The hidden impact of the coronavirus pandemic is rising urban inequality

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Isolation has been one of the defining features of the COVID-19 pandemic, but social inequality has also taken a toll.

Experts say the world is now in the midst of an urban inequality emergency.

And unless we address that, says world-renowned sociologist and architect Richard Sennett, inequality will scar the design and function of our cities for decades to come.

Blind to our own privilege

Trends in urbanisation have always been markers of social, economic and political change.

Since March, speculation about the shifting nature of our cities has focused predominantly on the dynamics of working from home and what that might mean for our CBDs.

In most cities in Australia the discussion is now turning to whether, and how best, to return to the office; can a balance be struck that suits the needs of both employees and their bosses?

Professor Sennett, who serves as a senior advisor to the UN on cities and climate change, argues that focus obscures a dark reality — for a large section of the population, choice is not an option.

Instead, he says, a “big thick line” has been created between the manual working class and their wealthier and more flexible contemporaries.

“If you’re a cleaner or you pick up garbage, you can’t work remotely from home. You can’t be a clerk in a supermarket remotely,” he .

“Working remotely is a privilege of the middle class.”

Michele Acuto, the director of the Connected Cities Lab at the University of Melbourne, agrees the world is in an inequality crisis.

But he says the seeds of this crisis germinated well before the pandemic.

“The World Bank says a wave of 70 million new people will be put in poverty by the crisis — up to 700 million people internationally with poverty conditions because of the crisis,” he says.

“We knew about it, we knew about housing, mobility and transport conditions.

“So, we should probably not be shocked by what has happened.”

Misdirected attention

Urban density has been singled out as one of the main problems with modern city living and a chief cause of the virus’s rapid spread.

But Professor Acuto argues that ignores the fact that most infections in countries like Australia have occurred in the suburbs and fringe areas of cities.

“It’s a story of how we are managing crowding and the conductivity between people. So, we really need to start thinking in a much more nuanced way.”

He points out that while New York and Hong Kong are similar in terms of population density, the former has had an astronomically higher rate of infection and mortality.

The difference, says Professor Acuto, relates to crisis management effectiveness and underlying social conditions.

“A focus on density alone is dangerous because it sets up density as a single factor versus, for instance, a focus on mobility, living conditions, quality of housing,” he says.

“It doesn’t really make sense to talk about density without talking about the quality of the dwellings people live in. And then obviously quality of office and work environments.”

Social distancing — the socio-economic way

One of the unexpected outcomes of this pandemic has been that land and housing prices have remained largely unaffected in major cities across the globe. Predictions of a significant downturn have so far proven unfounded.

Urban design expert Patrick Condon says that’s also been true for other financial assets and the stock market.

“This is because there is so much money being dumped into the system by governments and so much money is held in the hands of the 1 per cent,” he says.

And having “financialised all the asset classes”, he says, neither the rich nor wealthy governments have any interest in seeing assets reduced.

“That’s OK for stocks in gold and jewels, that’s not going to harm the average citizen, the average grocery clerk. But when it affects urban land prices, it affects rents and it affects the cost of entry-level housing which continues to rise.”

And that, warns Professor Condon, means those workers most exposed to COVID-19 are also at risk of being hit with a “double whammy” in the shape of increasingly unaffordable housing.

Professor Sennett fears COVID-19 will accelerate the ongoing social fragmentation of medium to large-sized cities.

“What we call gentrification is really a kind of re-orientating of who can afford to live where,” he says.

“You’re getting more and more places in which the cost of housing is prohibitive for ordinary people to pay rent or to get mortgages.

“In London, for instance, very mixed areas in the 1980s are now completely homogenised by income. And it’s true in New York and in Paris as well.”

Housing for people, not for profit

Throughout this year’s pandemic numerous calls have been made for an increase in social housing to help create jobs in the construction industry while simultaneously alleviating inequality.

The Victorian Government recently announced it will spend $5.3 billion to build more than 12,000 public housing homes over the next four years.

Professor Sennett supports calls to boost social housing, but cautions that governments need to follow a mixed housing model.

Creating designated suburbs for the working class, he says, will only replicate the problems of the past.

Research by Professor Condon, who’s based in Vancouver, indicates segregation by income class is getting worse right across the English-speaking world.

He too advocates a greater role for government-backed social housing programs, and he nominates Vienna as a model for what can be achieved.

“Fifty-five per cent of their people live comfortably and affordably in non-market housing, and they’re able to do that at a fraction of the cost to their fellow citizens in other parts of Europe.”

That non-market approach involves both housing supplied and controlled by local cooperatives and/or by non-profit corporations.

What’s crucial, says Professor Condon, is understanding the importance of location. Future social housing, he says, is most effective when it’s built in areas where people actually work.

“Government tends to follow this challenging situation by investing billions of dollars in transportation systems, instead of spending money chasing those dislocated income cohorts that are not living where they would like to live,” he says.

“It would be far cheaper for the government to just come in and provide housing supports.”

A chance to rediscover community

But it’s not all bad news on the urban pandemic front.

One positive experience for many Australians during this year’s coronavirus lockdown has been an unexpected reconnection with community.

Griffith University’s Tony Matthews calls it a return to “localised living” — where suburbs become neighbourhoods, places of shared experience, rather than urban dormitories.

While he acknowledges that social shift has been driven by necessity rather than design — and could be fleeting — he’s optimistic that it will outlive the virus.

If he’s correct, expect to see a lot more grassroots activism and demands on local councils to improve community facilities.

“Communities are going to want that, partly because they’ve experienced what it can do and what happens if you don’t have it,” he says.

By Antony Funnell for Future Tense (Original ABC Article)

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