Mapping the Social Geography of Urban Inequality

It seems useful to discuss the research possibilities and implications of two distinct approaches to the idea of a social geography of urban inequality. First is the idea that various dimensions of inequality (e.g., income, wealth, air quality, school performance, public safety, “collective efficacy,” etc.) can be empirically observed in urban space, and compared across units (such as city-regions, cities, neighborhoods, blocks, etc.). This approach is likely to use large datasets and quantitative methods, and can treat the spatial distribution of inequality either as the dependent variable, or as an independent variable in the process leading to a particular outcome of interest. Much of the research on neighborhood effects, school effects, cross-city comparisons, city-suburb comparisons, and related topics takes this approach. Important strengths of this approach include an understanding of average levels of particular dimensions of inequality across space, and the ability to observe trends in those levels over time.

A second approach is that the idea of “social geography” denotes a dynamic process of social production: in this case, the social production of urban inequality. A perhaps cognate concept, and one that thus seems useful to discuss, is that of “urban governance.” The idea of “governance” has appeared in diverse literatures over the last two decades, though with different emphases and research operationalizations depending on the discipline. A general “governance” approach appears most prominently in public administration and political science, while the more specific “urban governance” has primarily been the domain of geographers and those in the interdisciplinary field of urban studies. Other areas of inquiry that have prominently deployed the idea of governance include environmental/climate studies and migration studies, both of which find the idea of governance useful in grappling with the global nature of these phenomena. Governance is also an object of interest for students of corporations.

Public administration and political science scholars generally have used the idea of governance to denote a late-twentieth century shift away from a vision of the state as a unitary “government,” and towards a view that the state’s traditional role of public goods provision now takes a distributive form in conjunction with a range of private-sector partners. These “public-private partnerships” may involve co-production of public goods by government and business, government and nonprofit organizations, or among all three sectors. Key concerns include governance as a strategy for providing public goods at reduced public cost in an environment of public resource scarcity, as well as governance as the evolution of a form of public decision-making lacking in democratic accountability.

The idea of urban governance as used by geographers and urban studies scholars springs from a related attentiveness to co-production – in this case, co-production of the conditions in cities (and city-regions) by a complex set of interested actors: government, business, civil society organizations, elites, citizens, socially excluded groups, and so on. Importantly, these scholars often employ a “critical” perspective, i.e., an expressed commitment to improving the fates of less powerful urban actors, coupled with a rejection of the existence of neutral, objective scholarship. A major line of discussion in this literature concerns the evolution of “neoliberalism” through urban governance strategies in a range of substantive domains (e.g., housing, welfare provision, employment, etc.).

What is the linkage between the ideas of governance, urban governance, and the social geography of urban inequality? To begin to answer this question, I offer the following working definition of urban governance. It is the linkages of people, organizations, regulations and practices – both visible and hidden, intended and unintended – that produce existing structures of urban decision-making, and which therefore enable or constrain possibilities for change. Urban governance signifies a variable method of legitimating goals and allocating resources – for housing, healthcare, social services, education, economic development, and so on – to individuals, neighborhoods, and cities. Importantly, an urban governance framework calls for the empirical discovery of relevant governance structure(s) that produce(s) an outcome of interest.

My own research has explored the question of urban governance, though without explicit usage of this term. In my earlier, ethnographic work on nonprofit community-based organizations in low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn, I relied on the theoretical concept of “fields,” drawn from organizational sociology. This work examined the embeddedness of CBOs in relationships with other organizational actors – government agencies, political machines, real estate developers, philanthropic foundations, banks, other CBOs, etc. – to understand both the capacities of CBOs to create neighborhood improvement, but also their significant limitations given the larger “field” of competition in which they operate. This attention to the importance of organizational and, especially, non-neighborhood actors offers a challenge to the idea of “neighborhood effects.” While the neighborhood effects literature has offered important insights into neighborhood social processes, it has tended (with some exceptions) to limit its attention to interpersonal interaction, and to operationalize its empirical variables as existing within essentially impermeable neighborhood boundaries. My approach instead examines the inter-organizational relationships that operate across neighborhood boundaries to produce different resources for CBOs in poor places. This approach offers a different way of thinking about the processes that produce inequality. At present, I am less convinced of the utility and precision of the “field” concept, and find the urban governance idea to be perhaps more useful as an analytical (perhaps theoretical) framework.

My current work seeks to develop these ideas using large-scale quantitative data on government contracts to nonprofit organizations in New York City. CBOs in poor neighborhoods must acquire resources if they are to provide residents with opportunities to improve their quality of life and/or life chances. For example, housing CBOs help tenants force neglectful landlords to address housing quality and safety violations, while elderly-serving CBOs bring hot meals to homebound elderly persons. Youth development CBOs work with young people to improve their academic outcomes, learn conflict resolutions skills, and cultivate their interests in positive directions. The privatization of these and other social services over the last 40 years means that most resources for this work come in the form of government contracts; indeed, at present, it is not government agencies that deliver the vast majority of these services, but rather nonprofit organizations under contract with government. Nonprofits compete to win contracts, and then deliver services to residents. This governance structure means that the distribution of social services resources takes place in arenas outside the poor neighborhoods that have been the focus of neighborhood effects research. Specifically, nonprofits (which vary in their quality and capacity) are judged by government bureaucrats, who make decisions about which nonprofits win contracts. These decisions then affect which neighborhoods – and thus which individuals – have access to potentially helpful resources. Thus, for example, a needy individual in East New York, which has traditionally had a weak nonprofit infrastructure, is likely to be disadvantaged compared to an equally needy individual in East Harlem, where nonprofit activity traditionally has been strong. In order to understand this enactment of the “social geography of urban inequality,” my current work examines the distribution of government contracts for social services in relation to neighborhood need. I am thus interested in exploring the utility of the urban governance concept for understanding the wide variety of processes that produce urban inequality, and for framing different kinds of empirical research.

About the Author
Nicole P. Marwell is an associate professor at the City University of New York, Baruch College.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.