Geographic Social Inequality

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The study of social inequality has occupied geographers for decades; however, in the last few decades, as globalization has taken greater influence on the global economy, the focus has increased.

Simple examples of geographic social inequality are evident in major cities, where housing, food stores, basic services, healthcare, and other infrastructure are generally more available to wealthy urban dwellers than the urban poor.[1] (Related: These Cities are the Most Unaffordable Places to Buy a House in the World)

Spatial Inequality and Poverty Traps

The evidence of spatial factors affecting social inequality, particular in regards to access of resources and infrastructure, have been called “spatial inequality,” where individual access is not equal.[2] Often urban geographers see that neighborhoods themselves can promote social inequality, as high crime and unemployment create perceptions of negativity and make it more difficult for individuals to aspire to improve their condition.

This has the long-term, adverse effect in creating poverty traps, where breaking out of a cycle of poverty becomes increasingly harder the more individuals are surrounded by others in a similar situation.[3]

Urban Design and Neighborhood Inequality

Efforts by governments to alleviate high levels of social deprivation in urban slums have also fallen victim to geographic-related factors. For instance, the building of housing estates or social housing for urban poor demonstrates that the concentration of low income households in set communities can cut off individuals due to poor transport links.

However, greater dispersal of individuals in social housing can lead to higher levels of traffic and environmental damage. Researchers have suggested that more compact and mixed-use city neighborhoods were more likely to alleviate social problems, as it gave access and opportunities, while mitigating negative environmental effects such as higher pollution.[4] S

ome researchers have argued that policies to improving social inequality have other long-term benefits for states, particularly in regards to social cohesion and reduction of ill health, such as high levels of obesity and mental illness.[5] What is evident is social equality will continue to be a major topic of focus, particularly as economies become more globalized, for urban and human geographers.

Data and research available from Equality of Opportunity.


[1] For more on urban geography and inequality, see:  Musterd, S., & Ostendorf, W. J. M. (Eds.). (1998). Urban segregation and the welfare state: inequality and exclusion in western cities. London ; New York: Routledge.

[2] For more on spatial inequality, see: Lloyd, C. D. (Ed.). (2015). Social-spatial segregation: concepts, processes and outcomes (Paperback-ed). Bristol: Policy Press.

[3] For more on social inequality in urban spaces and how it regenerates itself, see:  Knox, P. L., & Pinch, S. (2010). Urban social geography: an introduction (6. ed). Harlow: Pearson Prentice Hall.

[4] For more on how urban design affects neighborhoods and cities in relation to social inequality, see: Power, A. (2012). Social inequality, disadvantaged neighbourhoods and transport deprivation: an assessment of the historical influence of housing policies. Journal of Transport Geography, 21, 39–48.

[5] For more on social inequality and country and individual well being, see:  Ballas, D., Dorling, D., Nakaya, T., Tunstall, H., Hanaoka, K., & Hanibuchi, T. (2016). Happiness, Social Cohesion and Income Inequalities in Britain and Japan. In T. Tachibanaki (Ed.), Advances in Happiness Research (pp. 119–138). Tokyo: Springer Japan.