What can cities do to help tackle inequality?

Rags and riches, side by side in east London. Image: Getty.

I recently attended a lecture by Nobel prize-winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz about the challenge of rising income inequality – a subject which is also the topic of his latest book Rewriting the rule of the American economy. There, he shows that, since the late 1970s, income inequality has risen in almost all industrialised countries and even more sharply in the United States and the UK.

Two main factors have driven this trend. The first is the shift of many jobs in tradable sectors from advanced economies to countries where wages are lower – for example, car manufacturing being moved to Central and Eastern Europe, or IT services to India.

The second is what economists call “skilled-biased technological change”; it can be described more simply as machines and computers being able to perform the automated tasks that used to be carried out by humans. This technological change has tended to replace administrative and routine jobs, while at the same time increasing the value and productivity of more highly skilled workers.

Clearly these trends pose challenges to policymakers who are concerned with the rising costs of welfare spending and underemployment. But as Stiglitz pointed out, inequality in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing: some people get paid more simply because they work longer hours, do riskier jobs, take on more responsibilities or because they have invested time and money in education and training.

With this caveat, Stiglitz’s recommendations focused on important national policies: taxing inherited wealth and financial transactions, boosting wages by a combination of tax credits and minimum wage rises, and improving access to education.

But given the importance of cities in creating both wealth and job opportunities, I was surprised that he didn’t say more about their role in addressing this issue.

When looking at the performance of our cities, inequality is arguably a sign that a city is doing its job. As Ed Glaeser argues in his book The Triumph of the City, “cities can be places of great inequality” because they “attract some of the world’s richest and poorest people”.

Cities attract poor people because they provide better opportunities to those who move in and to those who already live there. For example, Enrico Moretti, a professor of Economics at the University of California,  has shown that in the United States, people with low skill levels in successful cities tend to earn more than some high-skilled people in less successful cities.

But too many cities in the UK are not performing this crucial role. Stiglitz shows that intergenerational mobility – the likelihood that children from poor families move up the income scale – has actually gone down in the UK and in the United States. Inequality of opportunity is what we should be concerned about – and this is where policy needs to focus its attention.

The question is how policy can help cities do their job of both growing the size of the economic pie, and providing opportunities for more people, regardless of their background.

One obvious but difficult way is to remove the obstacles that might stop people from accessing better-paid jobs and training opportunities in thriving cities. In London, Cambridge and Bristol, for example, high housing costs are a barrier for low income workers, and so the focus should be on building new homes. In other places such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Stoke, improving skills and educational attainment should be at the heart of any policies trying to improve equality of opportunity.

In all cities, there is also a need to encourage firms to invest in the training of their employees, so that low-skilled workers can transition to better-paid jobs; and to do more to increase the educational attainment of pupils. Policy can also experiment with different ways to help people move to cities with better opportunities. Moretti, for example, proposes paying a mobility voucher, in addition to unemployment benefits, to those that want to relocate to more successful places.

While many of the policies aimed at reducing income inequality are national (taxation, the minimum wage), we also need to be thinking about the role of cities in driving growth, creating opportunities – and making sure more people have access to them.

Gabriele Piazza is a research Intern at the Centre for Cities. This post was originally published on the think tank's blog.

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Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.