The random neighbourhood: Bringing concentrated wealth into the concentrated poverty debate

rich and poor 2

The unfair distribution of wealth and income today are increasingly at the forefront of social debate. These arguments appear to be rising in intensity, largely because new media systems have made allowed data and insights to circulate more quickly and clearly. It is likely that you have heard that roughly 80 people own half of the entire globe’s wealth, and similar figures that highlight these massive disparities. But it is also important to think spatially in relation to these questions. London has become a kind of gilded ghetto, a series of positive area effects in which wealth brings more wealth and the agglomeration of unparalleled cultural and financial infrastructures drives further investment. Being wealthy in London allows access to these services and shows how space matters and its attributes drive the residential decisions of the wealthy. This is, of course, in some contrast to the conditions of many neighbourhoods and more deprived households whose position has been further distressed, not only by austerity but the almost wholesale exit of public strategies to address market failure, social and regional disparities. Where the neighbourhood was central to policy interventions it is now side-lined amidst a race to further concentrate capital investment in London and among other existing winners.

There is a palpable anger about inequality that is being channelled and given weight by the cumulative evidence of meticulous analyses. Piketty’s book on Capital in the 21st Century and Dorling’s Inequality and the 1% are good source books with which to face-down dominant ideas that circulate in political and media circuits used to justify why government debt cannot be allowed to escalate, why more equitable taxation as a means to address deficits cannot be used to resolve current conditions and how large the yawning gulf is between the majority of the population and its well-paid and wealthy elites really is. This has made these issues new-found targets that are fair game for debate and criticism.

Let’s go back to the question of how to understand these issues in spatial terms. How do places pull us back or help us to move forward? These are long-standing concerns that underpin urban policies designed to iron-out the worst wrinkles in the uneven social patchwork of market failure and social distress – tackling uneven economic opportunities and social outcomes. In all of this the idea of the neighbourhood effect, of the compounding disadvantages that people face when living side-by-side with many other people with few or no resources, was a powerful theory. Of course in such conditions it isn’t the neighbourhood itself that magically acts to hold people back, but a range of social and economic effects generated by, for example large numbers of unruly kids in a classroom, the lack of role models in the neighbourhood, the increased risk of victimisation from acquisitive criminals and so on. These ideas are not without their controversies, many have left ideas of an underclass and of concentrated poverty because of their relation to paternalistic policies and indeed regressive explanations of those problems.

Areas of concentrated deprivation are produced by at least two key factors – first, a population of households and individuals generated by the economic system we inhabit (so obvious yet so very important!) and second by the nature of public and private housing systems that sort people into estates and neighbourhoods with bundles of more or less desirable qualities and proximity to essential services, amenities and employment opportunities. One way of thinking about the impact of this social mosaic is to consider a thought experiment. Imagine twins who, at birth and incredibly cruelly, were separated and moved to the most affluent and deprived neighbourhoods in the country. What experiences, challenges and advantages do you think they would each face as a result of developing in these different contexts? Such an experiment goes some way to forcing us to think about how we might plan to tackle general levels of deprivation, but also think through how to encourage more socially diverse areas.

One possible way to imagine a template for neighbourhood planning would be to randomly allocate people to all local areas in the country. This interesting thought experiment forms the basis of an article by Danny Dorling and Phil Rees. Yet it isn’t a million miles away from the ambitions of planners to create socially diverse localities by engineering variables like housing tenure, building size and type and so on. The idea of a random neighbourhood that thereby draws in a good cross-section of people with varying incomes, class, gender, sexuality, occupations and ages can be used to think through the benefits of social mix and diversity – how they might be optimised to generate greater inclusion, lower reliance on services and a broader social base of daily contact. This image stands in contrast to the kinds of areas of concentrated deprivation and exclusion that we see in many towns and cities. This isn’t just about the lumpy areas of concentrated exclusion but also necessarily about the nature of concentrated wealth and its obliviousness to social distress.

Visions of what an optimal neighbourhood might be have arguably been stunted by the absence of interest in neighbourhoods by the current government, and no doubt the continued de-funding of policies that have been shown to make a difference at this level in the pursuit of deficit reductions. We don’t have neighbourhood policies, local programmes, forms of social investment and catalysts to mitigate against the way that capitalism will always tend to produce big winners and losers. Without recognition of the need to make concessions the kind of anger expressed at housing shortages (among many other areas of social need) are likely to become much more concerted, aggressive and generate wider appeal. Perhaps more importantly we need to look to and understand how the places and virtues of concentrated affluence and economic growth in the south-east shape the policy ambitions of our political elite. Their disconnection (from the lived reality of poor living environments, denuded public services) takes away any urgency to providing vehicles for mass employment in the post-Fordist heartlands. For those arguing that to improve our chances we should somehow get on our bikes and join the glittering economic heartlands of the south-east we need to recognise not only the segregation and distress of the capital itself but also how very broken and over-stressed that system is already. We need more imagination around local and regional planning as well taxes on wealth and income to even begin to start to redress these unacceptable gaps between rich and poor.

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