Geography and Inequality

Mark Altaweel


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]

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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

Some 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.

Geography and Environmental Inequality

Geographers looking at environmental inequality focus on how different segments of a population have unequal access to different levels of environmental quality, ranging in water, air, and soil resources.

Communities that live near industrial regions, for instance, tend to have greater likelihood than other communities in experiencing a variety of ailments affecting breathing, lung health, and asthma.[6] A combination of long-term studies on the relationship between ethnic/racial groups and environmental inequality showed that in the United States there is a strong positive relationship between Latino and Black minorities living in areas with high NO2 and particulate matter pollution.[7] In effect, industrial areas tend to be more focused in places where minorities may have lived.

Overall, however, pollution exposure was found to be declining for racial/ethnic categories analyzed, even as generally exposure was greater for minorities. Even where sexual orientation was assessed, such as gay/transgender neighborhoods, evidence suggests environmental inequality or poor air quality is more likely.[8]

Historical factors are often found to be important in shaping how some of these communities might find themselves living in environmentally deprived areas. Geographers use a range of quantitative analyses, that include spatial analysis, to qualitative assessment, such as employing causal process tracing, to understand historical reasons as to why environmental inequality develops.[9]

The implications of these studies are that for aid and assistance programs, environmental inequality needs to be a category of assessment when constructing policy. This includes issues such as housing provided, where often poor housing in countries, including in Belgium, were found to be associated with environmental degradation.[10] The highlighted studies show that environmental inequality has become an important focus area for human geographers. However, much of the focus so far has been on urban regions rather than rural areas in the research literature.


[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.

[6] For an example of air pollution and health in relation to environmental inequality, see: Bickerstaff, K., & Walker, G. (2003). The place(s) of matter: matter out of place – public understandings of air pollution. Progress in Human Geography, 27(1), 45–67.

[7] For more on the study indicating where people live and exposure to air pollution, see: Kravitz-Wirtz, N., Crowder, K., Hajat, A., & Sass, V. (2016). The long-term dynamics of racial/ethnic inequality in neighborhood air pollution exposure, 1990-2009. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 13(02), 237–259.

[8] For more on the relationship between sexual orientation and environmental quality, see:  Collins, T. W., Grineski, S. E., & Morales, D. X. (2017). Sexual Orientation, Gender, and Environmental Injustice: Unequal Carcinogenic Air Pollution Risks in Greater Houston. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 107(1), 72–92.

[9] For an example of how middle range theory is developed bridging qualitative and quantitative analyses, see:  icotte, Diane.  2016.  “The Importance of Historical Methods for Building Theories of Urban Environmental Inequality,” Environmental Sociology, 2, 3: 254-264.

[10] For more on an example of housing quality and environmental inequality, see:  Lejeune, Z., Xhignesse, G., Kryvobokov, M., & Teller, J. (2016). Housing quality as environmental inequality: the case of Wallonia, Belgium. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, 31(3), 495–512.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.