When thinking about public design standards, namely the Code of Ordinances that municipalities abide by for all new planning and construction projects, social justice isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But as studies that look at intergenerational mobility, the places where we live have a distinct impact on how well we do in life. The effects of better neighborhoods on everything from test scores to income earning potential are well documented (” Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States“). 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]
Social mobility restrictions are an example of contemporary dystopia. 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. 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 a 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.
Knowing that infrastructure does collide with social justice and that we make infrastructure decisions by proxy through the Municipal Code of Ordinances, it makes sense that by improving the code we can address social justice. To that end, we must update Municipal Code of Ordinances not just to address new technology, energy improvements, or contemporary human behavior patterns, we must also use that code to address social mobility and environmental justice.