One World, Segregated

We are more globally connected than ever, but adjacent city blocks can be worlds apart.

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Open-ended wars and economic crises were not what 80 percent of Americans polled saw around the corner when they said things were going well. That was eight years, two meltdowns and two wars ago. Now they probably wish we could go back to 2000 and take a mulligan. The so-called “Bush boom,” which didn’t do much for cities anyway, has given way to talk of a worldwide recession. The great cities that were once accustomed to relative tranquility — New York, London, Madrid, Washington — perpetually brace for the next bombing. The ugliness of this year’s election (“kill him!”) doesn’t suggest any of this is bringing out the best in us. Barack Obama has gone from the hope candidate to the heaven-help-us candidate.

The paradox is that people are choosing to live in closer quarters than ever, despite all these tensions. The new era will be remarkable for being an urban century rather than an “American” or “Pacific” century. At no time in world history has our mode of living changed so rapidly. Now half of the world’s population lives in cities (even the US, home of the supposed “urban-rural divide,” is 80 percent urbanized). The UN predicts the world’s cities will hold 5 billion people by 2030. Urbanization used to be a sign of growing prosperity, but now people are flooding into cities whether there is opportunity or not. One billion of them are now parked in slums.

This is all happening at a time when previously obscure terms like IED, dirty bomb and extraordinary rendition are in the lexicon of urbanites everywhere. Increasingly cosmopolitan metropolises on every continent live under the specter of global tensions flaring up on their streets rather than on some distant battlefield. Even though this climate of fear hasn’t stopped the inexorable path of urbanization, it has made growth patterns more segregated. Modern urban cityscapes better reflect Orval Faubus’s vision for the world than Martin Luther King’s. When Lyndon Johnson declared segregation “forbidden” in the halcyon sixties, I doubt he or anyone else envisioned the racial and economic fault lines that divide cities four decades later. Segregation as a legal institution vanished in most places, but it’s alive and well as a market phenomenon.

We are more globally connected than ever, but adjacent city blocks can be worlds apart. A recent article by Peer Smets and Ton Salman in Urban Studies argues that “segregation is indeed on the rise, its effects are becoming gloomier and there is ample reason for concern.” Urban development, once the domain of the state, is increasingly left to the private sector where market forces dictate catering to the upper classes. This leaves large segments of society sequestered in shabbier districts with less access to public or private services. Shrinking and out-of-fashion welfare states are unable to address the growing gap between rich and poor in most cities. Nor are they a match for the needs of the oncoming migration waves into cities worldwide.

Smets and Salman say wealthy urbanites have functioned to “strengthen segregation” by walling themselves off into self contained sub-communities. “The end result,” they argue “is not only an archipelago city, but a mutually hostile archipelago.” There are no easy answers. Cities, they note, have tried mixed income development with varied results. The development of middle class housing in declining neighborhoods can bring welcome vitality but can also lead to gentrification and drown out poor voices in favor of wealthier residents.

In the midst of the current crisis, the international community has plenty to fix these days. Urban segregation should be on that list. I don’t necessarily mean breaking apart culturally distinct neighborhoods that enrich any urban landscape, but we do need a worldwide effort to stop the poor from becoming ghettoized. Of course every city is different and there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but turning around most situations will certainly require some form of increased public investment. It’s also time for a massive rethinking of local privatization and deregulation schemes which cater to the rich. Current urbanization patterns are testimony against an unmitigated market whose hand is as immoral as it is invisible.

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