City size and inequality (again)

Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday, November 17, 2016, pages from 1

Our paper relating inequality and city size in Australia was accepted to Environment and Planning B. It got quite a lot of media coverage: Sydney University did a media release, with reports in Sydney Morning Herald, news.com.au (once), news.com.au (twice), The Australian, Gold Coast Bulletin, Daily Telegraph, West Australian, Courier Mail, Herald Sun, NT News, SBS, to name a few. I also did short but very stimulating (to me) interviews with Robbie Buck and Wendy Harmer on ABC Radio, and talked to the wonderful people who called in. And I kept receiving emails and calls from around Australia, with various organizations asking not only for data and reflections on the analysis we did and our main findings, but also critical and fundamental reflections and discussions on the topic itself.

We were surprised. As we wrote the paper, and went through the peer-review stage, responding to the comments written by anonymous referees, and strengthening the structure of the paper, we did grow in our understanding that the relationship between city size and economic inequality is an extremely deep and extremely important topic. And we looked at this paper as our first step at exploring this question, and thought of a longer term research plan to follow up on the topic. However, what was surprising is the way in which the media and the people related to a piece of analytical, number-filled, model-based academic research – clearly it had tapped some raw nerve. Clearly, from academic research and our books, to everyday conversations, inequality is now taking centre-stage with people. And it is because it is affecting the everyday lives of people. When a piece of research says: bigger cities show accumulation of highest income earners, to the (statistically) common person on the street, this means an immediately reflection on the stark contrast between their low pay, high rents and long travel hours to the CBD each day and the high pay, the harbour side apartment, and walk-to-work for their companion citizen who was simply born on the other side of Sydney. There are two worlds within the same city.

The experience was humbling, because it brought out most clearly as to how beyond talk, beyond analytics, beyond model building, policy at all levels must target these inequalities, and how academic research has a responsibility to not just create knowledge, but the means and mechanisms that can actually bring a change to the everyday lived experiences of the city, as to how we must strive to create cities for everyone and not just the few. I find the words of Calvino forever inspiring: “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

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Spatial stories from around the world: 1

This report, amongst many similar ones, talks about the existence of many cities superposed in a single city, layer over layer. If there are spatial layers signalling extreme inequality that exist side by side and over each other, there must be the people layers too: layers of super rich and super poor existing side by side and over each other.

While this unacceptable situation draws much attention, the overwhelming reaction it draws is human: the plight of millions needing help and support, the plight of the unsustainable city, the plight of injustice.

There is, however, an economic question that should be asked: the layer most seen and most neglected is the layer that provides massive amounts of informal services to the city too. What are the economic (and sustainability) returns of the removal of trash and recycling in Brazil, or those of the millions of shopkeepers, farmers, construction workers, taxi drivers, street vendors, rag pickers, tailors, and repairmen in Dharavi Mumbai? The statistics and distribution of space and density in which these economic activities are carried out makes one think of the ratio of the amount of spatial and economic resources consumed per capital to the economic output that is produced.

Then, provision of a decent standard of housing for millions of people would not remain a question of provision, it would turn into the same policy idea that now says: if you invest a lot in big business, the benefits trickle down to the millions. Maybe we should formally compute the economic returns from millions of people in terms of the services they provide, and think of a policy perspective that says: invest in the smallest of businesses and decent living, education, and health environments for millions, since the economic benefits of these services trickle down as well as up to all the inhabitants of the city. Because even without the computations, it is perhaps clear, that the benefits of the super big are not trickling down to the informal and often largest parts of the city.