Density and equity: how urban sprawl undermines social mobility

A new study out of the US has provided more evidence to support the notion that urban sprawl compromises social mobility.

The study, published in Landscape and Urban Planning, examined potential pathways through which sprawl may affect social mobility, using mathematical models to account for both direct and indirect effects of sprawl on social mobility. Direct effects included access to jobs, while indirect effects included integration of different income classes, social capital, racial segregation and income segregation.

“The result is that upward mobility is significantly higher in compact areas than sprawling areas,” University of Utah professor Reid Ewing, who led the research, said.

“As the compactness index for a metropolitan area doubles, the likelihood that a child born into the bottom fifth of national income distribution will reach the top fifth by age 30 increases by 41 per cent.”

Professor Ewing said that the upward mobility for Americans was just half that of citizens of Denmark and other European countries, and that the built environment played a part in the poor result.

“The US is much more sprawling in comparison [to European cities].

“By discouraging sprawl, we can not only improve air quality and shorten commutes, but we can also promote upward social mobility.”

The authors of the paper suggested governments look at implementing programs that discourage sprawl and encourage compact development.

The research also reinforces comments made by Committee for Sydney chief executive Tim Williams at our Sydney Surround Sound for Sustainable Precincts, who said that cities with poor connectivity had worse social mobility outcomes.

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