The agglomeration of human diversity was the one that accelerated the innovation process, inventions such as the alphabet, currency, pavement, the wheel and navigation.
In cities, different people live in different places: it is called urban segregation. Segregation can occur for different reasons, such as ethnicity or lifestyles, but the newest and most important factor is economic. Everyone can see it in a large metropolis like New York City, where liberal policies transform Gotham into a nest for the very rich.
Those who have more money can choose where they live, for the poorest the choice is not so clear. The former live in better neighborhoods, with better services, better construction, and environmental quality. In California, the US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, lives in a safe part of her district, in a walled-up estate surrounded by security guards and CCTV systems. Not too far from her property, Americans live, eat, sleep and die on the streets.
The poor have to resign themselves to living in neighborhoods where everything is a little more precarious and even life expectancy a few years shorter. The influence of residential segregation on people’s life trajectory, often translated into school failure, inequality and lack of opportunities are called the “neighborhood effect.”
Studies and experts agree that segregation is increasing, in correlation with the growing inequalities caused by the current economic model, which can cause problems in the mega-cities towards which we are heading.
The United Nations foresees that 68% of the world’s population will live in cities in 2050. Cities are and will be the scene of present and future social conflicts, where smaller spaces and growing poverty will cause social conflict spurred by crime.
“The rich and the poor are living at increasing distances from each other, and this can be disastrous for the social stability and competitive power of cities,” says a study titled “Socio-Economic Segregation in European Capital Cities”, which was conducted during the first decade of this century by several European universities.
Among the main causes are globalization, which directed the restructuring of the labor market, the differences in income, and others.
Gentrification and tourism are also processes that contribute to this separation between people who, according to their vital conditions, stop living with other groups.
If the interesting thing about cities was their melting pot of people and cultures, this characteristic may be coming to an end.
The End of the Melting Pots
Things have not always been this way. In the second half of the nineteenth century, buildings, no matter how stately they were, could house workshops on the ground floor, then some housing, where the bourgeoisie lived and the higher floors, which were worse and smaller, where humble workers lived.
There was friction between social classes, segregation occurred in the same building, not so much on an urban scale. But with the arrival of transport, such as the tram, it was no longer necessary for the popular classes to live alongside the wealthy.
Industrial production was taken outside: The city operated as a centrifuge that spatially separated the classes.
The elevator allowed the rich to live on high floors without having to climb stairs and now luxury penthouses are in fashion, something unthinkable back then.
Why is urban segregation undesirable?
Segregation is detrimental from the point of view of innovation, highly segregated cities expel workers who cannot live in them and have difficulties to grow in the future.
The agglomeration of human diversity in the first cities, 7,500 years ago was the one that accelerated the innovation process with simultaneous inventions such as the alphabet, the currency, the pavement, the wheel or navigation.
Segregation prevents some people from seeing the problems of others, and thus it is difficult to understand differences in the proper perspective and context. People with higher incomes may oppose social policies due to their lack of understanding of other people’s realities.
According to research in social neuroscience, when we have no contact with other groups we lose the ability to empathize with them, and even the brain areas that deal with understanding or identification are deactivated. We dehumanize the differences and prejudices arise.
It is true that the neighborhood in which we live is important, but it is also true that we spend up to 80% of our time away from home, so, the places we frequent during the day are also important.
For example, segregation also occurs in stores or restaurants, in bars, in hairdressers, in shopping centers, and it is increasingly related to consumption, or in decline against digital relations take place neither at home nor at work. The poor do not frequent the same places as the rich.
The Elysium Society
Films like Elysium shows the kind of society where humans may live in the future. The rich live on an artificial satellite, away from the earth’s surface where the people left behind face post-apocalyptic conditions. Meanwhile, the wealthy enjoy clean water, clean air and all the comforts they want.
Although it seems extreme, a not very different phenomenon is happening on Earth today. The so-called gated communities are on the rise, especially in the most unequal countries: gated communities where the privileged live surrounded by walls, surveillance cameras and enjoying their own services. Another film portrays one of these communities.
In Europe, capital cities are also examples of segregation. In Madrid, segregation occurs notoriously on the north-south axis: to the northwest, with exceptions, people receive the highest incomes. The traditional working-class neighborhoods are further down, to the southeast. To the north is the privilege, to the south, the vulnerability, reveals the aforementioned pan-European study.
Today, Madrid is the most segregated capital in Europe and the second in social inequality. In this type of capital, the force that separates social classes is greater due to the constant arrival of visitors and workers, many of them highly qualified, in search of opportunities in large companies.
Sociologist Saskia Sassen baptized these global nodes of capital and information as “global cities” and, although many places want to become global, this does not have to result in the good of the majority of their population.
Who wants to live in large cities?
The New Urban Agenda of the United Nations, born from its summit on Housing and Sustainable Development Habitat III, indicates segregation as one of the great challenges of cities.
Social injustices are reflected in spatial issues: segregation, gentrification, speculation are manifested in the way people live.
Precarization has a fundamental component in the dispossession of the most basic livelihoods, such as housing.
What can be done to relieve segregation? Social justice warriors call for a “right to a city” and for establishing policies that can not only be local but supra-local and cross-cutting, not only improve public space or accessibility but all areas of citizen life.
Among the proposed solutions they want to invest in education, public transport, social mobility, and urban planning, regulate the housing market in stressed areas with exorbitant rental prices, increase social housing and, above all, glimpse it in the city without creating ghettos.
European cities are now approving plans in which any new real estate development is obliged to include 30% of affordable housing. Thus, people from different strata will share stairs and empathize, which is what these proponents say will turn cities into the diverse melting pots where people interacted naturally just a decade or so ago.