Urban Decline and Urban Shrinkage


The purpose of this paper is to explore the phenomenon known as urban decline, its meaning, causes, and features. In addition, the paper provides a distinction between urban decline and urban shrinkage. A variety of aspects and dimensions of urban decline are explored and defined for a purpose to establish a clear and detailed understanding of the concept. Finally, the two phenomena are compared, and their similarities and differences are pointed out.

What is meant by urban decline?

As noted by Weaver et al. (2016), many of the large cities of North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand began to experience the decline of their city centers in the middle of the 20th century. Compared to the concept of urban shrinkage, the phenomenon of decline has occurred decades earlier (Schilling & Mallach 2012). In that way, it is possible to state that the phenomenon has a substantial history for the researchers to explore. At the same time, that of urban shrinkage is rather new as an academic term and thus may not provide a rich body of expert knowledge to study.

As a term, ‘urban decline’ is related to (and is often used interchangeably with) deurbanization, urban decay, degeneration, deterioration, and blight. To date, the urban decline has numerous definitions and can be characterized by the absence of a specific and complete theory (Lang 2005). The major focus of this paper is the provision of characteristics and definitions of this phenomenon by means of the review of the existing literature.

Social and economic dimensions

The concept of the urban decline can be defined through the perspective of only two dimensions – economic and social. The Concentric Zone Theory proposed by Ernest Burgess in 1925 maintained that the cities tend to grow in a radial nature eventually forming five concentric zones (Balchin et al. 2000, p. 87). Burgess specified that growth and decline of the cities develop cyclically moving higher socioeconomic population groups from the center to the suburbs and replacing them with lower socioeconomic groups (Vicino 2008, p. 50). A process associated with such movement is known as the filtering of housing; it involves the gradual decline of the housing value for the lower socioeconomic groups (Ahlbrandt & Brophy 1975, p. 9). The process is dictated by both the population income status and the characteristics of the available housing units (Grigsby et al. 1987). In that way, urban decay can be defined as the physical deterioration in the built environment aligned with the weakening socioeconomic status of the population and the neighborhoods (Vicino 2008, p. 49). As a result, even at this stage of analysis, it is possible to identify the extensive nature of this phenomenon and its capacity to affect a wide range of factors and stakeholders.

Depopulation and the loss of power and jobs are the evidence of urban decline since the industries tend to leave the city centers following the people (Clark 1989; Wegener 1982). In that way, it can be said that the settlement patterns of multiple socioeconomic groups are dictated by this phenomenon moving them from the city centers to the periphery and working as a counterurbanizing force that causes the regions that used to be known for a rapid expansion to decay and shrink. In addition, apart from the settlement patterns, the urban decline is also associated with the income levels of the population and such factors as poverty, low earning capacity, and unemployment rates (Telford 1988; Cheshire 1986). In other words, the earning power of the affected population groups is directly related to the decline and can contribute to social segregation, class division, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor.

Describing urban decline through other dimensions

The concept of urban decay has been researched in connection with the population change, physical deterioration of the areas, governance and policy (Prak & Priemus 1986; Grigsby et al. 1987; Temkin & Rohe 1996; Zwiers et al. 2016). Also, it was studied through the perspective of the impact of global factors such as global financial crises and their impact on the employment capacity, housing market, and public expenditure (Van Kempen et al. 2016).

Antonescu and Popa (2012) name internal and external causes of urban decline. The former causes include pollution, the deterioration of built environments, urban agglomeration, and the population outflow due to the deteriorating living conditions; and the external ones are the EU integration (Romania is a member of the European Union), the process of globalization, and the global financial problems (Antonescu & Popa 2012). As a result, it is possible to conclude that urban decay impacts a variety of spheres causing their gradual downgrading; besides, it could be inflicted by the factors acting separately or working in a combination and triggering one another. For instance, the physical deterioration of buildings could lead to the decrease in their price in the housing market, the unwillingness of the managers to invest in their maintenance, the poorer dwellers, and an increased likelihood of criminal activity. Overall, the changes leading to urban decline (physical, economic, and social) can be defined as undesirable; and their effects are likely to become stronger over time (Medhurst & Lewis 1969; Bier 2001; Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development 1983). For the population occupying such areas, the most likely outcomes of this process are the increasing social exclusion and the disappearance of economic activity from their districts.

According to Telford (1988, p. 21), the urban decline is an outcome of long-term changes in different dimensions; and the most vulnerable to decline areas with high-density housing controlled by local authorities, and the districts that depend on industries losing their income and relevance. In that way, urban decay is the result of the decreased investment in the infrastructure followed by its inability to support the acceptable quality of life of the population (Telford 1988, p. 21). The other factors recognized as the contributors to the deterioration are pollution, depression, and unhealthiness (Egercioglu et al. 2016).

Based on the problems experienced by the deteriorating areas, the consequences they experience can be grouped into such categories as appearance, infrastructure quality, private property, use of space, and environmental conditions (Beekmans et al. 2016). Moreover, such aspects as racial tension, crime rates, high level of unemployment, and low-quality service provision are some of the additional consequences of decline (Clark 1989, p. 1). Also, Rosenthal (2008, p. 26) pointed out that socioeconomic status is the condition primary to the physical deterioration of the areas. Some of the other themes dominant in the issue of urban decline are the rapidly growing concentration of minority groups, rising rates of the property taxes, and the downfall of the value of the urban land sites (Beauregard 2003, p. 3). It may seem unreasonable that the taxes would grow in the areas where the housing is in poor condition. This tendency is dictated by the process of gentrification – the owners’ desire to attract wealthier renters or buyers with the help of the restoration and renovation of the deteriorating homes (Chibuzo 2011). The issue is that the arrival of the wealthier population to the impoverished area drives the overall taxes up forcing the poorer groups to look for new accommodations. Practically, this process can be viewed as another displacement tendency.

Relationship between decline and disorderly environment

Some researchers established the connection between the phenomenon of urban decay and disorderly environment that can be characterized by such features as a physical disorder (littered city areas and defaced buildings) and social disorder (insufficient control of resident behavior causing elevated rates of crime and violence) (Skogan 1990; Havekes et al. 2014). The existing research connects the disorderly environment to the growing decline of the social nature (Ross & Mirowsky 1990), the deterioration of social organization (Sampson et al. 1997), the increase in the rates of crime and violence (Skogan 1990), negative perceptions of the areas by the society (Ross et al. 2001), and the failure of the deteriorating districts’ infrastructure to meet the needs of the residents (Feijten & Ham, 2009). Measuring the physical and social determiners in four different Dutch city areas recognized as affected by the urban decline, Havekes et al. (2014) examine the effect produced by the growing disorder on social issues such as ethnic tension and composition of the districts’ population. The researchers found that the disorderly environments tend to produce adverse effects on the residents by means of stimulating interethnic conflicts and negative attitudes towards the minority groups that inhabit these areas.

Using provision of the definitions to the other concepts and terms related to urban decline (such as abandonment and deterioration), this section attempts to provide a better understanding of the phenomenon. For instance, deterioration can be described as the change of the absolute negative nature that affects the physical quality of life that includes housing, increased traffic, outflowing commerce and business, littering and trash that destroy the aesthetically pleasing views, and the abandonment of buildings and spaces (Grigsby et al. 1987, p. 41). In addition, it is possible to note that the factors mentioned above also contribute to the social disorder in the decaying areas populated with unemployed and impoverished families some of whom search for ways to obtain income in an illegal manner. Besides, poor areas tend to face cutbacks in funding related to the infrastructure involving firefighting and police stations, hospitals, transportation, and schools. Logically, this tendency results in the deprivation of the population dwelling in the declining areas from the opportunities to work, study, receive education and also compromises the people’s security and safety.

Moreover, as pointed out by Power and Mumford (1999), the phenomenon of abandonment is illustrated by the empty houses that do not interest anyone as properties to live in or use for any purposes; such houses may be individual or come in groups representing the abandoned areas. In addition, the abandonment can result from the occupiers’ decision to vacate the buildings based on the belief that they do not present any value or their value is negative (Power & Mumford 1999). In addition, the authors emphasize that there are six factors that serve as the drivers of abandonment; they are:

  • The deteriorating environment
  • The management issues experienced by the local authorities complicates the maintenance of the areas
  • Reputation and history of the area that makes it unattractive to the newcomers
  • Access to housing elsewhere that is better than that in the area
  • The deteriorated social environment that stimulates the development of anti-social behavior, violence, and crime – the factors that make certain areas extremely unattractive for the new residents
  • And the failure of the service provider organizations at the bottom to offer infrastructure of acceptable quality.

Furthermore, the term ‘downgrading’ is also used by some of the researchers for the purpose to describe the changing socio-economic profile of the population groups inhabiting the areas recognized as affected by the urban decline (Teernstra 2014; Zwiers et al. 2016).

Relationship between decline and Negative perceptions

It is important to point out that such factors as negative perceptions of the particular districts popular in the society can serve as the causes contributing to the development of urban decline. The population’s ideas of different areas and districts are usually tightly connected to their perceptions of the people inhabiting them; in turn, the latter is based on a set of beliefs and emotions that are most commonly associated with these particular groups (Knox 1995; Andersen 2002). In addition, for the groups living outside of the areas affected by the symptoms of the urban decline, the perceptions can be majorly dictated by the visible signs of deterioration of social and physical character. As a result, there may occur the exclusion of the population of the deteriorating districts from what Andersen (2002) refers to as the mental maps of the likely environments acceptable for living.

In that way, it is possible to notice how the prejudice and stereotypes in the United States of America are connected to the housing market performance of the well-developed metropolitan areas compared to that of the deteriorating districts. In particular, the housing quality and prices in the city centre areas are lower and due to that the overall social images of those areas are extremely unattractive as the wealthier socioeconomic groups tend to prefer housing in the areas with lower housing and population density (Bourne 1992).

The importance of the population’s perception of different urban areas is very high because they tend to produce a very strong influence on the development of infrastructure, rates of occupancy and employment, economic development, investment attraction, design, planning, and the overall physical environments (Ghosh et al. 2015). In addition, it is critical to notice that the residents of the areas work as the primary factor determining what the most recognizable and well-known features are going to be associated with the environment where they live (Hidalgo et al. 2006). In a way, it is possible to say that the people are the symbol of their residential areas and in turn, the latter tend to be perceived in tight connection to the former. In that manner, the activities of the residents are the major factors based on which the areas are perceived by those who live outside and can strongly affect the changes in the population density, inflow and outflow of dwellers, investors, and businesses (Milder 1987).

Recognizing the importance of the residents and the society’s perceptions of the city areas, it is possible to connect the image of different areas with the attitudes of the policymakers who tend to believe that the decline of the diverse districts is caused by many different factors apart from the behaviors and opportunities of their residents (Zwiers et al. 2016). For instance, the perceptions may create a negative reputation for the districts even when it is not proved by the facts and research. For example, the residents may perceive their districts as extremely dangerous in terms of crime and violence; however, the actual rates of criminal activity in this area may not exceed the average (Van Beckhoven et al. 2009). In that way, it is important to include the assessment of the residents’ perceptions of different areas as one of the critical factors driving their decline. In particular, this factor could be a key element impacting the rates of revitalization and city planning; in fact, addressing the attitudes and perceptions of the residents could be used as a method to minimize or reverse the decline at the early stages of development (Hanák et al. 2015; Omar et al. 2013; The Downtown Seattle Association (DSA) 2014; Pampalon et al. 2007). To be more precise, such assessment could reveal the areas that require changes the most; besides, the assessment of the people’s opinion could help the researchers and planners identify the particular areas where the population would like the changes to happen. Based on such assessment, the city authorities responsible for the process of revitalization to develop and implement the new policies by the needs of the population thus modernizing the deteriorating districts and also helping them to attract more wealthy residents. This approach could help the city authorities stop the existing decline and also push forward the further development and prosperity of the districts by means of launching a cycle (modernization of the areas followed by the attraction of wealthy households that, in turn, brings businesses and investment to the area).

Process of Decline

The process of urban decline has been studied for many decades and from many different perspectives. The scholars today agree that it has a very complex and multifaceted nature; in turn, the character of this phenomenon makes it very difficult to establish a general vision of the way it develops, how and why it happens, its definite causes, and the universal solutions to the problems it creates (Zwiers et al. 2016). In particular, the scholars find it very challenging to separate causes of the urban decline from its effects because the overall phenomenon seems to work based on a chain reaction that involves a combination of physical, social, and economic factors each of which tends to have a powerful and complex ripple effect thus making the dimensions of the process intertwined (Zwiers et al. 2016).

Studying the process of urban decay as one of the aspects of the urban change, some scholars share the point of view that the factors contributing to its development are increasingly versatile (Korcelli 1981). According to Williams et al. (2013, p. 202), such factors can be divided into two major categories – exogenous ones or root causes and endogenous ones or the responses to causes that occurred previously. Besides, the scholars tend to have very different opinions in regard to the types of causes and what factors each of the categories includes. For instance, Weaver et al. (2016) maintain that the factors characterized as the root causes of the process of urban decay come from the economic dimension. At the same time, Wegener (1982) names market supply and demand (local and international), the regulations of labor and trade, the market of new technologies, and the accessibility of public subsidies as the exogenous causes of urban decline. In addition, the author reports the use of land, public transportation, policy-making and implementation, mobility opportunities, investment allocation, and the individual decisions of the property owners as the endogenous causes (Wegener 1982).

Moreover, taking into consideration the impacts of under-utilization and degradation processes, urban decline can be described as the phenomenon representing the deterioration of physical, economic, and social character that leads to the minimization of the investment in the deteriorating areas followed by the decrease in the business activities, urban vitality, and employment (Acioly 1999). As a result, these patterns are associated with the decrease in land occupation dictated by the outmigration, the devaluation of land and properties, the deterioration and abandonment of buildings and city areas, and the impoverishment of the population. In turn, the residents of such areas eventually become excluded from the process of urban development; as a result, to address the problems associated with urban decline in such parts of the cities, the process of urban development needs to be initiated purposefully with the prior evaluation of the spheres where it is required the most (Acioly 1999). Otherwise, it is very likely that the remaining property owners in the decaying districts would attempt to improve the popularity and value of their buildings with the help of gentrification that may cause an even further disruption in the economic and social disorders already present in the areas. Revitalization needs to be a result of a consolidated and well-planner effort of multiple stakeholders directed at the improvement in a variety of spheres whereas the shallowness of gentrification strategy could cause dissatisfaction of the displaced poorer classes and the new homeowners whose houses could turn out unworthy of the rapidly growing taxes.

Facets of urban decline in the inner city
Figure1. Facets of urban decline in the inner city (Acioly, 1999)

From the economic point of view, it is possible to explain the development of the process of urban decay by means of creating a model of the decline with durable housing. The researchers maintain that, when it comes to their nature, the processes of urban decline are very different from the urban expansion due to the effect produced by the durable character of the housing (Glaeser & Gyourko 2005). In that way, it is critical to understand the connection between the durable housing and the development of decline. Some scholars share the perspective that cheap housing and the diminished demand for the labor in the declining areas leads to the concentration of the impoverished groups of the population in them and then eventually causes the decline to speed up even more due to the presence of lower levels of human capital (Glaeser, Scheinkman, & Shleifer 1995; Cullen & Levitt 1999). Besides, it is critical to remember that the process of urban decay is characterized by a very high level of persistence, which means it is not easy to stop or minimize; in contrast, the process of urban expansion is much faster as new homes and infrastructure can be built faster than they can disappear through the deterioration.

Moreover, Beekmans et al. (2016) point out a set of distinct processes associated with urban decline:

  • Local obsolescence that is caused by the diminished use of land or its abandonment
  • Physical deterioration of buildings and city areas
  • Functional obsolescence resulting from the demand rates and requirements of the occupiers, diminished environmental safety, and the changes in regulation
  • And social obsolescence occurs due to the deteriorating working and living conditions

In addition, the factors named above tend to go faster over time because of the other adverse impacts such as the decreasing quality of the public space, rising rates of unsafety, and the diminished accessibility and mobility; these negative changes are inevitably followed to disinvestment (Beekmans et al. 2016). Moreover, Williams et al. (2013, p. 202) argue that the decline of the city areas can be associated with such factors as the blurred distinctions between the causes and effects of the process and multiple causal interrelationships among the involved groups of stakeholders such as residents, property owners, institutions, businesses, and local governments. This point is similar to that of Zwiers et al. (2016), who noted that it is very difficult to distinguish between the causes and effects of the processes involved in urban decay because all the participating factors and deeply intertwined and tend to influence one another thus creating a cycle.

The illustration below presents a series of causes and effects organized in a flowing manner for the purpose to demonstrate different stages of development of the decline and the phenomena associated with them. The processes presented in the picture below can be recognized as the ongoing reduction of the rates and opportunities of employment causing the continuous outflow of the population; the two phenomena are interrelated and tend to provoke a series of other social and physical problems (the deterioration of unrequired buildings and areas, the decrease in the amount of the qualified workforce in the areas, increasing rates of unemployment related to impoverishment, to name a few). In long-term decline, these processes and effects become visible in the regional dimension (Lang 2005).

Source: Power and Mumford (1999, p.74)
Source: Power and Mumford (1999, p.74)

In addition, in reference to the condition of property in terms of the problems of urban decline, there is a strong correlation between the level of economic activity in the area and the amount of investment in property it attracts; in turn, the decrease in business activity is likely to cause the downfall of the property value (housing and land included) followed by the minimization of the current owners’ readiness to invest in the maintenance and development of the existing buildings and areas and facilitating their physical deterioration (Healey 1991).

How to Respond to Urban Decline?

It is critical for the scholars to be able to differentiate between the factors that can impact urban decline and urban growth in order to create the substantial theoretical basis for the policymakers to develop viable frameworks for revitalization and development of the cities. In addition, for the planners and policymakers to notice the presence of urban decline in certain areas, this process needs to already have visible impacts on them; however, the problem is that currently, there is no scale designed to measure the level of decline based on its symptoms and signs (Williams et al. 2013). None of the theoretical works and research papers in this field provide practical guidance as to the predictors and indicators of urban decline for the planners and policymakers to assess and address it.

However, some researchers discussed what methods are available that could help minimize the problems associated with urban decay. These methods are projected to work by means of the collection of strategies for regeneration and revitalization in the city areas that are recognized as affected by the urban decline (Şişman & Kibaroğlu 2009). There are nine major strategies developed for these purposes; they are known as rehabilitation, improvement, redevelopment, revitalization, refurbishment, clearance, conservation, renewal, and infill development (Egercioglu et al. 2016).

There exists the need to focus the primary attention on the neediest districts that can also be characterized as blighted (Bartik 1994; Wassmer & Anderson 2001; Beekmans et al. 2016). In particular, Beekmans et al. (2016) studied the cases of several declining sites in the Netherlands and their need for commercial and non-commercial services and local economic development. The researchers argue that prior to carrying out any plans and implementing any revitalization strategies, it is very important to assess the individual and unique issues the areas may be experiencing and then determine their actual needs that are to be addressed.

In addition, from the point of view of Telford (1988, p. 20), the response to the needs of the blighted areas should be based on the desire to prevent the existing negative factors rather than curing the visible symptoms of decline. In that way, the author proposes minimizing the levels of deprivation of the areas of the sufficient human capital and waste of resources. Moreover, it is critical to the success of the revitalization strategy, planning and implementation that these actions work in coordination with one another and include multiple stakeholders thus impacting a number of different dimensions, being carefully planned, technically sound, and bound institutionally. A dissociated effort is unlikely to produce a noticeable impact and minimize or reverse the process of urban decay. This phenomenon is too large, extensive, and persistent to be defeated in an unplanned manner.

Couch et al. (2005) conducted a research based on the evaluation of two European cities (Leipzig in Germany and Liverpool in England) in order to investigate the symptoms of decline these traditionally industrial areas face. The research indicated that under the conditions of urban decline, the economic needs of the areas become more prioritized and essential than the sustainable development. In other words, as the lower quality of housing, the growing rates of poverty and unemployment, limited mobility, and decreased opportunities for self-development drive the population out of the deteriorating areas, the latter tend to develop a growing need for the stable economic activity stimulating its vital processes. The cities studied by Couch et al. (2005) displayed the progressing signs of urban decay that the local organizations and funding were unable to address. In that way, according to the perspectives of the European Commission (2005), the strategy based on redevelopment and withdrawal can be recommended. In that case, there is a need for a detailed evaluation of the individual needs of the deteriorating areas.

In addition, there are different approaches to the persisting process of urban decline; some of them are pro-growth and smart decline described by Weaver et al. 2016). The latter revolves around the policies promoting and enabling the inflow of investment in the deteriorating districts for a purpose to create jobs and attract residents, and the former is based on the smart management of the remaining resources that would allow the existing population of the areas to enjoy a better quality of life preventing them from leaving the area and letting it deteriorate even further.

Distinguishing between Urban Decline and Shrinkage

The most important feature characterizing urban shrinkage is the active outflow of the population that results in a significant decrease in the population density of an area within a period of two years (Wiechmann 2007). In fact, the phenomenon of urban shrinkage has a lot of traits and factors in common with urban decay. In particular, the rapid depopulation of an area and outmigration are often linked to the occurrence of urban decline (OECD 1983). At the same time, according to Cheshire et al. (1986) depopulation is the driver or the decline.

The city of Detroit in the United States is often used as a textbook example of both phenomena – the urban shrinkage and urban decline (Schett 2011). As a result, there exists a logical question whether there is a need for a clearer definition of both of these phenomena, so they do not overlap in practice, or it is possible for both of these phenomena to take place at the same time in the same area. In that way, the present paper focuses on this issue and attempts to provide an investigation and come to a rational conclusion by means of answering this question.

In their book titled Shrinking Cities: Understanding Shrinkage and Decline in the United States, Weaver et al. (2016) propose a modern perspective of the relationship between the phenomena of shrinkage and decline, their individual features, and patterns, socio-economic variables they involve, and their empirical manifestations. Attempting to explain the clashing concepts, the authors maintain that the understanding of the urban shrinkage mainly revolves around the quantitative characteristics; however, the meaning and effect of the decline tend to include a much wider variety of factors and features. In that way, the authors state that the decline can occur without urban shrinkage. In other words, different areas and groups of the population can suffer from decline regardless of the quantitative patterns of their sizes – the population can decrease, increase, or remain unchanged (Weaver et al. 2016). Besides, the authors compare the notions of both phenomena and conclude that the concept of urban decay is much more mature than that of the urban shrinkage and has been the focus of attention of the urban planners, as well as academic researchers, for a much longer time. In contrast, the research and literature exploring the phenomenon of urban shrinkage is rare and does not date back further than the 1990s (Schilling & Mallach 2012). However, in recent years, both phenomena, as well as their interrelations, have become much more popular as the focus of academic research.

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