Since the beginnings of civilization, cities have been crucibles of
progress both for societies and individuals. A great city, wrote Rene
Descartes in the seventeenth century, represented "an inventory of the
possible," a place where people could create their own futures and lift
up their families.
What characterized great cities such as Amsterdam-and, later, places
such as London, New York , Chicago, and Tokyo-was the size of their
property-owning middle class. This was a class whose roots, for the
most part, lay in the peasantry or artisan class, and later among
industrial workers. Their ascension into the ranks of the bourgeoisie, petit or haute, epitomized the opportunities for social advancement created uniquely by cities.
In the twenty-first century-the first in which the majority of
people will live in cities-this unique link between urbanism and upward
mobility is under threat. Urban boosters still maintain that big cities
remain unique centers for social uplift, but evidence suggests this is
increasingly no longer the case.
This process reflects a shift in economic and social realities over the past few decades. For example, according to a recent Brookings Institution study,
New York and Los Angeles have, among all U.S. cities, the smallest
share of middle-income neighborhoods. In 1980, Manhattan ranked 17th
among the nation’s counties for social inequality; by 2007 it ranked
first, with the top fifth earning 52 times that of the lowest fifth, a
disparity roughly comparable to that of Namibia.
President Obama’s hometown of Chicago shows much the same pattern,
according to a recent survey by Crain’s Chicago Business. Conditions
have improved for a relative handful of neighborhoods close to the
highly globalized central businesses. But for many neighborhoods things
have not improved, and in some cases have deteriorated. Even before the
recession there were fewer jobs than in 1989 and fewer opportunities
for the middle class, many of whom-including more than 100,000
African-Americans-have left the city over the past decade.
This pattern does not reflect perverse conditions unique to the
United States, as many academics and progressive pundits often suggest.
Between 1970 and 2001, the percentage of middle-income neighborhoods in
Toronto dropped from two-thirds to one-third, while poor districts had
more than doubled to 41 percent. According to the University of
Toronto, by 2020, middle-class neighborhoods could account for barely
less than 10 percent of the population, with the balance made up of
both affluent and poor residents.
Similarly, Tokyo, once widely seen as an exemplar of egalitarianism,
is transforming. The city’s post-World War II boom yielded a thriving
middle class and remarkable social mobility. That is now giving way to
a society where wealth is increasingly concentrated. The poverty rate,
including some 15,000 homeless people, has risen steadily to the
highest level in decades.
Much the same process can be seen in great social democratic havens
of Europe. In Berlin, Germany’s largest city, unemployment has remained
far higher than the national average, with rates at around 15 percent.
Some 36 percent of children are poor; many of them are from other
countries. The city, notes one left-wing activist, has emerged as "the
capital of poverty and the working poor in Germany."
To a large extent, urban poverty in Berlin and other European
megacities is concentrated among Muslim immigrants. Muslims constitute
at least 25 percent of the population of Marseilles and Rotterdam, 20
percent of Malmo, 15 percent of Birmingham, and 10 percent or more of
London, Paris, and Copenhagen. Over the next few decades, according to
a recent Pew Research Center study, Muslims will constitute a majority
of the population in several of these European cities.
The Case of London
Perhaps nowhere is the growing class divide more evident than in
London, perhaps the world’s most important megacity. Despite a massive
expansion of Britain’s huge welfare state, the ladder for upward
mobility seems broken, especially in London. This represents a dramatic
shift from the period after World War II. In the ensuing decades,
incomes for most Londoners grew, access to education expanded, and the
sharply drawn and notorious class lines began to blur.
But contemporary London’s emergence as the headquarters of
globalization has had widely differentiated impacts on class. On the
one hand, it has paced the emergence of the West End. Many once
hardscrabble neighborhoods-including Shoreditch, Islington, and
Putney-have gentrified. Yet walk a bare half mile or less from the
Thames River, particularly to the south, and you encounter many
marginal, and often dismal, districts. These areas have not much
benefited from the global economy and are inhabited largely by those
who survive at the expanding bottom of the wage profile.
Equally troubling, globalization’s benefits have disproportionately
accrued to those already possessing considerable means; the ranks of
top professionals, according to a 2009 report by the British
government’s social mobility task force, have been increasingly
dominated by the children of the wealthiest families.
Even less noted has been London’s deepening concentration of
poverty. Today more than one-third of the children in inner London are
living in poverty, as are one in five in the outer ring communities.
London has the highest incidence of child poverty in Great Britain,
even more than the beleaguered Northeast.
Poverty also affects 30 percent of working-age adults, more than
one-third of pensioners in inner London, and roughly one in five in
outer London. The inner London rates are the worst in Britain. More
than 1 million Londoners were on public support in 2002. These figures
are certain to become worse as a result of the recession that began in
The conditions are certainly not as extreme as those recorded in Friedrich Engels’s searing 1844 tome, The Condition of the Working Class in England,
but there remains a macabre relationship between mortality and
geography. Steve Norris, a former Conservative Party chairman and
onetime head of London Transport, notes that public health data
published by the King’s Fund demonstrates that life expectancy in the
poorer parts of east London is 4.5 years lower than in West London.
That’s six months for every station east of Waterloo on the Jubilee
Line. This poverty, Norris adds, extends to many white Londoners. They
often live cheek to jowl with immigrants, and feel themselves competing
for housing, jobs, and government services. The rich, Norris adds, "Buy
their way out of poor quality education and healthcare" while the
working and middle classes "queue for public housing for themselves and
Of note is the rise of the phenomena among the white working class
described as "yobbism." Large parts of Britain-including less
fashionable corners of London-suffer among the highest rates of alcohol
consumption in the advanced industrial world. London School of
Economics scholar Dick Hobbs, who grew up in a hardscrabble section of
east London, traces this largely to the decline of the blue-collar
economy in London. Over the past decade, job gains in Britain, like
those in the United States, have been concentrated at the top and
bottom of the wage profile. The growth in real earnings for blue-collar
professions-in industry, warehousing, and construction-generally has
lagged those of white-collar workers.
One other thing is clear: the welfare state has not reversed the
growing class divide. Despite its proletarian roots, New Labour, as
London Mayor Boris Johnson acidly notes, has presided over what has
become the most socially immobile society in Europe.
The Role of Housing and ‘the Green Factor’
Housing costs have exacerbated these conditions. Due largely to
restrictions on new housing on the periphery, London now ranks, next to
Vancouver, as the most expensive city to buy a house in the
English-speaking world. Estimates by the Centre for Social Justice
finds that unaffordability for first-time buyers doubled between 1997
and 2007. This has led to a surge in waiting lists for
government-funded "social housing"; by mid-2008, some 2 million
households (5 million people) were on the waiting list for such
housing. In London, this number reached one in ten in 2008.
Broad-based economic growth might seem the most logical solution to
this dilemma. In the past, socialists, liberals, and conservatives
might vigorously have debated various approaches, but generally agreed
about the desired end result: shrinking slums and expanding opportunity
for the middle or working class. Today, however, many urban
"progressives" do not trouble themselves overmuch about the hoi polloi.
Instead, they are more likely to devise policies to lure the
much-ballyhooed "creative class" of well-educated, often childless,
high-end workers to their cities. This goes along as well with an
increased focus on aesthetic and "green" issues.
In many ways, these approaches actually work at cross-purposes with
upward mobility. Green-oriented policies are often hostile to "carbon
intensive" industries such as manufacturing, warehousing, or
construction that employ middle-income workers. Green policies
implicitly tilt towards industries such as media, entertainment, and
finance that employ the best-situated social classes.
Indeed, some climate change enthusiasts, such as The Guardian’s
George Monbiot, see their cause in quasi-religious terms. In Monbiot’s
words, he is waging "a battle to redefine humanity." In his view, we
must terminate the economic "age of heroism," supplanting the
"expanders" with anti-growth "restrainers."
This is not just the latest edition of British "loony Left"
thinking. President Obama’s own science advisor, John Holdren, long has
embraced the notion of what he calls "de-development" of Western
economies to a lower level of affluence. Such approaches impose
enormous costs on both the middle and working classes in European and
North American cities, particularly given the unlikelihood of similar
restrictions on competitors in China, India, Russia, and other
countries. A huge shift to renewable fuels, for example, could
quadruple the cost of energy in Britain, forcing a large percentage of
the population into "fuel poverty."
Key Focus: Economic Growth
The emerging class conflict in the great global cities ultimately
could have many ill effects. Persistently high unemployment and
underemployment in British metropolitan areas, for example, has spurred
nativist sentiment and intolerance towards immigrants. This is true in
America today as well. But views towards immigrants generally soften as
an economy improves. Broad-based prosperity is a good antidote for
Attacking the class gap requires a redefinition of current views
about the overused term "sustainability." This concept needs to be
expanded beyond its conventional environmental definition to reflect
broader social and economic values as well. It is one thing to consider
how, in an era dominated by dispersed work, core cities might still
attract those elite workers needing direct "face-to-face contact." It
is quite another to develop strategies so that the vast majority will
be able to find work doing anything other than servicing the needs of
the upper echelons.
In turning away from the fundamental issues of economic growth and
upward mobility, these cities are in danger of permanently undermining
the very thing that has made great cities so attractive over the
centuries. The ultimate worth of urbanity lies in its ability to
deliver a better life, not only to the established affluent and the
most skilled, but to that broader population who, like others over the
millennia, come to a big city to create a better life.
This article originally appeared at The American.