Islands of Vulnerability on the Edge of Town

December 2021

The pandemic revealed that in many peripheral urban districts, a variety of problems overlap, making them islands of vulnerability. Often, social advancement is only possible by moving away. A research project from three European countries shows alternatives and makes clear: residents often have reasonable suggestions for improvement. It is time to listen to them.

By Doug Saunders

Doug Saunders district city
Foto: flickr / Ulf Liljankoski

The pandemic has changed our way of looking at many things – and the maps of our major cities ought to be among them. The past two years have upturned our understanding of where the most vulnerable places are, where obstacles exist, and where investment and redevelopment will create the most benefit.

In previous epidemics over the past decades and centuries, infection and suffering have been most concentrated in the dense older residential districts of the urban core, where people were least protected and where, through the twentieth century, newcomers tended to settle. But something has changed during the twenty-first century, and it took a pandemic to get us to notice. Infections from Covid-19 in a great many cities of Europe and North America have all but ignored much of the city centre but have been overwhelmingly concentrated in districts of the periphery and inner suburbs – typically in the apartment suburbs that in recent years have become the premier landing pads for new arrivals.

High infection rates as a symptom of vulnerability

This should not have come as a surprise. I’ve found, during two years of research with the Robert Bosch Academy in several of these peripheral apartment districts across Europe, that the disproportionately high rates of infection in these places are merely the latest and most tragic symptom of forms of vulnerability that have become concentrated in these “trap districts,” as I call them.

Two large, little-acknowledged phenomena have changed Western cities over the last 20 years: the shift of most immigration settlement to the urban periphery, and the related phenomenon known as the “suburbanization of poverty.” Both have been driven by the revitalization of inner cities, the shift of entry-level employment from manufacturing to service economies, and the severe housing-supply shortages that have driven up costs in many cities, rendering old “arrival city” districts inaccessible to immigrants. Together these have shifted newcomers, as well as economically vulnerable post-industrial and post-authoritarian populations, into the periphery.

Why would these districts be so exceptionally susceptible to infection? Over the last three months, I have asked this question of many of their residents, and they repeatedly pointed to their inordinate reliance on “essential” face-to-face jobs, usually in other parts of the city, which furthermore require a long trip on a crowded bus or tram.

My fieldwork has focused on three large neighbourhoods: Bergsjön, a 1970s apartment district built for auto workers to the north of Gothenburg, Sweden; Grünau, a 1980s socialist Plattenbau district on the far western fringe of Leipzig, Germany; and Ciutat Meridiana, a 1960s accumulation of private apartments built for labourers on the outskirts of Barcelona. I had begun studying these districts in 2019 because they all had problems of poor intergenerational socio-economic mobility (in short, children were not doing as well as their parents had). By summer of 2020, however, it had become apparent that these neighbourhoods all had the highest levels of Covid-19 infection in their larger metropolitan areas, often by a wide margin.

Physical design and lack of infrastructure in peripheral neighbourhoods

Residents repeatedly identified two broad categories of underlying problems.

The first is in the physical design of these peripheral neighbourhoods. Whether they’re private-rental apartments (as in Leipzig), occupant-owned flats (as in Barcelona) or public-owned units charging a social rent (as in Gothenburg), these districts were generally built during the postwar decades to be bedroom communities for industrial workers or lower-middle-class people who owned cars, had jobs in different parts of the city, did their shopping in other neighbourhoods.

They contain big buffers and natural barriers separating them from any other, more prosperous neighbourhoods and preventing foot traffic between them, and frequently grassy void spaces between buildings that look pleasant by day and menacing after dark or in winter. The new landing-pad districts, in short, are full of barriers – and many of them are very literal physical barriers, that prevent connection, commerce, community-building, linkage and, in short, integration.

The second, related problem is the paucity of institutions, facilities, and spaces for creative and commercial use within the neighbourhood.

Schools are a particular problem here. In Barcelona, the head teacher of a secondary school lamented to me that in most years zero children in his school make it to university or other post-secondary education, and a majority don’t even finish secondary school. In fact, a great many children from these districts do make it to higher education – but they are the ones whose ambitious parents save to buy a car, so they can bring their children each morning to a better school in a more middle-class neighbourhood. This educational flight of the more aspirational immigrants and “white” residents leads to a downward spiral in school quality that can be observed in all of these districts.

Schools are not the only problem. These neighbourhoods, zoned to be strictly residential, were typically designed with a limited supply of most health, education, social-service and other government institutions, only a few places of worship or culture, and very few shops or places to open a small business. As a consequence, those few such places that do exist tend to be overcrowded, contributing to disease susceptibility.

While governments have made scattered attempts to improve these peripheral residential districts over the years through small investments and construction projects, I found that the residents themselves have a very clear idea of what makes their neighbourhood vulnerable, and what obstacles stand in the way of their success and safety.

The residents themselves have reasonable suggestions for improvement

When I ask them “what needs to change,” they point to a number of important factors. The creation of better connections to other districts: faster and safer transit, more foot and street connections to allow different communities to mix and to bring customers in. The removal of barriers – verges, forests, freeways – that prevent such connections. The filling in of empty, forbidding spaces between buildings, to create a more vibrant population density and a greater supply of institutions. The provision of dense retail and food-services spaces, such as an informal souk between buildings, as a business opportunity and an attraction. And incentives for people to come into the neighbourhood, as visitors, shoppers, and possibly long-term residents – including the creation of “magnet” schools that draw young people in, rather than driving them away.

A life on the periphery does not need to be isolated, disconnected, and infectious. The apartment-dwellers I spoke to all enjoyed the nature, the community, and the quiet life on the edge of town – but they also knew what had turned their neighbourhood into a dangerous place, and how to fix it. It’s time to listen to them.

Doug Saunders rund grau

Doug Saunders is a British-Canadian journalist and columnist for the Canadian daily newspaper The Globe and Mail and a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy. He has authored several books on cities and migration, including Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World.

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