Urban inequalities

Just how does space influence economic outcomes, and vice versa? A good example of how causality can run both ways comes from the realm of economic inequalities.


A former substandard housing district long turned into a public park in Arakawa-ku

Income and wealth inequalities are most apparent in cities as rich and poor live so closely together. Inequalities make people unhappy and lead to lower economic growth, while they also explain a good degree of crime. Income inequalities in cities are best explained by different levels of education of the population. High dropout rates in particular appear to be progenitor of an area’s income inequalities. All this comes from Glaeser et al (2008). Their paper can be read here. I can hopefully review some more of the economic argument and read a little more widely on that point in the future.

An interesting collection of papers can be found in Urban Geography 2006, 27, 5. They look at examples of spatial urban inequality from around the world. Of special note is this article on China, which shows that traditional expressions of spatial inequality (e.g. gated communities) often don’t have the same connotation in a non-Western context.

My professor suggested I look at three ways in which inequalities manifest themselves in an urban setting. My case study being Tokyo, I want to take a cursory look at:

  • Per capita income across Tokyo: Relative equality of wealth and income is often held up as one of the features of the Japanese economic miracle. I would like to know how this played out spatially, in the early postwar period. How different were average incomes across the special wards, for example? Did these differences get bigger as time went by? Are there certain surveys which would allow me to look at intra-ward income differentials? There has been some work done on this (in English), for example by AJ Jacobs (article available here). However, he mainly looks at developments since the 1980s. An interesting piece on social stratification in Kyoto (versus Edinburgh) is by Fielding 2004 (here). He holds that contrary to our expectations, cities in Japan are indeed stratified by class, although less so than their Western equivalents and also alongside different spatial patterns.
  • The incidence of slums: I am currently studying the spatial distribution of substandard housing districts across Tokyo. One of the key findings is that they were not extremely material in terms of the population they housed (e.g. under 2% of Tokyo’s population at the time of an important survey in 1959), while another one is that the districts were relatively spread-out across the city (albeit with some concentrations). How does this compare to slums in today’s Third World (Asian) cities? This is one of the key areas of my work currently. It involves mapping former slum locations on today’s maps, using surveys from before the war as well as several years in the postwar period. More on that shortly.
  • Housing size and per capita living space: As the economy grew, so did average housing space per capita. The more densely populated wards in the shitamachi area began to shed population in the 1950s, leading to higher per capita living space. The Western suburbs were generally more affluent and had more one family homes. Was there a marked inequality in living space, and is it correlated to the two points above? I can also draw on urban land prices across the wards for additional analysis.

Addressing these questions will allow me to form a better judgment on whether Japan’s economic development path led to a relatively low degree of income inequalities across Tokyo, or whether the city’s spatial characteristics made a material contribution to low income inequalities in the first place. While there won’t be a right or wrong answer in this debate, it will hopefully serve as a good case study for my thesis.

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