s cities are starkly different from their North American counterparts, which sprawl far outside their cores at extreme low densities. These ‘ex-urbs’ are linked and dissected by multi-lane freeways, only rarely by rail. Most American cities are more car-bound, less public transport-oriented and less pedestrian friendly than their European counterparts, simply because they are invariably too low-density to concentrate a critical mass in small spaces. They are overwhelmingly suburban in style. The lower urban density means that people walk the streets far less and public transport is less viable, making car dependence inevitably far greater. Small local shops are rarer and street life in most city centres, even in strongly populated, successful American cities, is usually sparser than in Europe.

(p.14) Energy consumption in low-density US cities is far higher on average than in Europe.10 Sprawl makes American cities more divided and more racially segregated than Europe’s cities.11 American cities also have far higher rates of violent crime and incarceration, about five times the European level, partly as a result of higher poverty levels and weaker public underpinning.12

The recovery efforts of European cities in the late 1990s and 2000s made these differences more visible, as recent American studies show.13 Europe is locked into dense urban patterns, while America is locked into dispersed metropolitan patterns. In a land-constrained continent, and an energy-constrained world, European cities have no choice but to work to integrate diverse communities and harmonise social conditions. This reduces but by no means overcomes inequalities. Urban density accentuates the need for shared spaces and shared resources, while proximity underlines the potential for renewal.14

American cities have as dramatic and diverse a story to tell as European cities, but this history is less vaunted, partly because core cities have a shorter history.15 Many legacy buildings and homes in older industrial cities in North America have been obliterated by careless modernisation or ‘urban renewal’, or simply by the scale of abandonment, usually for the outer suburbs. There is also a much weaker sense of world-shaping events in these sprawling agglomerations of wealth and poverty, because so much of American trade and development has been internal within a vast country, whereas European cities since Roman times have relied heavily on cross-border resource exploitation, colonisation, trade and exchange, forcing them to look outwards. War played a big part in this.

Yet across the United States, in old industrial cities, a similar recovery and rebirth is happening. Not only are US cities waking up to their potential, but green shoots of urban recovery under resource constraints are appearing in cities thought of as ‘dead’. Detroit is an extreme example of this as we will show. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Louisville, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Detroit and many other cities illustrate the struggle in the US to reshape a monumental urban legacy that has become a vital resource for the future, far more than a liability. Many trans-Atlantic lessons reinforce the value of cities. Cities are making a come-back on both sides of the Atlantic.16 This handbook pools these ideas.

(p.15) Resource pressures and hopes of a new industrial revolution

European cities cannot sprawl or consume energy on the scale of North America. Therefore, a uniquely European model of city recovery is emerging that is based on high density, mixed use, recycling, conservation, custodial investment of semi-public, semi-private funds, an energy transformation and a pressing focus on social integration of diverse communities. Will this European model generate a more sustainable approach to the urban environment, a more solidaristic approach to city diversity, and a new dynamism that is capable of generating the new industrial revolution that Nicholas Stern forecasts is essential?17 Finding and applying new, low-carbon ways of doing things that are more self-sustaining and more self-replenishing than in the past is the foundation of our shared future. The handbook proposes that a new industrial economy based on the assets of these cities offers a route to reducing the threat of climate change.

Nicholas Stern makes a powerful case for a radical restructuring of industrial economies. He stresses the imperative to reshape existing industrial methods, skills and infrastructure in favour of a ‘new low-carbon industrial revolution’. He highlights evidence that this conversion process is under way. He argues that the risks involved in not doing it are unthinkably high; that the costs of doing it are affordable; and that escaping the gridlock or ‘lock-in’ of the dominant, existing infrastructure, production and consumption patterns is vital. Evidence from the seven cities suggests that they already far down this transformational road. These cities are already experimenting with the new industrial economy.

Our framework for understanding the way European cities have grown, declined and recovered is based on European studies dating from 1987.18 Figure 1.1 sets out the three phases of a Phoenix city.


Lessons from cities in a crowded continent

Figure 1.1: Framework for understanding Phoenix cities

(p.17) Outline of Cities for a small continent

The handbook is divided into nine chapters. Each chapter ends with a short ‘Tale of a city’ to illustrate the main arguments with a live snapshot of progress.

Chapter One, Lessons from cities in a crowded continent, has introduced the core idea that Europe is an old and crowded continent of dense, productive cities. They have survived the loss of major industries and adapted. Without these cities, Europe cannot survive. The handbook shows how former industrial cities are uncovering new breakthroughs to a different kind of future. This chapter has set out our framework for understanding Europe’s industrial cities in three phases: growth and decline; recovery and new crises; and an alternative ‘greener’ future.

Chapter Two, Divided and united Europe, explains the bitter 20th century European experience of two World Wars which made industrial cities vital to survival. The legacy of the Second World War created a strong proactive social and public policy focus. This led to public investment in infrastructure, the building of welfare states and mass housing. The experience of deep, long-run conflict, followed by the Cold War, reinforced the value of economic cooperation, social cohesion and public underpinning. The idea that war should never happen again on European soil led directly to the creation of the European Common Market and the European Union. World wars, the Cold War, eventual collapse of the ‘Iron Curtain’ and the common market have strongly shaped, shaken and reinforced the role of Europe’s many ex-industrial cities.

Chapter Three, Grit and vision, explains how Europe’s post-war boom fuelled an unsustainable growth, over-scaling of industry and counter-movements of citizens that eventually contributed to industrial collapse in Europe’s densely populated producer cities. As cities became mass production centres, bigness came to dominate the European way of life. Large-scale government action led to mass housing, motorways, mass goods and services. Full employment led to high immigration, while protest movements grew under the umbrella of state provision. Environmental limits became clear with the oil crisis and decline set in. Chapter Three explains Phase One of the framework for Europe’s industrial cities – explosive growth and collapse.

Chapter Four, Struggle and strive, sets out how cities and governments responded to the challenge of industrial decline. The role of government, local, national and European, became even more important at this stage and strongly underpinned recovery. Citizens (p.18) and private enterprise leaders became deeply involved in the rescue attempts. A big turnaround was underway driven by strong city leadership, government backing and the heavy involvement of citizens. Serious efforts were dedicated to restoring poorer neighbourhoods and integrating poorer, particularly minority, communities. By 2008, all the signs were that cities were improving. Chapter Four explores Phase Two of the framework – post-industrial recovery.

Chapter Five, Threats and opportunities, shows how the financial crisis of 2008 called an abrupt halt to the large-scale public reinvestment that was moving ‘Phoenix cities’ forward. However, earlier rescue attempts had laid the foundations for a different, ‘resource-limited’, energy-constrained, ‘green’ model of recovery, based on recycling existing infrastructure, buildings and skills. Troubled and struggling ‘weak market’ cities are practised at pulling through and now, while public and private resources shrink, cities learn to ‘do more with less’, coping on smaller budgets and operating at smaller scales. Chapter Five sets out Phase Three of industrial cities – resource constrained economy.

Chapter Six, Over-scale and under-scale, shows that cities learnt the hard way that over-large industry and over-reliance on the public sector no longer work. But earlier industrial skills and the over-arching role of government can be marshalled to create a new economy. The proliferation of SMEs becomes the multilayered backbone of a new economy when big businesses vanish. Cities slowly recognise the value of SMEs, often spawned by bigger institutions and enterprises (such as universities) and often inventing new goods and services. Manufacturing jobs continue to shrink, while new service and maker enterprises emerge. Advanced manufacture draws on the producer skills of the cities combined with their engineering prowess.

Chapter Seven, The power of social innovation, is about the social economy, social exclusion and inclusion. SMEs not only sustain production and services but also support a renewed social focus with many breakthrough social innovations in what is now called the ‘Sharing Economy’. However, the skills gap remains a serious challenge for those most damaged by industrial losses – particularly among youth. The concentration of foreigners and ethnic minorities in the poorest neighbourhoods also challenges the European ideal of social cohesion.

Chapter Eight, Shoots of growth in older industrial cities in the US, is a voice from the States. Leading metropolitan scholars recount the story of urban turnaround in the most unlikely places, the cores of seriously damaged former industrial cities – the growth of innovation districts near the downtown areas, the recovery of some inner neighbourhoods, the reintroduction of public transport, (p.19) and repopulation of the centre city. The American story powerfully reinforces the European one in spite of extreme levels of poverty and segregation. Our framework broadly applies to change and recovery in former industrial US cities.

Chapter Nine, Finding new ways out of the woods, debates the prospects for European cities. Struggling cities, with a heavy legacy of problems, are doing better than forecast and surviving draconian cuts in external public support. Resource use is shifting in favour of recycling, reinventing, renewing, remaking the economy in a new and almost unforeseen mould. New breakthroughs in advanced manufacture, which these cities are highly suited to develop, spawn thousands of subsidiary services and products even though they offer few jobs directly within their high-precision industries. A new economy, growing from smaller scale, more flexible, more innovative and bespoke production methods, using 3D printing, advanced engineering and computer technologies, is growing in European and American cities.19 A lighter, leaner, more creative, more ‘broken up’, more experimental economy is beginning to grow in Phoenix cities. Chapter Nine illustrates how the three phases of our framework fit together and point to a greener future.


European cities industrialised earlier than elsewhere; they invented clumsy, heavy-handed industrial methods and were extravagant in their use of materials. They took the earliest steps along the path to factory production. Energy, natural resources and labour were cheap and plentiful until they became overexploited and unsustainable. Along the way, they devastated their environments in order to get ahead in production and stay ahead. Mass production became self-fuelling – the more we have, the more we want. European cities testify to the finite limits of both natural and human resources.20 Nowhere illustrates the scale of over-reach and subsequent devastation more powerfully than the Ruhr in Northern Germany, with its preserved ghostlike giant relics of its industrial past, reminding us of the consequences of over exploitation.21

European cities have the strongest possible reason for treading a new path. They can become energy saving and resource efficient; they are attractive and valuable to the European economy, one of the biggest single markets in the world, in spite of its problems. Cities are the engines of new ideas after a period of decline. The seven cities are only at the beginning of this uncertain road and they form a small sample (p.20) from a large pool of similar cities. However, wider studies bear out the evidence presented here and our case studies expose how and why city change actually happens. Cities are in constant flux but the changes we document may point to a more viable, more balanced, urban future in the world’s smallest, most crowded, most city-loving, continent.

Lessons from cities in a crowded continent

Photo 1.6: Azkuna Zentroa (Alhondiga): Converted 19th century wine store in central Bilbao – now a cultural and leisure centre with library, theatre, swimming pool, gym, community spaces. Each unique pillar is designed by an outstanding artist

Lessons from cities in a crowded continent

Photo 1.7: Bilbao riverfront showing covered market and high rise housing in the background


Lessons from cities in a crowded continent

Photo 1.8: Casco Viejo (The old town)