Notes on Neighborhood Inequality and Urban Design

Can we design the fair or “decent” city? This question has taken on urgency in recent years as income inequality has risen sharply. Housing in particular has come in for scrutiny and urban planning has taken on new meaning. In this essay, I place the quest for equity against the backdrop of existing evidence. Although I am not an expert on urban planning or housing, as a sociologist my inclination is to think first about the structural impediments to designing equality. With this in mind, I offer five propositions for consideration as cities go about the hard business of reducing inequality. I focus on neighborhood inequality in the U.S., starting with general observations that bear implications for urban design before turning to the rise of mixed-income housing policies as a proposed mechanism for inducing more equitable cities. I conclude that to be effective, urban policy needs to confront deep structures often many years in the making.

  1. Inequality is Multidimensional

There is considerable social inequality between neighborhoods, especially in terms of socioeconomic position and racial segregation. Particularly in the U.S., these factors are connected, in that concentrated disadvantage often coincides with the geographic isolation of racial minority and immigrant groups. But violence, incarceration, and multiple health-related problems tend to come bundled together at the neighborhood level as well. These problems are also predicted by neighborhood characteristics such as the concentration of poverty, racial isolation, and single-parent families, and, to a lesser extent, rates of residential and housing instability. I have come to think of this as the “social matrix of adversity” (Sampson 2014) at the community level, a phenomenon that contradicts the growing tendency to isolate clean causal estimates or manipulate single causes. Something more like a matrix of hyper-advantage exists at the other, upper-end of the spectrum: multiple social indicators of what many would consider progress, such as affluence, computer expertise, and elite occupational attainment, are also clustered geographically. These patterns are seen in many global cities.

  1. Inequality is Surprisingly Persistent

Although there is always population turnover of individual residents, and poverty and its correlates fluctuate over time, it turns out that if we know where a neighborhood starts out statistically, we can do rather well predicting where it will end up relative to other neighborhoods. Many poor neighborhoods get stuck for decades.

The “stickiness” of inequality by place is also notable at the high end. The Gold Coast of Chicago is as golden as ever, and elite neighborhoods from the Upper East Side of New York to Bel-Air in Los Angeles are in no danger of even relative decline.

These durable inequalities seem surprising or even paradoxical when we consider the changing American landscape. Poverty is increasing most rapidly in the suburbs, crime has decreased just about everywhere, and gentrification is reshaping many working-class and poor areas of central cities. New York is the poster child these days for crime reduction and a new type of urban renewal. The media and popular culture have focused attention on Brooklyn, for example, highlighting gentrifying neighborhoods that were in despair not long ago. The phenomenon is real, but the fact that it makes the news is precisely the point —“rags to riches” is no more common among neighborhoods than it is among people. For every poor neighborhood on the move, more struggle out of the media glare: durable inequality is the norm.

  1. Residential Selection is an Engine of Inequality Reproduction

Enduring inequality in the United is reinforced by homophily, or the tendency of many people to choose to live near others who have similar valued characteristics, and distant from those with disvalued or different characteristics. One might think of this as the “demand” side of inequality, leading to spatial forms of hierarchy maintenance (Sampson 2012: 374). Structural features, such as changes in racial or economic composition, bear on individual appraisals and decisions to move, but so do perceptual and symbolic cues, such as perceived disorder. It may even be that symbolic forms of stigmatization and implicit biases are more pervasive today than direct forms of discrimination in reproducing spatial inequality.

In a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, neighborhoods thus have effects in part because people and institutions act as if neighborhoods matter, further reinforcing the reproduction of inequality by place. Crime, perceived safety, disorder, and school rankings lead to reputations with real consequences. I have argued that neighborhood reputations may well be sturdier than those of individuals (a point not lost on real estate agents), which in turn reinforces inequality.

There is a more general point to be made. The tendency of humans to segregate by place along dimensions of social status (and race or ethnicity, depending on the larger context such as country) has persisted across long time spans and eras despite the transformation of specific boundaries, political regimes, and the physical layout of cities. There are variations, to be sure, but research by archaeologists indicates that spatial divisions were even found in ancient cities (Smith 2010). The neoliberal state may exacerbate, but it does not explain, the long spatial divide.

  1. The State Can Mitigate Neighborhood Inequality (“Compression Effects”)

Despite individual selection mechanisms, state policies and national contexts nonetheless do induce variations in neighborhood inequality (Wacquant 2014). In Chicago, for example, I have shown that the range of variation in neighborhood concentration at both the bottom and top of the income distribution is greater than in Stockholm. We can think of this as “inequality compression” in Stockholm. Indeed, Chicago’s extended range of concentrated disadvantage is unmatched by Stockholm (Sampson 2012: 20). High-violence neighborhoods in Chicago also have no counterpart in Stockholm. Part of the difference in ecological distributions is arguably due to Swedish policies on community planning, more equitable service allocation, and progressive taxation. The implication is that housing policies and mixed-income policies set by the government are potentially powerful tools for reducing inequality.

But this does not deny local effects. In the Chicago-Stockholm comparison, as neighborhood disadvantage rises, violence does as well, in both cities and in a similar nonlinear way. The collective efficacy of residents is also negatively related to violence in both cities, independent of traditional demographic and socioeconomic controls (Sampson 2012: 165). Pitting neighborhood against the state is thus unproductive. Both “top down” and “bottom up” processes are at work, and even national policies (e.g., the Affordable Care Act in the U.S.) are mediated by local institutions.

  1. Mixed-Income Housing Policies Need to Confront Neighborhood Dynamics

Based on a combination of faith in government (or “State”) approaches and considerable research linking concentrated poverty to compromised well-being, policymakers and academics have argued that increasing the presence of higher-income neighbors through the mixed-income redevelopment of high poverty neighborhoods—along with the movement of poor people out of concentrated public housing—will improve the lives of the poor. In other words, by designing the income mix of neighborhoods through policy levers available to the government, the idea is that behavior can be changed and inequality lessened.

Although often implicit and not a theory in the formal sense, this popular policy move reflects a set of theoretical assumptions about neighborhood change (Cisneros and Engdahl 2009; Joseph et al. 2007). First, it assumes that low-income residents benefit from having higher-income neighbors as models of middle-class behavior in the realms of family, education, and employment that are not available in the absence of redevelopment. Second, it assumes that proximity to higher-income neighbors leads to the formation of social ties, which residents will use to obtain social leverage or social support. Third, it assumes that higher-income residents will enforce informal social control and participate in formal neighborhood organizations. Fourth, at the aggregate level, it assumes that improvements in social organization due to declining neighborhood poverty rates will not be offset by residential instability and ethnic heterogeneity, which can undermine social organization. Finally, mixed-income policy implicitly assumes a static equilibrium with regard to intervention effects; it also does not account for the interdependencies among neighborhoods in social mechanisms, and the macro-level political and social environment, that can reinforce economic and ethnic segregation.

I would suggest that none of these assumptions is well-founded in the research literature at present. In fact, several assumptions are contradicted. For example, recent ethnographic research has examined the unintended consequences of the HOPE VI housing intervention (designed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD) in targeted developments and residents of non-targeted developments in the nearby vicinity. In the Boston neighborhoods of Mission Main (a reconstructed HOPE VI development) and Alice Taylor (a public housing development that did not receive a HOPE VI grant), Jonke (2009) shows that the policy led to decreased interactions between Mission Main and their neighbors in public housing across the street (also Tach 2009). Jonke attributed this to a schism created by the intervention itself, with residents of the adjacent project, Alice Taylor, stigmatized as “disorderly” and disreputable, which produced different cultural meanings and sense of community on both sides.

Or consider the potential displacement of criminal activity or poverty following the demolition and redevelopment of high-poverty neighborhoods, such as the tear-down of large-scale public housing that occurred in Chicago under the auspices of the Chicago Housing Authority and federal government. If mixed-income redevelopment lowers crime in one area by shifting it to another area, either through the movement of people or gang-related activity, the overall welfare gains for the city are lower than what one would predict from studying only the “revitalized” neighborhood(s). Similarly, if poverty is simply shifted to the suburbs or other city neighborhoods, it is not clear what the net policy gain is.

Another example of the connection between durable inequality and urban design is provided by the “Moving to Opportunity” (MTO) housing experiment in Chicago. Despite the good intentions of the HUD-based MTO intervention, over half (55%) of the experimental group in the study ended up in just 4% of all tracts in the Chicago metropolitan area. An equivalent 55% of the control group ended up in only 3% of all tracts (Sampson 2008). The tracts for both groups were also well above the national average of poverty and typically in decline. This highly constricted movement conforms to the pattern of mobility among non-MTO poor families (Sampson 2012: 277).

In short, the urban planning efforts and policy levers available to the State operate within highly constrained environments. Poor families, whether or not subsidized by housing vouchers, tend to move within metropolitan structures of sharp inequality and racial segregation (Clampet-Lundquist and Massey 2008; Massey and Denton 1993)—a process I called “Moving to Inequality” (Sampson 2008). Furthermore, compositional changes in surrounding neighborhoods of the sort induced by housing design policies (e.g., changes in poverty and racial status) predict the probability of residential out-migration (Crowder and South 2008).


The burgeoning efforts to reduce neighborhood inequality by design are laudable and refreshing, but the powerful legacies of history and the multidimensional reach of inequality present formidable challenges. In addition, the lesson for urban design coming out of housing voucher policies is that neighborhoods are not static entities that can be presumed to passively receive treatments without change; rather, like individuals, neighborhoods are spatially embedded and interdependent. Combined with the powerful forces induced by individual choice mechanisms and residential migration flows, the consequences of policy interventions to modify the environment are difficult to anticipate and even harder to control. The decent or fair city is thus a goal that will take efforts as persistent as the inequality it seeks to reduce.


Cisneros, Henry G. and Lora Engdahl (Eds.). 2009. From Despair to Hope: Hope VI and the New Promise of Public Housing in America’s Cities. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Clampet-Lundquist, Susan and Douglas S. Massey. 2008. "Neighborhood Effects on Economic Self-Sufficiency: A Reconsideration of the Moving to Opportunity Experiment." American Journal of Sociology 114:107-143.

Crowder, Kyle and Scott J. South. 2008. "Spatial Dynamics of White Flight: The Effects of Local and Extralocal Racial Conditions on Neighborhood out-Migration." American Sociological Review 73:792–812.

Jonke, Kevin Michael. 2009. "Hope against Hope: The Unintended Consequences of Public Housing Policy in Mission Hill." Cambridge: Harvard University, Social Studies Thesis.

Joseph, Mark L., Robert J. Chaskin and Henry S. Webber. 2007. "The Theoretical Basis for Addressing Poverty through Mixed Income Development." Urban Affairs Review 42:369-409.

Massey, Douglas S. and Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sampson, Robert J. 2014. "Criminal Justice Processing and the Social Matrix of Adversity." ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 651:296-301.

Sampson, Robert J. 2012. Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sampson, Robert J. 2008. "Moving to Inequality: Neighborhood Effects and Experiments Meet Social Structure." American Journal of Sociology 114:189-231.

Smith, Michael E. 2010. "The Archaeological Study of Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Cities." Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 29:137-154.

Tach, Laura M. 2009. "More Than Bricks and Mortar: Neighborhood Frames, Social Processes, and the Mixed-Income Redevelopment of a Public Housing Project." City & Community 8:273-303.

Wacquant, Loïc. 2014. "Marginality, Ethnicity and Penality in the Neoliberal City: An Analytic Cartography." Racial and Ethnic Studies Review Forthcoming.

About the Author
Robert J. Sampson is Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.