At present, there are many related studies on urban shrinkage, and the definition is generally based on population decline [1
] as the primary indicator. The loss of population and the sharp increase in the number of unemployed people leads to a reduction in the quality of life [3
], and the number of population loss accounts for at least 10% of the total population, or the average annual population loss rate is greater than 1% [4
]. Some scholars have put forward a broad concept of urban shrinkage, which refers to the overall decline of population, economy, society, environment, and culture on the spatial [5
]. In addition to the demographic dimension, the nightlight intensity of National Polar-orbiting Partnership Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (NPP-VIIRS) data was also used to identify shrinking cities [6
] in the spatial recognition dimension. The definition of the Shrinking Cities International Research Network (SCIRN) is more comprehensive. Shrinking cities refer to densely populated urban areas with no less than 10,000 people, most of which have experienced population decline for more than 2 years, accompanied by structural economic transformation and crisis [7
]. Such definitions provide a framework to understand the standards of shrinking cities. Shrinking cities are challenges that globalization brings to cities [8
], regions that have lost capital, human resources, and innovative spirit face a very unfavorable situation [9
]. Michael Stoiper believes that the interaction of the economy, system, social interaction, and politics directly determines a city’s growth or shrinkage [10
]. Justin Hollander paid attention to how neighborhoods physically change when they lose population, illustrating that population decline can be more painful in some neighborhoods than in others, and smart decline may be useful to implement [11
]. Economic structural dependency is one well-documented element in shrinking cities; two other potential elements received very little attention: social structural dependency and urban sprawl [12
]. Although economic shrinkage is a harbinger of urban shrinkage, shrinking cities show different effects at different stages of urban development cyclical theory. From a comparative perspective, the characteristics of shrinking cities in Germany, Japan, and the United States, and the policy response [13
] are significantly different [14
]. Maxwell D. Hartt [15
] examined the population trajectories of the top 100 largest American cities from 1980 to 2010, showing that many cities that experience population loss do not simultaneously experience an economic decline. Twelve of the twenty cities examined in North America had divergent economic and population trajectories, which indicate the complex characteristics of the urban shrinkage mechanism, the single-factor influence mechanism cannot describe the whole picture, and it is vital to deepen the comprehensive dimensional evaluation of social, cultural, ecological, and other related factors. Since 2000, through plans, land banks, rightsizing and greening strategies, shrinking cities has become a topic in discourse and local action [16
]. As an unrecognized opportunity [17
], the city is applying a social-ecological understanding to shaping urban form and function along sustainable trajectories. A crucial role of ecology for the shrinking city is identifying innovative pathways that create locally desired amenities, so as to provide ecosystem services and contribute to urban sustainability at multiple scales [18
]. For example, cities in the American Rust Belt look more like successional woodlands than bustling metropolises. Through the provision of ecosystem services, they become a resource instead of a liability [19
]. According to the typology of U.S. shrinking cities [20
], using a geographic information system to identifies seven types of shrinking cities in the United States: large shrinking central cities, inner-ring suburbs of shrinking central cities, outer-ring suburbs of shrinking central cities, inner-ring suburbs of growing central cities, outer-ring suburbs of growing central cities, small shrinking central cities in small metropolitan statistical areas, and small shrinking cities in small metropolitan statistical areas. For the aging society of Japan, the government provides financial support to the local people for urban regeneration, including mixed urban land use [21
] and public facilities placement [22
]. Karina Pallagst has claimed that a paradigm shift is taking place from growth-centered planning to shrinking smart. Greening strategies with public transport, food production, waste, energy recycling, and environmentally friendly heating and power supplies are useful processes for quality and sustainable development in a shrinking city [23
]. Different shrinking cities have different performance characteristics, so comparative research is necessary. China’s shrinking cities have similar manifestations of the population shrinking and spatial decline with Western developed countries, but there are obvious differences in systems, culture, and development stages. The influencing factors and generation mechanism of China’s shrinking cities deserve further discussion.
Domestic urban shrinkage entered the research horizon in 2014. The “China Shrinking Cities Research Network” was initiated by Long Ying, Li Xun, and others, which mainly focused on cognition [24
], statistical discrimination [25
], temporal and spatial characteristics, and driving mechanisms of shrinking cities. Based on demographic indicators, Long Ying et al. [26
] analyzed China’s Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei and Yangtze River Delta’s local shrinkage pattern and explained the phenomenon from five aspects: population, environment, economy, politics, and space. Li Xun et al. [27
] studied the Pearl River Delta’s shrinkage phenomenon, revealing the relationship between global economic restructuring, industrial upgrading, and local shrinkage. Other related studies have also focused on the phenomenon of large-scale and large-city shrinkage. The typical representatives of China are 34 prefecture-level cities in Northeast China [28
]. The depletion of resources has led to a severe shrinkage, and industrial cities dominate the relative shrinkage. In the shrinkage evaluation of 288 cities above the prefecture-level cities, the number is increasing, traffic conditions, environmental quality, population growth, and technological innovation are the main factors causing shrinkage [29
]. The research pays more attention to the negative impact of shrinkage on the urban economy [30
]. Urban shrinkage hinders economic development, especially the shrinkage of youth, labor forces, and industrial employment, which have a significant hindering effect on economic growth [31
]. These studies have been the prelude to the study of shrinking cities in China, and their main research aims and practical research objects are economic growth, space production, and urbanization rates of government governance. The social problems and planning countermeasures in shrinking cities require a lot of research and attention.
County shrinkage and governance [32
] are closely related to the sustainable development of county cities. The current more consistent concept of governance is smart shrinkage. Smart shrinking addresses issues such as aging, declining birthrate, and vacant housing. The change of macro standards and the support of the elderly care system, the evolution of medium and micro space design concepts, such as the detailed space design of community public childcare, the symbiosis of the young and the old, and the activation plan of empty houses, all provide experience for reference [33
]. There were 315 shrinking cities from 2000 to 2015 in China [34
]. Andrea Sarzynski and Thomas J. Vicino analyzed the decline of American suburban shrinkage and found that suburbs experienced different population change trajectories and divergent outcomes. Planning theory does not explain the phenomenon of population loss in a small town, including the county cities [35
]. County cities play an essential role in connecting villages and towns with regional centers, and bridge between “city” and “township”. In 2014, the World Bank released the “Overview of Small and Medium-sized Towns in China”, reflecting on Chinese cities’ development process and characteristics [36
]. According to the report, county cities are the county’s administrative center, which has greater potential than ordinary towns in terms of attracting talents, absorbing fixed asset investment, and agriculture, infrastructure, and public welfare investment. The high-quality development of county cities plays an essential supporting role in China’s new urbanization. The high-quality development with county cities as a carrier will become a key to China’s promotion of efficient, inclusive, and sustainable urbanization in the future. However, the county cities’ industrial supporting facilities are frail, with increased production costs and enterprises’ transaction costs, offsetting the advantages of low labor and land costs in county cities. This leads to weak industrial competitiveness and sustainable development capabilities in county cities, and even counties [37
], and has seriously hindered the progress of China’s new urbanization strategy. At present, the domestic in-situ urbanization learns from three international in-situ urbanization, while the French model focuses on adapting measures to local conditions and realizing the urbanization of nearby residents through the development of characteristic towns [38
]. The German model mainly promotes urbanization by promoting the development of industrialization in rural areas into small towns [39
]. Fei Xiaotong proposed the Sunan model [40
], the Wenzhou model [41
], and the Pearl River Delta model [42
]. Subsequently, the small-town model was criticized for its scattered layout, insufficient power, and inability to form a scale effect [43
The urban agglomeration development model is a supplement to the small town development model of in-situ urbanization. It is similar to integrating the American, French, and German models, and follows the development path of “urban agglomeration-big city-small town-rural area”. It not only includes the integration of small towns (county cities) into the urban agglomeration development system, but also needs to rely on the industrial foundation and infrastructure advantages of the county to gather population and industries, and promote the construction of rural communities to become the end of urbanization through agglomeration and diffusion effects and achieve balanced development of urbanization [44
]. Simultaneously, the construction of small cities and towns needs to adapt to local conditions [45
], which has resulted in diversified in-situ urbanization paths, such as the in-situ urbanization driven by the Yangling industry in the northwest, the in-situ urbanization of tourist villages and towns in Yongxin Town, Chongqing in the southwest, and the in-situ urbanization of small towns in Shandong, etc. The current in-situ urbanization is mainly manifested as a government-driven type [46
], because of the difficulty of introducing high-end industries in small towns or the sustainable development capacity. Yang Chuankai (2019) [47
] believes that in the context of the new era, the increasing trend of population return, farmers’ urbanization willingness, and national policies are the realistic basis for promoting in-situ urbanization. Promoting in-situ urbanization requires speeding up the land and household registration system’s reform, expanding the grassroots government’s administrative power [48
], enhancing the attractiveness of small and medium-sized cities, and accelerating the cultivation and construction of characteristic towns.
The enlightenment of existing research summarizes the typical characteristics of shrinking cities, the current development situation, the impact of related factors on the shrinking process, and provides a perspective on the formation of shrinking and the multiple interactions between the economy, society, and population. From Professor Xuefei Ren’s studies, three common characteristics can be singled out about urban China [49
]. First, economic take-off has brought about significant economic urbanization [50
], thus bringing about urban growth in China [51
]. Second, the institutional reforms of the city governments [52
] have further released the energy of urban economic growth, such as land policy reform, housing reform, and national decentralization [53
]. Third, the rise of local entrepreneurial urban governments has greatly improved the urban transformations in China [54
]. However, relevant research on shrinking cities pays more attention to the shrinkage phenomenon, development mechanism, and restoration of large cities, and there are relatively few observations on small towns and villages. There are more studies on the relationship between population loss and the economic, social, and material environments regarding the shrinkage problem. There are many quantitative studies on shrinkage determination, and there are few multidimensional characteristics and quantitative analyses of shrinkage mechanisms. Especially in the study of the shrinkage phenomenon, its features, and the micro-mechanism in demographic-economy-society of the county as a study area, different types of areas need to be supplemented. For China’s development, counties play an essential role in the evacuation of large cities and the urbanization of rural populations in the process of urbanization. In particular, in the new era of “urbanization of people,” as an important entry point to promote urban-rural integration, studying counties’ shrinkage mechanism and governance measures will become a key to encourage efficient, inclusive, and sustainable urbanization in China in the future. China’s counties’ growth and shrinkage also provide a sample of differentiated research on the green and healthy development of different types of small towns worldwide.
Shandong is a populous province. In 2017, it became the second province in China with a population of over 100 million. In 2018, the proportion of the population over 65 in Shandong Province exceeded the national average by 3%. It is a large province with an aging population. In 2019, it had 16 prefecture-level cities and 137 counties with a permanent population of more than 100 million [55
]. The province’s permanent population’s urbanization rate exceeds 60%, and the registered population’s urbanization rate reaches 50% [56
]. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of cities with a shrinking population reached 15, second only to the Northeast. In 2017, the County Development Institute of Shandong University released the report, “Assessment and Ranking of the Scientific Development of Shandong Counties from the Perspective of Five Development Ideas,” which pointed out that the population change trends in the province are unevenly distributed, with higher population growth occurring in the southwest of Lu and slow population growth in Jiaodong. With the pressure of foreign workers returning to their hometowns and local workers moving to urban centers, the counties are generally facing population loss [57
]. The shrinkage of county-level cities in Shandong Province is worthy of attention. According to observations of county-level macroeconomic indicators in Shandong Province from 2000 to 2018, in the past 20 years, the counties’ GDP has generally been in a growth trend. However, there is still a 15.4% decline in the county population. Simultaneously, a small number of counties have also experienced a trend of population return during the economic downturn. What are the influencing factors and internal mechanisms of the county’s shrinkage under this growth trend? This is the original intention of this article and the question it tries to answer.
Taking the shrinkage of county-level cities in Shandong Province as an example, this article includes three main contents: ① The current situation and extent of the county’s shrinkage, and their differences with the shrinking cities. ② The identification of factors and micro-mechanisms of county shrinkage. Based on the push-pull model, the paper quantitatively analyzes county shrinkage’s economic and social linkage mechanisms. ③ The strategies for county shrinkage management. Based on connotative spatial development, we will discuss strategies that consider government management, economic growth, cultural development, and environmental protection, improve the level of livability, and improve resilience to urban shrinkage.
5. Discussion and Conclusions
On the other side of urbanization, the shrinkage of counties reflects the reality of sustainable development. In general, county-level cities’ shrinkage is a multidimensional phenomenon that includes the population, economy, society, and material environment. Facing common problems, including lack of development resources, economic slowdown, declining urban style, and declining quality of life, have become the pushing forces of population loss. The scope and extent of county-level city shrinkage have not reached an irreversible stage, and the structural adjustment of the industrial economy has played a positive role in the regional revival. Population mobility is affected by many factors, and the motivations are different in different regions. Although the regression coefficients are generally similar in terms of the direction, each factor’s significance gap is more discernable. The factors affecting population movement in Dong’e County and Rushan City are quite different from the ridge analysis results in regression. Differences in living standards, regional public resource endowments, industrial structure, and other factors influence population shrinkage. The shrinkage of county-level cities and towns is a dynamic process, and the relationship between population change and economic and social reconstruction is not a simple causal relationship in this process. According to the causality test results, the shrinkage of county-level towns is affected by the dual effects of push and pull, which includes factors such as socioeconomic environment and the living standards of individuals and families. The flow of production factors, the development of regional industries, and the urban environment’s quality are mutually causal, confirming urban contraction’s transformation from an economical linear causal mechanism to a complex circular feedback mechanism. Economic vitality is not always a paramount factor in the shrinkage of county-level towns. The well-being of residents caused by the urban environment is significantly correlated with county-level cities’ shrinkage. A healthy living environment, equal public services, and relative deprivation reduction have become a decisive pulling force for the county population’s migration. The county’s shrinkage results from the coupling of the macroeconomic environment, the quality of the meso, urban, and rural spaces, and the wishes of microscopic individuals. The governance of shrinkage shifts from economic growth to people’s well-being, based on connotative spatial development, considering government governance, economic growth, cultural development, and environmental protection, and improving the level of livability to strengthen resilience to urban shrinkage.
The shrinkage mechanism of county-level cities has a systematic and dynamic nature, with regional heterogeneity and individual differences. Identifying the influencing factors and formation mechanisms of shrinkage and guiding the active tool of urban rejuvenation is the key to revitalizing county-level cities and alleviating shrinkage. Based on the fundamental development goals of public health and the well-being of the people, considering the new paradigm of system development of rational planning, environmental sustainability, social tolerance, economic prosperity, and cooperation and sharing, the shrinking governance of county towns will be a long-term process of continuous adjustment.
5.2. Discussion and Policy Implications
The results presented in this paper make a quantitative analysis of the shrinking counties. Compared with big cities, the statistical information and the socioeconomic data are not complete. The data that can be used in the paper is limited. The work of this paper is just a preliminary attempt that only distinguished a limited number of indexes. The results show the social factors are crucial to the county shrinkage. It further proves that “incrementalism” may not apply to the new-type of urbanization in China. A high-quality pattern in the county’s sustainability is worth considering here in the era of rapid urban-rural transformation in China. From a more micro perspective, the migration intention of the individual citizen should be comprehensively collected to evaluate the social influence mechanism. Especially, family-based migration desire may be more suitable during the process of urbanization in county cities. Rural people move to towns, which means a whole family seeks jobs, education, and medical treatment in the city. Social production in the county development and shrinking organization will be equally as important as economic production.
To the policy implications, it is important to rebuild the spatial planning system, improve the quality of urban space, and achieve urban connotative development as China’s urbanization has entered a new stage. High-quality spatial planning meets hierarchies of human needs from basic survival needs to safety, health, association, respect, and participation. The promotion of spatial planning should focus on the living circle planning to ensure the individual basic survival demands. It is necessary to add the special planning of safety and health to ensure individual higher needs. In the Shandong Province case study, agricultural modernization and sustainable development provide the basic support for urbanization. Through planning, construction, and capital investment, the foundation of agricultural production has improved, and agricultural laborers have been liberated from land production, which has promoted the rural population’s urbanization. The increase in the proportion of green industries and leisure industries is another positive factor for urbanization in counties. The intensive use of land has realized the non-agriculturalization and spatial urbanization of agricultural land use. Many job opportunities accept the transfer of laborers and realize the local urbanization of the agricultural population. The most important thing is the reasonable allocation of production, living, and ecological spaces to ensure no difference in the quality of life between the county and rural residents to improve the quality of urbanization. Based on this, the local urbanization model of Shandong Province promoted on the premise of respecting the wishes of the villagers is manifested as a logical result of respecting the social and economic development of the county. Unlike the compulsory measures led by local governments, starting from the soundness of infrastructure, public services, and commercial service facilities, constructing a non-government-led local urbanization model is also a useful supplement to coping with the county’s shrinkage.
County shrinkage would be quite different between China and European countries. There is more advanced modern agriculture in European countries. It is a quite different development model of combining industrialization, agricultural modernization, and urbanization. There are agricultural culture and rural economic traditions in China’s counties. Government and local organizations have made great efforts for balanced urban-rural development. Large financial resources are used to contain the relevant balance of public services, social welfare, and income levels, even though the declining trend of traditional agricultural areas is still difficult to reverse. Similar situations have also occurred in East Asian countries as they are based on the same traditional small-peasant economy. It is internationally important and worthy of revealing the rules and mechanisms and making international comparative studies. Identifying the characteristics and generation mechanisms of county-level town shrinkage is a descriptive study, which only answers the question of “why.” To answer the question of “how to do it,” it is also required to analyze and simulate its dynamic mechanism by scientific methods. On the one hand, it is necessary to measure the degree of urban shrinkage; on the other hand, it must reveal the changing influence factors and the mechanism of action in reconstruction from shrinking to revival. On this basis, the reconstruction model and optimization strategy of shrinking urban regeneration are proposed, which need to be strengthened in subsequent research. Due to the diversified types of towns and development differences, the data of selected districts in this paper have limitations, and the validity and universality of relevant research conclusions need to be further verified.