Some Preliminary Thoughts on Inequality and Urban Space: Looking Back, Thinking Comparatively, Heading Forward

Permit me to start with preposterously grand proposition: in the United States most of the research on the relationship between inequality and urban space has come primarily in the form of studies of how and why socially and economically marginalized populations are clustered in certain urban locations, thus concentrating poverty and magnifying its social, political, and economic effects. In these studies, race, ethnicity, class, and immigrant status have dominated the urban imagination to a great degree, with scholars frequently focusing on how and why certain populations cluster in “ghettoized” neighborhoods in ways that reinforce both social and spatial inequality, thus producing a vicious cycle of disadvantage that is difficult to reverse. These patterns stand in contrast to those identified by scholars of cities in the developing world, where modes of work and employment (i.e. in the formal versus informal sector), land tenure status, family structure, age, gender, and migrant status are among the most common social categories used to identify populations, where until recently most urban neighborhoods were not necessarily assumed to be socially homogeneous, and where residential impermanence and urban physical transformation have been a constant.

In seeking to account for the concentrations of poverty and the unequal distribution of social groups in US cities, scholars have been preoccupied with the social more than the spatial. They frequently study the state, market, and social or cultural dynamics of locational patterns, asking whether the institutionalization of such patterns has constrained life chances in ways that might further disadvantage these social groups. In these studies, moreover, although urban space both reflects and makes legible social inequality, it is rarely seen as actively producing such social outcomes. Stated differently, few US scholars have studied urban space in terms of its purely physical (as opposed to social) correlates, asking whether the tangible material conditions of a neighborhood might have an independent impact on life chances in general and social inequality in particular – something I would like to conceptualize as the “relative autonomy” of the physical built environment. It also means that, in contrast to scholarship on cities in the developing world, there has been surprisingly little social science research on the wide range of physical attributes that may be distributed unequally in and across certain neighborhoods or city spaces (such as low versus high density housing; green space; single vs. mixed land use; roadway grids; and so on), and whether such characteristics of the urban built form may actively reinforce or even reverse forms of social, political, or economic inequality rather than merely reflect it.

US scholars have been slow to ponder these questions in part because of the path-dependent scholarly trajectory taken by post-Chicago School analysts of the city, which has contributed to the bifurcation of urban scholarship into two main subgroups: those concerned with studying the multiple forces and conditions thatproduce social, political, and economic inequality among urban populations, and those concerned with the social, political, and economic forces and conditions that produce the built form and spatial structure of cities. Of these two groups, the former has dominated public policy discussion about inequality, fueled by rigorous scholarly advances from scholars in sociology, anthropology, political science, labor studies, ethnic studies, and less so, gender studies. In contrast, the latter sub-group has struggled to survive in a national academic context where geography as a social science discipline has been all but eliminated, where urban professional schools with the most relevant skills for studying such phenomena (i.e. planning, design, landscape architecture, and even engineering) have been institutionally isolated from the social sciences, and where these professionals thus have undertaken the study of urban built form as a physical more than a social project, in almost complete academic isolation from their social science partners. Because of the lack of engagement, questions about the causal relationship between physical space and inequality have become muddied, with scholars often reducing one to the other.

In recent years, the divide between social, political, and economic theorists of the city, on the one hand, and urban practitioners as well as spatial theorists on the other, has started to break down, with some of the change coming from questions about what new forms of inequality are becoming relevant in the contemporary era, with some coming from a desire to expand studies of the urban experience into new disciplinary domains (from sociology, politics, economy and anthropology to design, humanities, and the cognitive sciences), and with some coming from scholarship that shifts the scale of “urban” analysis both downward -- to the level of the street and individual perceptions – as well as upwards, beyond the conceptual constraints of “the city” and towards the relationship between various geographic or territorial scales of settlement and the driving forces of political and economic power. Although promising. there is much more to be done to push forward this agenda.

My aim here is to help keep the process moving forward by offering brief thoughts on how and why spatial correlates dropped out of studies of the social composition and character of the city, by highlighting a few of the questions about the relationship between inequality and urban space that have nonetheless remained on the agenda implicitly if not explicitly, and by offering a few tentative ideas about how to bring those who study urban space and inequality back into each other’s orbits. In the process, I will try to draw on insights generated from the study of cities in the developing world, where slightly different social and spatial patterns associated with urbanization provide an opportunity to rethink some of the constraining assumptions about inequality and urban space drawn from the focus on American cities.

The Chicago School: Birth (and Death?) of Spatial Sensibilities

Much of the work on inequality in American cities grew out of the analytical contours established by the Chicago School of Sociology. After an initial engagement with the ways in which cities were identified as sites of modernization where the cultural value systems of urban residents was assumed to reflect (and produce) larger macro-societal transitions, including industrialization and rural-urban migration, US-based urban scholars began examining the urban populations whose practices departed from these norms, many of which derived from their migrant or class status. In these studies, which reached their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, scholars continued to assume that urban location was as significant as were the cultural traditions and practices of residents that may have derived from their experience elsewhere. In this sense, the early Chicago School was directly concerned with the relationship between social and spatial practice. Such studies were further cemented through the work of the human and social ecologists, whose interest in spatial demography all too soon overwhelmed the concern with the cultural and social practices of citizens, thus helping to lay the foundation for the subsequent disengagement of scholars who studied urban social practices from those concerned with the logics and uses of physical space, including the importance of boundaries and so-called zones of transition.

Human ecologists’ preoccupation with describing the physical contours of urban space created a backlash from those urban scholars who felt the systems-based assumptions could not account for the role played by structures of power and privilege in urban land use in the city, and who argued that the ecological paradigm was merely a ruse for market and race or class-based logics of population distribution. Also of normative concern was the fact that ecological paradigms rendered urban residents into faceless objects without agency whose movement in space was both logically ordered and efficient, even (or precisely when) it reinforced spatial inequalities of social groups, thus justifying a posture that many considered repugnant. In order to compensate for these weaknesses of the human ecology approach, starting in the 1960s and 1970s many urban scholars actively turned their attention to the daily lives of those social groups that occupied certain city spaces – as seen in the range of ethnographies and community studies that dominated the fields for decades – or they turned to politics and power in cities, embracing studies of the institutional and political-economic dynamics that explained urban development (think Mollenkopf, Molotch, Castells, Harvey), a subject that encompassed spatial changes but tended to see urban spaces as reflections or products of the local dynamics of political, economic, and social power.

To the extent that there was creative synergy between the social and spatial logics that dominated the field of urban sociology, it tended to revolve around the urban experiences of certain class/income, racial, or ethnic groups in the city, and how market or state dynamics privileged or disadvantaged these populations in terms of locational access to housing, work, jobs, or public services (including education) that made daily life bearable or were intended to level the larger playing field. In this sense, by the 1980s inequality was understood to be a structural social problem that spilled over into the spaces of the city, more than vice-versa, thus bringing scholars to argue that the way to eliminate social inequality was to offer the same urban services and opportunities to all. Such a perspective motivated policy support for busing, community control, and even the move from projects to single-family home construction for low-income residents, all predicated on the assumption that having individual or community access to the same urban services would produce greater equity in social and economic outcomes.

But this assumption failed to examine the mediating impact of local practices, spatial and otherwise, that might have explained why a given community – even given access to what some would consider similar social, political, or economic resources – might not achieve the same socio-economic outcomes found in other urban locations of the city. If one answer to this question had to do with individual preferences and the social-psychology of the urban experience, urban sociologists did not readily embrace this explanation because most had long since left the individual as unit of sociological analysis in the dust, a position partly inspired by the embrace of more structural approaches to the study of the city in the post-human ecology aftermath. In looking for alternatives, another line of reasoning was that the history of place mediates outcomes, particularly for urban neighborhoods that have become “raced” or “classed” in the social imaginary. And while this may in fact be a spatial argument as much as an historical argument, at least to the extent that certain physical locations often become semiotically “marked” in space in ways that will make market or other relevant dynamics operate differently, there was little in the repertoire of urban studies over the 1980s that allowed the development of hypotheses about space to explain such outcomes.

The Peculiarities of US Cities

The failure to more carefully consider space as a physical or even mental construct may have owed to the fact that the power of the market in US cities, particularly when combined with a “racialized” view of public housing, was so great in determining uses and social meanings of space (think redlining and the social stigma of the “projects”) that it did not seem necessary to look for other explanations.1 Yet it probably also owed to the fact that by the 1980s and 1990s American urban scholars were paying less and less attention to the growth and spatial form of the city and more to the racial, class, cultural, and gender identities of urban populations, their subjective urban experiences, and how they were reinforced by socio- spatial exclusion. The failure to examine changing urban spatial patterns also might have reflected a developmental logic specific to American cities, where urban-suburban distinctions were no longer a primordial subject of study -- not just because suburbanization was no longer a new phenomenon, but also because the composition of suburbia tended to be race and class-determined, thus reinforcing the socially reductionist approach to space noted at the outset and failing to inspire a spatial approach to such developments.2 Finally, in the 1980s and 1990s American urban context, urban decline was more a concern than urban spatial growth, with the areas suffering most from decline (abandoned center cities and rusting industrial sites) readily identified in racial and class terms, thus reinforcing a social rather than spatial analytic.

That the historical experiences of cities in the US influenced the scholarly embrace of urban spatial dynamics is further suggested by the fact that those who studied cities outside the US were not nearly as reluctant to take a spatial approach. In contrast to their counterparts studying the US, urban scholars who focused on the developing world (e.g. Janet Abu-Lughod, among others) paid considerable attention on the physical spaces of the city and how the urban experience of populations relegated to the periphery of both social and spatial life (with the latter reflected in their settlement in shantytowns and slums) factored into large social or political movements that challenged inequalities in urban society as a whole.3 In the US the framing was entirely different. With a few exceptions (think David Gordon and his study of class struggle and urbanization), US urban scholars maintained a focus on the diversity of social groups in the city, assessing place-based similarities and differences in social access to the basic goods of society, but not linking these spatial patterns to larger transformative struggles that might have challenged the system that produced social and spatial inequality in the first place.

Some of this of course owes to the democratic character of the American urban context, in which demands were being made about redistribution and equity rather than about larger failures in the political system as a whole. But it also owed to the reification of the concept of community as a starting point for studying social exclusion and segregation as well as for making claims about inclusion, an orientation historically grounded in American political culture as much as in the Chicago School lexicon. In this epistemological environment, community frequently became a stand-in for racial, class, or ethnic identity, not for a given physical location, and as such community as a construct was rarely interrogated in spatial terms. Rather, the social composition of a given “community’ was considered to be the only significant marker of both individual and collective prospects for a different urban experience, no matter the built environmental characteristics or spatial location of said “community.”

With the interest in community as a social rather than spatial construct, and with the study of inequality attaching itself to the life chances of individuals and social groups independent of their physical location (unless of course location was merely a stand-in for certain social, political or economic resources), the attention to physical space remained at best contextual and at worst insignificant. That is, if city spaces as such were targeted for study, it was usually because of their social profile (i.e. neighborhoods with high or low cost housing, for example, or with certain racial or immigrant profiles) more than their unique (or conventional) built environmental characteristics. To be sure, urban scholars were deeply aware of the affinity between certain types of physical spaces (i.e. those with public housing, near environmental hazards, with low property taxes and thus poor school districts, etc.) and the concentration of certain social constituencies, ranging from high degrees of lower class, poor, non-white, or immigrant populations to other social groupings. They also were fully aware that market restrictions combined with race or class hierarchies to embed themselves in urban space in ways that reflected those larger power structures. But the larger question of whether the most relevant inequalities were manifest in the spatial characteristics as opposed to social composition of a place remained relatively under-examined, with the assumption being that social marginality sustained spatial marginality, or even that social inequality sustained spatial inequality. In the context of such assumptions, the question of what constitutes spatial inequality was hardly even addressed, an issue to which I will return..

Given these views, moreover, very few scholars sought to disaggregate the causalities between social and spatial inequalities, with perhaps the most path-breaking exception being the scholarly work on the “Move to Opportunity” programs produced by scholars like Robert Sampson and Xavier Briggs. Yet even this work remained focused on the ways that certain income and racial groups developed or experienced different social relationships in different neighborhoods, themselves defined more by class and income than spatial characteristics (although subsequent studies did call into question the MTO answer, particularly given the locational constraints of the suburbs and locational preferences/locational options available to low-income participants). As such, questions about whether the built environmental dimensions of certain urban spaces could themselves produce more opportunities (or constraints) and as such reduce (or intensify) the structural basis of inequality among urban residents, were rarely at the center stage of research.

Adding a final nail to the coffin, the post-2000 preoccupation with network analysis and internet technologies among urban scholars further sidelined studies of the relevance of physical space in cities. With some urban scholars arguing that technologies have made virtual communities more palpable than physical communities by reducing the need for face-to-face interaction, questions about the spatial or physical correlates of the urban experience are again on the table. Some have gone so far as to suggest that such developments can sustain political movements for transformative social projects that can reduce the structural inequalities of society, spatial and otherwise. Or at least that is an idea coming from among those who have studied the Occupy Movement – which, it cannot be forgotten – may have built on internet mobilizations to get large numbers of bodies to show up, but which had its greatest impact through the occupation of physical space. Even so, it may be precisely the challenge of high technology and the ascendance of virtual networks of social engagement that will force a serious consideration of the conditions under which spatial correlates of social and political mobilization will be relevant in the struggle against inequality and other forms of privilege. If so, this is just another reason to take seriously the study of urban space, and to systematically determine its impacts – whether autonomous or mediated – on the forms, meaning, and significance of inequality in contemporary cities.

Bringing Space Back In

Recent developments in urban scholarship suggest we may be at a critical turning point because the attention to physical space has been slowly creeping back onto the scholarly map. A good portion of this work is being produced by Robert Sampson, whose deep engagement with the theories, methods, and analytical frameworks of the Chicago School may help explain his willingness and capacity to think creatively about urban space in the study of cities and inequality. Of particular interest are Sampson’s path-breaking efforts to understand the role of spatial cognition in understanding perceptions of crime in low-income neighborhoods where physical deterioration of the urban space is assumed to be a marker of insecurity. Likewise, Saskia Sassen’s work on globalization has introduced a new way of understanding spatial patterns of inequality in and between cities. Sassen’s most relevant advances in this regard come from her deliberate focus on the social, political, and economic processes of economic globalization, thus shifting the scale of analysis to beyond the city (let alone community) and re-inserting a concern with the larger dynamics of the growth and spatial structure of cities back into the urban sociological agenda.

These two poles of study, one very microscopic that builds on a deeper understanding of spatial cognition and social perception, and the other very macroscopic that takes as its point of departure large-scale spatial transformations and their relationship to global political and economic processes – can serve as the entry points for charting spatial developments in cities, inequality-linked or otherwise.

In addition, there is one other way of thinking about urban space and inequality, more explicitly drawn from the study of cities outside of the US. This involves focusing research attention on urbanization as a complex, multi-scalar process, and asking questions about what urbanization “looks like” in built environmental terms. One can turn to the developing world for analytical insight in these regards because urbanization there is openly embedded in multiple scales of determination (local, national, and global) , making it a politically and economically contested spatial process (not merely a social process, as was assumed by the modernization theorists of the Chicago School) that is dramatically transforming the physical nature of cities and the social and political relations among its residents.

If one recognizes along with David Harvey and Neil Brenner that urbanization is driven by capitalist development and the rescaling of state power, in the developing world these two political and economic processes are very much at play in the form of decentralization and liberalization, actively destroying old spatial patterns and producing new physical environments (i.e. the balance between formal vs. informal and the proliferation of insecure spaces) that themselves infer certain social or political statuses on their inhabitants (i.e. citizen vs. subject). That is, the changing physical form and built environment of cities in the developing world is establishing new social and political identities to a great degree, thus raising a series of theoretical questions about spatial causalities in social and political identity-formation as well as equity.

To pursue these and other questions, it is time for a new urban agenda that allows us to ask questions about the comparative and historical conditions under which urban spatial patterns might produce social inequalities, and not just vice-versa, so as to better specify the mediating factors and processes through which the urban built environment empowers citizens (via new identities, new forms of social capital, or new territorialities of collective action) and states (via new representational capacities or new governance obligations) in the pursuit of socially just and equitable cities.

  1. The fact that Henri Lefebvre was not yet translated into English, despite openly embracing just such a theoretical approach to urban space, may be considered to be both cause and effect of the failure of US urban scholars to look for other explanations for city patterns. The urban semiotic approach did eventually appear, most famously in the works of Mark Gottdiener, but without really creating much of a change in the discipline.
  2. One major exception to this was Dolores Hayden, whose historical and contemporary work on gender and housing, in suburbia and elsewhere, was built around an explicit focus on the spatiality of the gender experience and how it was reflected in built form.
  3. James Holston’s work on how “insurgent citizenship” was created through the experience of physical marginalization in squatter settlements is a good example.
About the Author
Diane Davis is a professor of urbanism and development at Harvard University.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.