Urban Decline: Literature Review and Methodology

Literature Review

Dimensions of Urban Decline

When it comes to the discussion of the dimensions of urban decline, it is important to point out that they are multiple and the major debate concerning them involves the issues of the inclusion of certain dimensions and the exclusion of the others to achieve the highest level of the holistic understanding of the subject. The researchers and professionals do not currently have an agreement as to which dimensions are to be included. There is a point of view that favors the economic dimension that involves the commercial revitalization of the urban centers and the planning of retail allowing livening up the declining city centers (Beaumount, 1994; Balsas, 2000). Some of the examples of the city center development focused on this aspect are the Main Street Program in the United States that was based on the economic development with the strong consideration of the preservation of the historic sights (Beaumount, 1994), BIDS (Business Improvement District schemes) – the public improvements accomplished using funding from the side of the independent retailers (Travers & Weimar, 1996), and TCMs (Town Centre Management schemes) widely employed in Europe where the revitalization of the city centers is achieved with the help of the public-private partnership investment (Balsas, 2000). In that way, according to Travers and Weimar (1996), BIDS and TCMs “offer solutions to problems such as how to find additional funding for city centers revival and for fostering local partnerships” (p. 21).

Apart from the economic dimension, the researchers also emphasized such dimensions as physical, environmental, and social/demographical (Roberts & Sykes, 2000; Tsenkova, 2001). In addition, there is research concerning the historic dimension (Robertson, 1995) and also some scholars focused on the addition of political, cultural, behavioral, and design dimensions (Moses & Gale, 2001). Below is the table that presents the list of potential dimensions that could be explored within the city center decline issues.

Dimension Reference
Political Moses & Gale, 2001; Tsenkova, 2001;
Environmental Roberts & Sykes, 2000; Moses & Gale, 2001; Tsenkova, 2001;
Social Roberts & Sykes, 2000; Moses & Gale, 2001; Tsenkova, 2001;
Design Moses & Gale, 2001;
Historical/cultural Robertson, 1995; Moses & Gale, 2001;
Economic Roberts & Sykes, 2000; Moses & Gale, 2001; Tsenkova, 2001;
Behavioural Moses & Gale, 2001;
Physical Roberts & Sykes, 2000; Moses & Gale, 2001; Tsenkova, 2001;

Environmental Dimension

The environmental perspective takes into consideration a set of drivers that tend to produce adverse impacts on the natural environments thus stimulating the decline of the city centers. The literature reviewed for this paper allows dividing the environmental factors into two major categories – direct and indirect. The latter usually produces effects on the perception of the environments by the dwellers using affecting their sense of place, experience, and imageability. The direct factors include such overtly harmful impacts as natural disasters (earthquakes, floods, and tornados) (Hasse et al. 2014). These phenomena may be caused by natural as well artificial drivers such as climate change and pollution of the environment. They are especially influential when the cities are not protected from their effects; in such cases, the population is threatened even more than the buildings.

Since the environmental dimension is represented by such powerful phenomena, there is a need to measure the effects and the level of the environmental impacts on a city center. Such effects should include not only the most powerful environmental influences such as hurricanes and floods but also the most frequent factors such as waste management, littering, air and noise pollution, ecosystems, and negative health impacts (The City of Edmonton, 2000). These effects can be measured with the help of the PPS4 Town Centre Health Check Indicators assessment tool.

In particular, WHO (2015) emphasized that air pollution is one of the major environmental factors that is most frequently linked to deaths and adverse health outcomes among the population of the cities and also is one of the primary causes of the change of climate due to the CO2 emissions by the transportation and manufacturing industries. At the same time, Burayidi (2001) noticed that the areas with a higher level of pollution (city centers) are more expensive than those with virgin suburbs. In turn, this tendency causes depopulation followed by urban decay. The change of policy is required to minimize the adverse environmental impacts in the cities.

In addition, Redman and Jones (2004) pointed out that the environmental impacts are especially powerful in the fast-developing urban areas. Practically, under the circumstances of rapid industrialization, the rural population, as well as the immigrants, is actively drawn to the city centers. In turn, the population density of the city centers grows faster than the districts can adjust to the additional population. As a result, the environmental effects such as non-sanitary conditions, littering, and traffic pollution begin to skyrocket and in turn destroy the urban structures, the outflow of the population, and the following decay (Basiago, 1999).

Researching the environmental dimension and its impact on the city development and decline, Sunkel et al. (1990) concluded that it has to be included in the urban design at the stages of planning. However, the current events show that the unfettered capitalism and industrialization that occurred at the end of the 19th century served as one of the major drivers of the urban decline due to adverse ecological factors (Beauregard, 2013).

Also, the Canadian Urban Institute (2012) pointed out the need for green infrastructure (parks, waterfronts, natural corridors) and its connection to the city centers. This strategy is already implemented in Canada and has proved to be successful and rather beneficial for the population. The reduction of wasteful resource consumption is one of the most effective strategies when it comes to the creation of sustainable city centers with comfortable and safe environments, and clean spaces (The City of Edmonton, 2000). Fortunately, today, city designers and urban planners can rely on a series of tools and strategies allowing the creation of effective and sustainable structures (Smith, 2006). To enable the change, the authorities of some cities support grant programs for the small businesses to fund the adjustments such as green roofs and buildings (Smith, 2006).

“Green Global Connected” is the slogan of a powerful green strategy formulated in Sydney in 2008 (City of Sydney, 2014). Its primary goal is carbon-neutrality that can be achieved using the combination of ten strategic programs targeting the minimization of air pollution, waste, green buildings, and resource management to name a few (Local Government Professionals, 2016). The other strategies involved the factors such as education, volunteering, funding, and government infrastructure (Sustainable Sydney, 2030 n.d.).


Suggested Model to Understand and Respond to Decline

Apart from the fact that each city represents a unique set of factors and challenges and thus requires an individually-tailored strategy addressing the city center decline, it is also important to remember that most big cities share a variety of common issues contributing to the decay so their revitalization techniques and approaches can be shared and used as learning experiences (Balsas, 2000). In that way, to build a successful strategy taking into consideration all the important factors, it makes sense to begin the research using interviewing the key stakeholders.

This approach would help assess the situation and ensure its understanding from different perspectives. The first part will target the causes of the problem (how, why, when it occurred) and will help identify the major contributing factors. Further, the application of the RCA (Root Cause Analysis) will detect the most influential causes and dimensions. In turn, the dimensions and causes will be linked to the areas of the city center’s performance to establish connections and indicators. Finally, the results of this analysis will help conclude the most effective ways to address the factors contributing to the decline. There may be two primary scenarios: a) the decline is happening under the conditions of the city’s high performance; b) the decline is occurring under the city’s poor performance. Therefore, an essential decision concerning the city center vision would be enabled.

The local authorities are not the only stakeholders involved in the solution of the revitalization of the declining city centers (Van Dinteren et al. 1992). Due to their diversity, the groups of stakeholders may clash due to their conflicting interests. These areas of tension are to be discussed and addressed for the higher effectiveness of the project.


  1. Balsas, C. J. L. (2000). City center revitalization in Portugal. Journal of Planning Literature. 15.
  2. Beaumount, C (1994) How superstore sprawl can harm communities and what citizens can do about it. National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington D.C.
  3. Beauregard, RA 2013, Voices of Decline: The Postwar Fate of US Cities, Routledge, London.
  4. City of Sydney 2014, Sustainable Sydney 2030 Web.
  5. Local Government Professionals 2016, Green, Global, Connected – the Future of Sydney.
  6. Sunkel, O, Glogo, K, Koolen, R, Ballesteros, R, Leal, O, Vidal, M, Callanes, C, Hurtubia, A 1990, The Environmental dimension in development planning.
  7. Travers, T and Weimar, J (1996) Business Improvement Districts, New York and London. Corporation of London, London.
  8. The Canadian Urban Institute. (2012). The Value of Investing in Canadian Downtown. Web.
  9. Van Dinteren, J, Hendricks, D and Ruigrok, A (1992) City-centre management. Tijdschrift voor Econ. en Soc. Geografie 83(2), 138–144.