4. Improve Social Mobility

It’s hard to feel like infrastructure ideas are important when we’re still confronting poverty, violence, hunger, and blight – both here and around the world.  Interestingly, infrastructure does collide with these issues when we look at the impact of sprawl.

So what are the implications of sprawl?  It turns out, lack of connection to opportunity and restrictions to upward social mobility. In Harvard University’s study “The Equality of Opportunity”, the characteristics of areas with greater social mobility are outlined, with specific emphasis to areas of the US confronted with sprawl:

Is America the “Land of Opportunity”? In two recent studies, we find that: (1) Upward income mobility varies substantially within the U.S. [summary][paper] Areas with greater mobility tend to have five characteristics: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families. (2) Contrary to popular perception, economic mobility has not changed significantly over time; however, it is consistently lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries. [summary][paper]

According to Jonathan Rothwell of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, neighborhood could have as much to do with income potential as having a college degree or just a high school diploma.  He cites Douglas Massey of Princeton’s Geographic Effects on Intergenerational Income Mobility in saying, “[The] effect of neighborhood income is 50 to 66 percent of the parental income effect, so that growing up in a poor neighborhood would wipe out much of the advantage of growing up in a wealthy household.”  According to Rothwell, this equates to close to a million dollars of lifetime earnings difference for those raised in top quintile neighborhoods than for individuals from bottom quintile neighborhoods.

Social mobility restrictions are an example of contemporary dystopia (which is thrown around a lot these days, I know).  In other words, US society may be philosophically attuned to the concept of the “land of opportunity”, but our policy and built environment decisions limit that considerably.  In the case of sprawl, we’re talking about segregation of resources (the environmental justice issues Dr. Robert Bullard discusses in his book, Dumping in Dixie), social segregation (white flight), If a dystopian society is one that strives to be perfect, but in some important way is undesirable or frightening, then little by little, we will continue to see cataclysmic decline of our cities.  Whether we are talking dehumanizing situations like lack of social mobility or environmental disasters, the impact to the system leans toward dystopia.

I think we mean well; I don’t think any one sets out to develop a bad plan.  Let me give a personal example: A few years ago, I put together a fairly extensive “Energy Week” program aimed at connecting the community to energy efficiency concepts and money saving opportunities.  I hosted several expos throughout the community in order to better engage people in their neighborhoods.  $50-$100 rebates were offered for natural gas and electricity just for showing up.  While I considered the week a success because we had such a variety of people attend, many people still turned away because they didn’t feel like the opportunities were for them.

While I understand that social mobility and dystopic implications are a many variable equation, especially when dealing with sprawl, suggestions to improve social mobility include several basic elements:

  1. Implement an urban growth boundary.  This one should be given a thorough examination, by both County and City governments, to ensure the intent of the boundary is maintained. Not only does something like this limit further segregation and community stratification, it positively impacts land value (due to scarcity), and it protects green and agricultural lands as well.
  2. Direct public policies to address unfair intergenerational transmission mechanisms (such as race).  This includes making neighborhoods more equitable by investing in public schools, investing in open spaces/physical environment improvements (in parks and other natural resources, infrastructure like sidewalks/ADA curb ramps and tree lawns, as well as cleaning up pollution or urban decay), as well as other public goods/resources.
  3. Evaluate infrastructure and expansion projects systemically.  Fundamentally, this is avoiding the trappings of speculative urbanism, supporting actual market or demographic demands (not just political hubris or economic ambition). As in, yes, this may be a solution solving one problem, but what are the contextual impacts and does it create additional problems.  For instance, strategic acquisition of property may add tax base, but it strains infrastructure and sprawl limits connectivity.
  4. It’s not enough to provide ideas like “Infrastructure for All”, we need to help all people understand that these ideas/opportunities raise up the entire community.


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