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Urban decay in the United States: Presidents Jimmy Carter (October 5, 1977) and Ronald Reagan (August 5, 1980) campaigned before this ruin on Charlotte Street in the South Bronx, New York City
One of the few ruined buildings remaining in Harlem, photographed on May 14, 2005. The building has since been demolished.

Urban decay is the process whereby a previously functioning city, or part of a city, falls into disrepair and decrepitude. It may feature deindustrialization, depopulation or changing population, economic restructuring, abandoned buildings, high local unemployment, fragmented families, political disenfranchisement, crime, and a desolate, inhospitable city landscape.

Since the 1970s and 1980s, urban decay has been associated with Western cities, especially in North America and parts of Europe. Since then, major structural changes in global economies, transportation, and government policy created the economic and then the social conditions resulting in urban decay.[1] The effects counter the development of most of Europe and North America; in countries beyond, urban decay is manifest in the peripheral slums at the outskirts of a metropolis, while the city center and the inner city retain high real estate values and sustain a steadily increasing populace.

Much of the city of Camden, New Jersey suffers from urban decay.

In contrast, North American cities often experience population flights to the suburbs and exurb commuter towns, i.e., white flight.[2] Another characteristic of urban decay is blight—the visual, psychological, and physical effects of living among empty lots, buildings and condemned houses. Such desolate properties are socially dangerous to the community because they attract criminals and street gangs, contributing to the volume of crime.

Urban decay has no single cause; it results from combinations of inter-related socio-economic conditions—including the city’s urban planning decisions, the poverty of the local populace, the construction of freeway roads and rail road lines that bypass the area,[3] depopulation by suburbanization of peripheral lands, real estate neighborhood redlining,[4] xenophobic immigration restrictions,[5] and racial discrimination. In cities such as New York and Boston, gentrification has eased urban decay in some areas of the cities, although most U.S. cities have highly blighted areas.[citation needed]



During the Industrial Revolution, from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, rural people moved from the country to the cities for employment in the industrial manufacturing sector of the economy, thus causing the contemporary urban population boom. However, subsequent economic change left many cities economically vulnerable. Studies such as the Urban Task Force (DETR 1999), the Urban White Paper (DETR 2000), and a study of Scottish cities (2003) posit that areas suffering industrial decline—high unemployment, poverty, and a decaying physical environment (sometimes including contaminated land and obsolete infrastructure)—prove "highly resistant to improvement".[6]

Changes in means of transport, from the public to the private – specifically, the private motor car – eliminated some of the cities' public transport service advantages, e.g., fixed-route buses and trains. In particular, at the end of World War II, many political decisions favored suburban development and encouraged suburbanization, by drawing city taxes from the cities to build new infrastructure for remote, racially-restricted suburban towns. That was the context of racial discrimination exercised as "white flight", the middle- and upper-class abandonment of U.S. cities, and the start of urban sprawl; only the non-white and the poor inhabited the cities.

After World War II, Western economies lifted tariffs and outsourced most of their manufacturing industries and businesses overseas, where foreign labor is cheaper than domestic. During the change from a manufacturing to a services economy, buying an automobile became economically feasible for most people. In the U.S., the federal government legislated discriminatory lending practices for the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) via redlining.[7][8]

Urban decay in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

Later, under president Dwight D. Eisenhower, urban centers were drained further through the building of the Interstate Highway System. In North America this shift manifested itself in strip malls, suburban retail and employment centers, and very low-density housing estates. Large areas of many northern cities in the United States experienced population decreases and a degradation of urban areas.[9] Inner-city property values declined and economically disadvantaged populations moved in. In the U.S., the new inner-city poor were often African-Americans that migrated from the South in the 1920s and 1930s. As they moved into traditional white European-American neighborhoods, ethnic frictions served to accelerate flight to the suburbs.[10] In Western Europe the experience differs, in that the effect was often unknowingly assisted by public sector policies designed to clear 18th- and 19th-century slum areas and movements of people out into state-subsidized, lower-density suburban housing.

On continental Europe and Oceania, the historical core of major cities has usually remained relatively affluent; it is generally the inner-city districts and the edge-of-town suburbs made up of single-class state-subsidised housing, such as the French "cités" and British council estates, which suffer the worst decay and blight. Due to higher population densities in Europe, economics dictates that extremely low-density housing would be impractical.

Examples of decay

The former Uline Ice Company Plant in Washington, D.C.

The car manufacturing sector was the base for Detroit's prosperity, and employed the majority of its residents. When the industry began relocating outside of the city, it experienced massive population loss with associated urban decay, particularly after the 1967 riots. According to the U.S. Census, in 1950 the city's population was around 1.85 million; by 2003, this had declined to 911,000, a loss of nearly 940,000 people (52%). In addition, the homeless population has grown, and there are many abandoned structures in Detroit.

Britain experienced severe urban decay in the 1970s and 1980s. Major cities like Glasgow, the towns of the South Wales valleys, and some of the major industrial cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, and East London, all experienced population decreases, with large areas of 19th-century housing experiencing market price collapse.

Large French cities are often surrounded by decayed areas. While city centers tend to be occupied mainly by middle- and upper-class residents, cities are often surrounded by large mid- to high-rise housing projects. The concentration of poverty and crime radiating from the developments often causes the entire suburb to fall into a state of urban decay, as more affluent citizens seek housing in the city or further out in semi-rural areas. In November 2005, the decaying northern suburbs of Paris were the scene of severe riots sparked in part by the substandard living conditions in public housing projects.


Pruitt-Igoe public housing, St. Louis, Missouri. In the 1950s, this urban renewal project was built; it failed and was razed in the 1970s.

The main responses to urban decay have been through positive public intervention and policy, through a plethora of initiatives, funding streams, and agencies, using the principles of New Urbanism (or through Urban Renaissance, its UK/European equivalent). Gentrification has also had a significant effect, and remains the primary means of a "natural" remedy.

In the United States, early government policies included "urban renewal" and building of large scale housing projects for the poor. Urban renewal demolished entire neighborhoods in many inner cities; in many ways, it was a cause of urban decay rather than a remedy.[5][11] Housing projects became crime-infested mistakes. These government efforts are now thought by many to have been misguided.[5][12] For multiple reasons, some cities have rebounded from these policy mistakes. Meanwhile, some of the inner suburbs built in the 1950s and 60s are beginning the process of decay, as those who are living in the inner city are pushed out due to gentrification.[13]

In Western Europe, where land is much less in supply and urban areas are generally recognised as the drivers of the new information and service economies, urban regeneration has become an industry in itself, with hundreds of agencies and charities set up to tackle the issue. European cities have the benefit of historical organic development patterns already concurrent to the New Urbanist model, and although derelict, most cities have attractive historical quarters and buildings ripe for redevelopment.

In the suburban estates and cités, the solution is often more drastic, with 1960s and 70s state housing projects being totally demolished and rebuilt in a more traditional European urban style, with a mix of housing types, sizes, prices, and tenures, as well as a mix of other uses such as retail or commercial. One of the best examples of this is in Hulme, Manchester, which was cleared of 19th-century housing in the 1950s to make way for a large estate of high-rise flats. During the 1990s, it was cleared again to make way for new development built along new urbanist lines.

See also




  1. ^ Urban Sores: On the Interaction Between Segregation, Urban Decay, and Deprived Neighbourhoods, by Hans Skifter Andersen. ISBN 0754633055. 2003.
  2. ^ Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States by Professor Kenneth T Jackson (1987)
  3. ^ The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert Caro, p.522.

    The construction of the Gowanus Parkway, laying a concrete slab on top of lively, bustling Third Avenue, buried the avenue in shadow, and when the parkway was completed, the avenue was cast forever into darkness and gloom, and its bustle and life were forever gone.

  4. ^ How East New York Became a Ghetto by Walter Thabit. ISBN 0814782671. Page 42.
  5. ^ a b c Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival By Paul S. Grogan, Tony Proscio. ISBN 0813339529. Published 2002. pp.139-145.

    "The 1965 law brought an end to the lengthy and destructive—at least for cities—period of tightly restricted immigration a spell born of the nationalism and xenophobia of the 1920s", p.140

  6. ^ Lupton, R. and Power, A. (2004) The Growth and Decline of Cities and Regions. CASE-Brookings Census Brief No.1
  7. ^ Principles to Guide Housing Policy at the Beginning of the Millennium, Michael Schill & Susan Wachter, Cityscape
  8. ^ "Racial" Provisions of FHA Underwriting Manual, 1938

    Recommended restrictions should include provision for the following . . . Prohibition of the occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended . . . Schools should be appropriate to the needs of the new community and they should not be attended in large numbers by inharmonious racial groups. Federal Housing Administration, Underwriting Manual: Underwriting and Valuation Procedure Under Title II of the National Housing Act With Revisions to February, 1938 (Washington, D.C.), Part II, Section 9, Rating of Location.

  9. ^ Urban Decline and the Future of American Cities By Katharine L. Bradbury, Kenneth A. Small, ., Anthony Downs Page 28. ISBN 0815710534

    Ninety-five percent of cities with populations greater than 100,000 people in the U.S. lost population between 1970 and 1975.

  10. ^ White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism
  11. ^ Encyclopedia of Chicago History

    "(In Chicago) while whites were among those uprooted in Hyde Park and on the North and West Sides, urban renewal in this context too often meant, as contemporaries noted, "Negro removal". Between 1948 and 1963 alone, some 50,000 families (averaging 3.3 members) and 18,000 individuals were displaced."

  12. ^ American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto By Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh. ISBN 0674008308. 2002.
  13. ^ The Decline of Inner Suburbs: The New Suburban Gothic in the United States By Thomas J. Vicino.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Urban decay is a process by which a city or a part of a city falls in to a state of disrepair. Signs of urban decay include population loss, housing stock deterioration and increases in crime.


  • I came up with Detroit. (Sorry, sports fans.) Vast stretches of the city are already uninhabited, crumbling. The central temples, yes, are still in use — the temples for sports, conventions and ritualistic music concerts — but for how much longer? Will the beautiful deco buildings erected as working shrines by what were once the largest companies in the world (GM, Ford) soon be abandoned? They’re already surrounded by a no man’s wasteland; it seems only a matter of time. And then how long before people wander into that zone and ask themselves, “Who built this incredible building?[1]
  • Most of you are afraid of our neighborhood.
    But did you know? So are we.
    But we are here, you see,
    Not because we want to be.
    • Anonymous, posted on a building at Cabrini-Green, a Chicago public housing complex, 1981[2].
  • The construction of the Gowanus Parkway, laying a concrete slab on top of lively, bustling Third Avenue, buried the avenue in shadow, and when the parkway was completed, the avenue was cast forever into darkness and gloom, and its bustle and life were forever gone.
    • Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York 1974. Page 522.
  • We [The banks] determine who will succeed and who will fail.
    • John Bunting, of First Pennsylvania Bank and Trust, November 8, 1976 at the testimony of Ronald Shiffman before the New York City Commission on Human Rights, in reference to redlining. [3]


  1. David Byrne's Journal
  2. Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival By Paul S. Grogan, Tony Proscio. ISBN 0813339529. Published 2002. Page 183.
  3. How East New York Became a Ghetto by Walter Thabit. ISBN 0814782671. Page 42.

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