Big cities are among the most dramatic victims of recession in industrialized nations. After the flight to the suburbs in the more prosperous 1960s and '70s, the economic decline of recent years has resulted not only in falling inner-city housing standards and levels of services, but has posed as well the question of the role big cities will play in the future of North America and Western Europe.
Are they outdated relics from a past age? Or is there some reasonable expectation that economic recovery, when it does come, will lead to urban renewal on a large scale?
The question is central to the future of the majority of the population of industrialized nations who still live in urban areas.
In an attempt to look at the present state of their cities and to chart the future, urban affairs ministers from 18 noncommunist nations met in Paris at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Their conclusion is that big cities are in trouble, but can be nudged back into shape with the proper care and management.
In part, urban recovery naturally depends on a general economic upswing. But better city management is also likely to be an important ingredient in achieving that upswing.
As Emile Van Lennep, the OECD secretary-general, pointed out: ''The relationship between national and urban economies is a circular one. While improved economic conditions will help to solve some urban problems, more effectively managed cities can add to and strengthen the efficiency and productivity of the industry and commerce within them.
''A series of small improvements in the efficient functioning of a number of cities can, therefore, contribute to economic performance.''
While each country's cities have their own specific strengths and weaknesses, the meeting revealed a wide range of common problems affecting urban areas in the main industrialized nations. In most Western countries, the flood of people moving from rural areas into cities has long finished, though it continues in nations such as Portugal, and Greece.
The recent trend, instead, has been in the opposite direction, from city centers toward the suburbs.
But, as the OECD reported, the outward movement has not stopped there. Even the suburbs have been losing people. In the 1970s, for example, some cities in Holland, Britain, and Switzerland lost between 2 and 10 percent of their combined inner- and outer-city population. The number of people in the Greater London area fell by 10 percent, or three-quarters of a million.
The growth area was in small urban centers. Between 1970 and 1980, the population of towns between 50,000 and 100,000 in the leading noncommunist nations rose by an average of 20 percent.
The slump in inner-city population is not entirely negative. It has reduced crowding and opened the way for conversion of old complexes of buildings, such as San Francisco's Ghirardelli chocolate factory into a shopping center or London's Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market into an attractive area of shops, apartments, and restaurants.
But a few urban-development jewels do not alter the overall picture of decline. What are needed, the OECD ministers agreed, are ways of making the economic base of cities sounder and stronger in the 1980s. But nobody appears quite agreed about how to achieve that goal.
On one side are those who believe that, in the last resort, the best hope of cities are local businesses, as well as the inhabitants themselves. On the other side are those who see central government intervention as inevitable.
Unsurprisingly, the first point of view was expressed forcefully at the meeting by Samuel R. Pierce, the US secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who chaired the OECD session.
''The central government should be less and the role of local government should be more, because local governments know local problems best, particularly in a big country like ours,'' Mr. Pierce said in an interview. ''Specifics must be handled locally.''
The US is hardly alone in pressing for increased local initiative and greater reliance on the recuperative power of local private business.
The Conservative government in Britain, for instance, has concentrated on developing local urban-enterprise zones designed to foster business growth, rather than pumping money into developing urban infrastructure and services. In Denmark, private companies have taken over responsibility for fire and ambulance services on a wide scale.
Stockholm city authorities are negotiating with developers, who will get rights to build a hotel and office block provided they pay for a new central bus station underneath. In Paris, a private company provides bus shelters, public-information street displays, and other facilities in return for the right to sell advertising space on part of them.
But there are limits to what private enterprise can do. Many European cities remain deeply dependent on financial help from central governments. If that were cut off, the environment in which urban business is supposed to revive would grow more bleak.
As the OECD ministers note in their final communique: ''In some countries, allocating a larger proportion of public expenditure from local tax revenues, user charges, and government grants would be necessary for the adequate maintenance of infrastructure and for the upkeep of housing.''
In its diplomatic way, the communique reports that there was ''a lively discussion'' about the respective merits of the public and private sector providing urban services.
It could hardly have been otherwise at a conference which grouped American and British representatives with ministers from socialist and public-sector-minded France, Sweden, Greece, and Spain.