How to Escape from the Neighborhood Trap: Four Recommendations

Neighborhoods are worth investing in. Instead of being the focal points of the next economic or epidemiological catastrophe, they can be places of hope and resilience that nurture the generation that will lead the fight against adversity.

by Doug Saunders

Neighborhood trap Doug

The two defining crises of 2020 – the Covid-19 pandemic and the mass awareness of racial injustice and segregation in Western countries – are increasingly neighborhood-level phenomena, concentrated to a considerable degree in specific kinds of local districts. In many cases, the same neighborhoods are the places most afflicted by both crises.

This should draw policy attention to the growing concentration of vulnerability and inequality at the neighborhood level in European and North American cities.

Lower-income neighborhoods are particularly vulnerable

After the initial explosion of the coronavirus pandemic in the centres of larger cities during February and March (owing to its initial spread through international travel), in many countries it came to be heavily concentrated in urban-periphery neighborhoods, mass-housing districts, and lower-income inner-suburban areas. If you examine statistical maps showing rates of coronavirus infection across many Western cities including Paris, Munich, Barcelona, Stockholm, New York City, Toronto, Montreal, and Houston, the neighborhoods with the highest infection rates during the pandemic’s initial peak (late spring and early summer of 2020) are also the neighborhoods where the very highest concentrations of racial and religious minorities, immigrants, and refugees live.

These are also very often low-income neighborhoods that have been shown, using a range of research techniques refined during the past decade by scholars in Europe and North America, to have comparatively low levels of socio-economic intergenerational upward mobility. In other words, children who grow up in these neighborhoods have notably lower chances of achieving better incomes and educations than their parents. Many analysts believe that socio-economic mobility and inequality are increasingly concentrated geographically.

What the crises of 2020 have taught us, in a painful way, is that these “mobility trap” neighborhoods are highly vulnerable places. The major economic, social, and health problems that we tend to think of as global or national in scope are often better understood as problems of specific neighborhoods. And it may well be that the most effective solutions are best directed at the neighborhood level.

I recently hosted a two-day online workshop at the Robert Bosch Academy that brought together a diverse and highly international range of experts whose work focuses on the local dimensions of social and economic problems. These specialists in economics, geography, sociology, urban studies, and urban organizing differed in their approaches and conclusions. But there was a broad consensus that neighborhood-level inequalities and immobility problems – especially problems affecting immigrant and refugee communities, historically marginalized minorities, and post-industrial and post-socialist populations – are being neglected or going unobserved by national and regional governments.

As George Galster, a professor of urban studies at Wayne State University, summarized the problem: “The challenges faced by immigrant groups, refugee groups …  non-white or Indigenous groups, tend to be concentrated in the same physical spaces – because those groups are the most spatially segregated, they are most heavily concentrated in the lowest income tiers and they have the lowest intergenerational socio-economic mobility.”

But most participants also felt that the vulnerabilities in these neighborhoods can be addressed, and barriers to upward mobility, inclusion, and integration removed, through policy interventions and initiatives. They would be aimed not just at these precarious neighborhoods but at the families and communities that shape them. Here are some of their most urgent recommendations.

Recognize the new importance of specific neighborhoods for immigration settlement and integration

One reason why neighborhood-level inequities and barriers to mobility have become more acute during the twenty-first century is the shift of immigration settlement to the mass-housing peripheries and inner suburbs of cities in many parts of Europe and North America.

During the late twentieth century, immigration settlement typically took place in higher-density districts near the urban core. But the last two decades have seen a major shift as immigration and refugee resettlement, along with many forms of poverty and racial concentration, has shifted to lower-density districts further from the centre. In many European cities, this shift has been caused by state immigration-settlement policies (observed acutely during the 2015-16 migration crisis) that place newcomers in unpopular or widely available apartment units on the periphery. In other cities, housing markets have pushed immigrant and low-income communities into the inner suburbs as central cities have become popular among wealthier and more established families – often, in large part, owing to the success of previous generations of newcomers.

“These former typical immigrant neighborhoods where a lot of prior immigrants moved to are not available anymore,” said Dr. Nihad El-Kayed, an urban scholar at the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research at Humboldt University. “Nowadays people are more likely not to move to these highly functionally, diverse inner-city neighborhoods but to the fringes of the city. And these new immigrant destinations are often purely residential areas – often highrise areas that are neither dense nor functionally diverse.”

Rising segregation and lack of resources in these neighbouroods – and the difficulty of moving on to better housing or schools – leaves some residents saying they feel “trapped” in these districts.

In Europe, this sometimes results from an unfortunate confluence of social assistance, housing, and immigration policies that discourages upward mobility and movement. In his research on mass-housing districts in Germany, Dr. Matthias Bernt, a sociologist with the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space, has found that during the past decade both economic and racial segregation increases sharply in large-scale apartment districts. This is because social-benefit reforms mean that a recipient’s rent is paid by the state directly to the private housing corporations that manage former public-sector housing estates.

This, combined with resettlement policies in several countries that require migrants to stay in the same district, city, or region, means refugees are often locked into their designated housing, often in buildings containing only other recent arrivals and few opportunities for socio-economic progress. Dr. Bernt concludes: “The framework works like a segregation machine, not driven by the invisible hand of the market, but by the welfare sector.”

Make physical mobility easier for residents

Life does not take place in a single neighborhood. Even poor and newly arrived residents rarely confine themselves to a residential district, either on a day-to-day basis or in the course of their family life.

Adults need to travel on a daily basis to other districts for work, shopping, community and religious gatherings, social life, and education. They rely on people from other neighborhoods to patronize their businesses. They often send their children to schools in other neighborhoods to improve their opportunities. Even if they’ve moved out of a “difficult” neighborhood, they are likely to return there for shopping, worship, and social life.

The new inner-suburban immigration-settlement neighborhoods, with some exceptions, often rely on slower and more crowded public-transit connections for access to other neighborhoods. This proved dangerous during the peak months of the Covid-19 crisis as residents of these neighborhoods also have a higher likelihood to hold jobs deemed “essential” and therefore were forced into close, lengthy enclosed contact with others.

The decision to move to another neighborhood is also crucial for many immigrants and lower-income residents. Moving to another part of the city – either the entire family to a new home in a more promising place, or moving the children on a daily basis to a better school in a more middle-class district – is a key strategy for upward social mobility, as several scholars have observed.

But immigration-settlement neighborhoods today are mostly homogenous apartment housing – either private-market rental or public housing or some combination, but rarely with better homes or flats available within the neighborhood to encourage upward mobility. And the housing-supply crisis of the past decade, which has driven rental prices home values up in most major cities around the world, has meant the old immigrant strategy of renting in lower-income neighborhoods for a few years and then moving out and up, is no longer so easy. Those few years can now stretch into a decade or two.

The isolation and lack of services in many of these inner-suburban neighborhoods also means newcomers have less contact with people who can help them out, lend them money, give them a job, or teach them the language.

“I think the major difference today is that it is much harder for newer immigrants to find access to typical ethnic neighborhoods with an ethnic economy and ethnic networks, where, at least at the beginning, they might find really crucial infrastructure that might help them to organize themselves and help with bureaucracy and everything,” said Dr. Christine Barwick, a sociologist at Berlin’s Marc Bloch Centre, whose books examine the moving and staying strategies used by immigrants living in cities in Europe to improve their lot. “The access to ethnic neighborhoods is much more restricted now.”

Restricted physical mobility is often a root cause of restricted socio-economic mobility – and it makes neighborhoods vulnerable to crises. One-time interventions to improve the speed and safety of transportation connections have been shown to improve outcomes for entire populations. Housing diversification – especially if it challenges housing-corporation monopolies in neighborhoods – can create a pathway to the middle class within the neighborhood. And policies to make it easier for low-income and immigration-origin families to move to new neighborhoods (popular in North America) have a similar, documented record of improving outcomes.

Invest in opportunities for advancement within neighborhoods

There is a widely observed tendency, in these neighborhoods, not just for upward-mobility prospects to be poor for those who stay, but for the neighborhood and its institutions to enter a downward spiral of declining living standards and conditions.

That’s because some residents do manage to move out, or to send their kids to more reputable schools outside the neighborhood. And they tend to be the more ambitious, influential immigrant families and the more tolerant, similarly upwardly mobile low-income domestic families. Left behind are the families with the fewest resources and the lowest capacity. Schools follow a similar pattern, with the better teachers managing to get transferred out, leaving uninspiring classrooms that further deter families from staying – and encourage a high percentage of kids to leave school before completion.

A number of cities, including Amsterdam, Berlin, and London, have had success placing high-investment “magnet” schools in deprived immigration-focused neighborhoods, so they will both attract students from more affluent neighborhoods and encourage local children to stay. Likewise, many cities have successfully added higher-priced lower-middle-class housing units in apartment districts, which can both provide a pathway within the neighborhood for upwardly mobile residents and raise the population density to a more appealing level.

However, several of the experts warned that simply adding new buildings and institutions will not necessarily improve the outcomes of existing residents. As Stockholm-based urban-redevelopment strategist Carl Mossfeldt observed, unless those structures are used to provoke neighborhood-focused interventions involving multiple levels of government, and unless it is done in conjunction with community-focused programs that allow residents to have a greater stake in control of their neighborhood, it may not create much change.

The root problem, these experts noted, is not jut schools or housing but a broader lack of investment in these neighborhoods. These low-mobility districts are often visibly underserved in terms of social services, cultural institutions, and visible presence of the state (aside from policing).

Professor Scott Allard, a political scientist at the University of Washington and the author of Places in Need: The Changing Geography of Poverty, found that public spending on “human services” in the United States – including resources to deal with disease, unemployment, poverty, addiction, and integration – is almost seven times higher per person in downtown districts than in the suburbs. While that discrepancy may not be as wide in Europe, it is clearly observable and measurable in many peripheral neighborhoods.

“Access and provision of these types of services are weaker in places with higher rates of poverty. And they’re weaker in places where a large percentage of the population is black and brown,” Dr. Allard said. “And so it’s hard for us to talk about social mobility and inequality without talking about racial and class segregation.”

Give the next generation a better chance

What makes certain neighborhoods vulnerable and unequal is, at root, the fact that children are often unable to fare better than their parents in education, income, or quality of life. While experts differed on whether the cause is urban design and isolation, or a paucity of state institutions, or a lack of economic opportunities, or simple racism and marginalization, they all agreed that any intervention aimed at these quarters needs to start with opportunities for the next generation, starting at a very early age.

“There’s a poverty of imagination in those communities – from very early on children are taught what is not possible,” says Jay Pitter, an urban-design consultant who grew up in the apartment periphery of Toronto (where both Covid-19 and segregation measures were the highest). “That’s also apparent in amenities, which might be a basketball court but not a swimming pool or library. It might be cheque-cashing places and liquor stores. It sends a message to children about what is possible for them.”

Early-childhood education programs and accessible daycare and after-hours programs have been shown to have a significant impact on second-generation outcomes. Economist Miles Corak, professor at the City University New York, pointed to innovative programs that support children in education from early childhood through to late teens, providing public-transit passes, mentoring, and support to enter post-secondary education.

“What I see makes a difference for economic security and quality of life,” said Marc Parés, a Barcelona urban geographer who now serves as a member of parliament in the Catalonia legislature, “is the degree of public investment we can find in these neighborhoods … those places where governments have invested in things like early-childhood education and schools over the last few decades are also the ones where people have become more self-organized to respond to an adverse situation.”

And that, we have learned the hard way this year, is why these neighborhoods are worth investing time and resources into. Instead of being the focal points of the next economic or epidemiological catastrophe, they can be places of hope and resilience that raise the generation that will lead the fight against adversity.


Doug Saunders is a Fellow the Robert Bosch Academy where he is studying the neighborhood-level roots of social and economic problems. He is the author of books on cities and migration including Arrival City, and is the international-affairs writer for the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail.

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