The Incredible Shrinking Town

By Freek Schmidt and Minke Walda

On 2 December, a special research meeting took place at Delft University, devoted to a phenomenon in architecture that is both a current and a historic spatial problem: shrinking towns (or krimp in Dutch). This was also the theme of the latest issue of Bulletin KNOB, the oldest Dutch scholarly journal on architectural history. Speakers included designers, architects, urban planners, and of course, architectural historians. While many architectural firms in the Netherlands had to close their offices in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2006, a new agenda was set for many others. Over the last decade, the way we look at urban planning and architecture has changed considerably: large scale expansion of European cities is replaced by sustaining the existing urban fabric, while architects constantly come up with new ideas and designs that offer ‘tools for durability’ and have taken an interest in the resilience of old and defunct buildings.

Bulletin KNOB, 4 (2016)
Bulletin KNOB, 4 (2016)

Transformation has become a key word in architectural practice, equaling the term ‘sustainability’ in the world of urban planning. You would almost start to believe that these are indeed topical issues, but they are not. In Delft, architectural historian Reinout Rutte explained how krimp is something of all times. Looking at long-term developments in urbanism, it becomes clear that, especially before the twentieth century, growth and krimp in cities alternated constantly as a result of fluctuations in economy and population. Current interests seem to redirect interest from the extension of towns towards changes within existing cities, and from new buildings towards existing buildings. There is even a growing interest for the history of demolition and a desire to understand spatial patterns of depopulation in urban areas.

Symposium 'Krimp in de stad', 2 December 2016
img_0057img_0095 Symposium ‘Krimp in de stad’, 2 December 2016

In Delft, during the one day symposium ‘Krimp in de stad’ , special attention was given to early modern cities in the Netherlands: after the Golden Age of the seventeenth century in Holland, maintenance of the cities became increasingly problematic. These once proud cities, bustling with all kinds of activities against the backdrop of well-maintained, continuous rows of houses and proud public buildings, were turning into areas where complete rows of houses were left by the inhabitants to rot, and thereby show that the city was in bad shape in more than one way, making an ugly sight. Some cities witnessed a dramatic fall in the number of residents, and local administrators saw their cities turning into ghost towns, without being able to turn this process around. Something had to be done, at least cosmetically, to prevent further decline.

From the research that Minke Walda conducted for her MA Thesis and presented in Delft, it becomes clear how economic decline seriously affected the built environment. Between 1632 and 1840 the population of Enkhuizen, a city north of Amsterdam, declined with 75 %, while 2500 of the original 3615 houses disappeared. The authorities tried to come to terms with these problems by regulating demolition, preventing further visual degradation of the townscape, monitoring the safety of streets, existing buildings and dikes, and maintaining the level of property tax revenues.

The afternoon ended around bigger questions that concern us all, and stressed the importance of historical research for informed discussion of current issues: why do we always try to preserve so much, when we know that change is unavoidable in so many cases?

Rebuilding and demolition requests in Enkhuizen (1795-1813), marked on the cadastral map of 1823
Rebuilding and demolition requests in Enkhuizen (1795-1813), marked on the cadastral map of 1823

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