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March 5, 2014 / Leo Hollis

Trust in the City

The city magnifies inequality: it is where wealth is made and also the place that the poor come to; and often they have to live desperately close to each other. Many economists use something called the Gini Coefficient to measure levels of wealth inequality. On a scale between 0.00 (being the the most equal) and 1.00 (total inequality), one expects a developed country to be somewhere between 0.30 and 0.40, the top figure considered to be the ‘international alert line’ when levels of inequality are becoming an international concern. Very high inequality can be found between 0.50 and 0.60 and include countries such as Chile, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Kenya. Few nations – Nambia, Zambia and South Africa – chart higher than 0.60 ratio.

However, cities offers a more extreme picture than nations. In Asia and Africa, the Gini coefficient ratios for cities are higher and growing faster than the nation they are in, showing that just because cities are becoming richer, this wealth is not being evenly distributed. This same phenomenon can be found in the US: while the national gini coefficient is 0.38, more than 40 American cities have a ratio of above 0.50. The most unequal city in the US, Atlanta, Georgia, at 0.57, is at a similar level of inequality as Nairobi, Kenya, which includes the largest slum in the world, and Mexico City.

In 2011 as the Occupy Wall Street protesters campaigned against the 1%, it was sobering to note that, even within this percentile there was a hierarchy. The top .01%, comprising 14,000 familes had an average income of $31 million and accounted for 5% of the total US income. The sector between  the top 99.90% and 99.99% wealthiest in the US added another 135,000 families with an average income of $3.9 million, accumulating another 6% of the nation’s total income. The remainder of the top 1%- those between 99.00% and 99.90% held another 11% of the total pie, and accounted for 1.35 million families. Therefore the top 1% of the US population owned 22% of the whole economy.

Yet income inequality within the city is more than just a register of varying levels of wealth.  The consequences of inequality goes to the heart of the city: it defines the urban landscape and determines the distribution of opportunities, turning the right to the city that should be available to everyone into a rigged lottery. In an unequal city  it is more difficult to get access to housing, healthcare, education and the simple task of moving around the city, to get to work. Inequality is connected to higher crime and murder rates, increased levels of mental health problems, teenage pregnancies, obesity, and a reduction in social mobility, poorer exam results, the decreased likelihood of voting in an election, and, more perilous of all, life expectancy.

No wonder trust is often so difficult to find in such circumstances. The divisive line between ‘us vs them’ is redrawn within the city. The city is built on trust, but we seem to be living in an age of increasing suspicion, distrust and fear.

John Locke said that ‘trust’ was at the heart of any society; and this notion of ‘trust’ has too often been ignored in the discussions of how to make a happy city. For Jane Jacobs trust comes from the small interactions within the street’s ballet: ‘it grows out of people stopping by the bar for a drink, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop.’  But as the city grows, clearly these interactions can become more impersonal and brief. As our cities get ever larger, and more inequal, the question of trust becomes more urgent. We need to reconsider what trust is and where it fits within the modern metropolis.  

You cannot see trust, you can only perceive the consequences of its absence, or the benefits of its influence. It is invisible, but it can be found all around the city. The lack of trust costs a city.

This is why when we talk about the future of the city we need to add an understanding of trust and equity at the heart of any notion of ‘civics’. The city is not just a marketplace, nor can technology alone offer the ‘solution’. Despite the very important discussion of the role of ‘place making’ in the formation of the metropolis – the relationship between the physical hardware, and the human software – still does not encompass the full range of urban life.

If there is to be an urban revolution – to borrow Bruce Katz’s title – I doubt that it will be found in the relationship between innovation and the civic government, (despite the very interesting examples that he uses in Houston of new ways of delivering services to where it is most needed). Rather it will be a revolution in everyday life, an embrace of urban complexity and all its complications. This offers something more than just the cult of individual happiness, but a truly social urbanism where trust and equality are foundations rather than the ornaments of the city. 


Coda: It was interesting to note this week that even the FT was expounding how the reduction of inequality can have economic benefits: We do not have to live with the scourge of inequality –




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