Global cities begin to shrink as inner areas empty out
When Kelly Simon co-founded the website “Paris, je te quitte” (Paris, I’m leaving you) five years ago, she was in her mid-20s and already felt leaving the French capital would be a rite of passage.
“After spending your 20s in Paris, you start thinking about your future: first child, more space, be closer to nature . . . what’s next after Paris?” she said.
The website, originally a blog, but now offering job listings, property finding services and coaching, has found an eager audience each month of tens of thousands whose longing to escape is showing up in the data: inner Paris is shrinking.
The number of people living in the Paris departement, or administrative area, dropped by an average of 11,900 people a year between 2011 and 2016, the most recent figures available, according to the national statistics agency.
Paris’s urbanism institute, Apur, forecasts that the decline of the inner city population will continue for about another six years.
It is a sharp contrast with the urban renaissance that has taken place in many of the world’s major cities over the past 20 years, but Paris is not alone.
New York City shed a net 39,500 people in 2018 and 37,700 the year before, reversing the previous upward trend.
In London, the population is still growing, bolstered by births and international immigration; but when it comes to internal migration, the net movement of people out of the UK city totalled more than 100,000 in the year to June 2018.
Global cities may be deeply plugged into the world economy, but that no longer guarantees their populations will grow.
According to Yolande Barnes, chair of the Bartlett Real Estate Institute at University College London, the key reason is high land and property prices following decades of population growth. “It’s land economics at work, in that these cities have become very expensive,” she said.
An aggravating factor has been the rise of Airbnb-style short-term lets, tapping into the high market value of property in global cities. The number of Paris properties that are not permanently occupied has risen by 30,000 in five years, according to Apur.
Cities operate in cycles in which these consequences of sustained population growth eventually lead to an outward flow of people, said Ms Barnes. “Big cities always do ebb and flow, and this is [what happens] when the tide ebbs.”
The trend is not always unplanned: in China the government is actively seeking to trim the populations of its largest cities, reduce overcrowding and move people to new urban areas. Beijing and Shanghai, each of which houses more than 20m people, both saw their first population falls for decades in 2017.
As a result the demographics of cities are changing. Shlomo Angel, professor of city planning at New York’s Marron Institute, said those who stay in the centre of major global cities tend to be “richer with smaller families; single people can also sometimes afford to stay. You are exchanging better off people for poorer ones . . . [and] increasing homogeneity in central areas.”
Population shrinkage, exacerbated in many countries by lower birth rates, has social consequences.
In Paris a dearth of families has led to the closure of a series of inner city schools: about 15 merged or closed in the three years to 2018, according to the local education authority. Pupil numbers have dropped by 13,000 since 2012, according to the education ministry.
But the onset of population decline does not necessarily mean the city’s global influence will fall, some experts say.
Denise Pumain, professor of geography at the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne, said a “loosening” of high urban densities is a trend across major European cities. But she noted that the population of the broader Ile-de-France area, which includes Paris’s sprawling suburbs, continues to grow.
And, she said, despite the shrinkage, “the trend according to which the largest and richest cities become more and more connected to the global economy will continue”.
Richard Longworth, distinguished fellow on global cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said a falling population was “a symptom of something, but not necessarily of a declining global status”.
As high property prices and deindustrialisation push out the middle classes, wealthy high-fliers move in accompanied by “the ground troops of the new economy — the security guards and valet parkers and line cooks and bicycle couriers”, he said.
“The upshot, repeated in many global cities, is the creation of cities that are sharply economically segregated, with well-paid global citizens and poorly paid global servants — and not a lot in between,” said Mr Longworth. “Global cities have become symbols of inequality . . . It seems impossible that this new class system, this new inequality, can last.”
Ms Simon, co-founder of “Paris, je te quitte”, may not stick around to find out. Ironically the success of the business has so far kept her in Paris, where she works as the company’s chief marketing officer.
But she dreams of a life in the regions where you can “stop losing two hours per day in transportation” and “find an apartment which is three times bigger for three times cheaper”.
“I am really thinking about leaving too, when it is possible,” she said. “Growing up in La Rochelle was wonderful . . . you can do almost everything with your bike, you can go to the beach after school or work. I want to offer that kind of life to my kids too.”