The Fight to End Blight: What Can Cities Do to Minimize Urban Deterioration?

Many American cities, especially those along the Rust Belt in the Midwest and Northeast, battle urban blight. Many previously vibrant parts of cities now have high volumes of decrepit buildings and unusable land, which make it difficult to entice residents to live and work in these neighborhoods. This issue has resulted from a number of causes, including the migration patterns of the Baby Boomer generation, the decline of American manufacturing, and changing transportation infrastructure that has dramatically altered the makeup of these metropolitan areas.

At the end of World War II, the federal government began to implement policies, such as low-cost mortgage lending programs and the interstate highway system development, which promoted a demographic shift from cities to outlying suburban areas. As a result of these policies, many urban areas experienced “white flight” from the city center and an explosion of development in suburban areas. Less mobile minority groups were often left in cities with a significantly reduced tax base. Eventually, this movement led to the deterioration of many once vibrant downtown neighborhoods and an overall decrease in urban investment.

US cities have begun to address the issues of suburban sprawl and city blight through the enactment of urban containment policies (UCPs). These policies aim to revitalize urban communities by encouraging suburban residents to move toward the city center through a combination of regulations and incentives meant to guide new development. A study by Miriam Hortas-Rico evaluates the effectiveness of these policy solutions. Using data from the American Housing Survey (AHS), she assesses variations in the number of blighted properties to determine whether UCPs successfully reduce the deterioration of previously functional areas of the city.

The analysis focused on the average frequency of external blight measures—such as broken windows, foundational cracks, and roof holes—on buildings in 107 metropolitan areas across the United States. Of this sample, 36 cities had urban containment policies in place since 2001, while 71 cities did not. The study reveals that cities with UCPs, on average, have lower levels of blight than cities without such policies. Furthermore, the longer the policy has been in effect leads to an even lower level of urban blight in the city, lending further credence to these types of policies.

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Additionally, several other factors may cause urban deterioration and must be considered to accurately assess the effectiveness of UCPs. The study therefore controlled for several of these measures, including employment rate, median household income, and crime and poverty rates.

The study also finds that cities with decreased rates of deterioration, resulting from UCPs, simultaneously experience lower levels of suburban population growth. However, reductions in blight and subsequent growth in downtown populations do not necessarily require a direct tradeoff with diminishing populations in the surrounding suburbs.

Urban revitalization has spillover effects that positively impact the entire region through decreased incidences of poverty and increased median incomes. Greater urban population growth leads to an expanded tax base, which in turn provides greater resources to support the city center. The implementation of UCPs is associated with benefits for both city and suburban residents, strengthening the economy of a given metropolis. Further analyses must look at the role that these policies can play to most optimally improve a regional economy and not simply assess their effectiveness related to minimizing urban blight.

Article Source: Hortas-Rico, Miriam. “Sprawl, Blight, and the Role of Urban Containment Policies: Evidence from US Cities.” Journal of Regional Science 55(2), 2015.

Featured Photo: cc/(Mark Folse)

Rachel Gordon
Rachel ('18) is a staff writer for Urban Affairs. She is interested in economic development and housing policy.

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