Reasons for Urban Decay

Updated March 23, 2017

Urban decay, also known as urban blight, is an unfortunate fact of life in many large cities. Urban decay also occurs in smaller cities as well. There are a number of reasons behind urban decay, as well as ongoing attempts to reverse the process. However, urban decay can prove to be difficult to reverse, especially if a given area has been in a state of blight for an extended period of time.

Major Job Loss

The so-called Rust Belt of manufacturing cities located in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States have suffered tremendous job loss because of globalisation and the offshoring of jobs to lower-wage Asian countries.

In cities like Detroit, entire neighbourhoods have been virtually abandoned, largely because high paying manufacturing jobs have vanished and the workers along with them. In addition, companies that were related to the automobile industry were also forced to close up shop. Even basic services such as grocery stores were adversely affected, as the neighbourhood residents who used to shop there moved away.

Rapid Changes in Neighborhood Demographics

During the 1960s, the phenomenon of white flight became a common occurrence in many urban neighbourhoods. White flight occurs when white residents abandon a neighbourhood in large numbers because of the increasing presence of individuals or families of colour. The presence of nonwhite residents is not the source of urban decay. Instead, urban decay occurs in this instance during the later stages of white flight, when white residents literally abandon their homes, sometimes because they cannot find buyers for them.

Decline of Public Housing

When public housing first appeared on the urban landscape in the United States, it was seen as a source of transitional housing for individuals and families who were establishing themselves financially, including returning veterans. However, with the passing of the Brooke Amendment by Congress, the mandate of public housing changed, so that public housing was only available to those with very low or even no incomes. Without funds to maintain ageing housing stock, and high concentrations of very poor residents, public housing developments became decrepit and dangerous, and a major centre of urban decay in many cities.


Absentee landlords in very poor areas who fail to keep their properties maintained are known in popular terms as slumlords. Slumlords have been a factor in urban decay in the U.S. for many decades. In the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, ethnic enclaves were often filled with buildings owned by slumlords, who spent little or no money or effort to maintain them. Even in the early 21st century, absentee slumlords are a major factor in contributing to urban decay.

Catastrophic Events

Catastrophic events can also result in urban blight, either temporarily or long term. For example, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused devastation to large sections of New Orleans, with disproportionate damage to the traditionally black and poor Lower Ninth Ward neighbourhood. The city underwent a large-scale evacuation. Thousands of residents have yet to return.

More recently, tent cities, or settlements populated by individuals who have lost their permanent housing, began to reappear in many urban areas as the housing crisis claimed homes through foreclosure. These tent cities shared an eerie similarity to the "Hoovervilles" that appeared during the Great Depression. Hoovervilles were named after the unpopular president Herbert Hoover, whom many Americans blamed for the severity of the Depression, if not the actual Depression itself.

Urban Decay and Urban Renewal

The decade of the 1960s was also a major period for a process known as urban renewal. Urban renewal was designed to transform neighbourhoods that were viewed as being in decline and replace them with viable residential or commercial projects. In actuality, urban renewal often occurred in established working class neighbourhoods where residents were forcibly displaced.

In the late 20th century, efforts to revitalise areas of urban decay have often included public housing developments. A major project that began in 2000 is the Plan for Transformation, which is being conducted by the Chicago Housing Authority in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The intent of the Plan for Transformation is to revitalise the entire public housing system for the city of Chicago.

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About the Author

Chris Blank is an independent writer and research consultant with more than 20 years' experience. Blank specializes in social policy analysis, current events, popular culture and travel. His work has appeared both online and in print publications. He holds a Master of Arts in sociology and a Juris Doctor.