Designing Better Neighborhoods Can Help Anyone Beat the Odds

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Prospective home buyers are well-aware of the saying, “it’s all about location, location, location.”

When looking for a place to live, on top of cost, we also consider factors such as crime rate, proximity to work, access to schools, healthcare, and green spaces.

There are places where people feel comfortable leaving their doors unlocked and others where you’ll want to invest in a security alarm system for your home.

Living closer to well-developed, affluent areas gives you better job options. Higher pay leads to better education for your kids and improvements across the board in other aspects of overall quality of living.

Clearly, location matters and homeowners with the flexibility to choose from among the best places to live will secure a better future for themselves and their families.

But the flip side is that lack of options and mobility can lock people into undesirable living situations.

Outsized environmental influence

There’s a wide-ranging belief across different sciences that life outcomes are heavily determined by the environment we live in.

This is called environmental determinism, and it can be applied to societies as well as individuals. Critics of this perspective maintain that it belittles the power of human agency. Each individual has the potential to overcome the circumstances of their birth.

Our fates may not be set in stone based on where we were born and raised. But there’s no denying that our environment can deeply affect the odds of our success.

People migrate to big cities for better living opportunities, but the cost of living there is also much higher. If you can afford it, you’re generally insulated from the stress and risks of modern urban living.

Those without the means must make compromises. They rent or share small spaces, giving up the perks of homeownership. They might need to come to terms with living in unsafe or polluted neighborhoods.

Research shows that neighborhood factors like social cohesion and order, spacing, and environmental hazards, have a significant effect on personal outcomes. You’re far more likely to be healthy, well-educated, and successful if you grew up in a good neighborhood.

Crucially, you’re also going to enjoy greater mobility, and therefore possess the agency required to further negate any environmental influences. Success stories of people coming from poor neighborhoods aren’t unheard of, but they are the exception that proves the rule.

Inequality by design


Our life outcomes always rest on our actions and our choices, but we can’t absolve the system of responsibility for two reasons.

First, doing so places the burden of improvement solely on the individual, when many people already face a systemic disadvantage from an early age.

Second, the impact of neighborhood inequality is persistent. Despite population turnover and fluctuations in poverty, poor neighborhoods are overwhelmingly likely to remain poor over the decades.

The author Jared Diamond, a proponent of environmental determinism, likes to point out that people like the Aborigines didn’t stand a chance when they made contact with Western civilization. Their harsh environment couldn’t possibly foster complex societies on the same scale, with matching technological developments.

Unlike natural environments, cities are man-made. They are designed by urban planners with oversight by local authorities.

This means that everyone involved in urban design and development is responsible for failure to even the odds by reducing neighborhood inequality over the years.

Crafting better neighborhoods

Like any complex problem, entrenched inequality at the neighborhood level can be tackled from multiple angles.

For instance, employers might actively make efforts to ensure that they aren’t discriminating against candidates based on where they live or where they obtained their education.

The same goes for developers of algorithms. Machine learning can inherit the unconscious biases of its human designers.

But the direct ownership and corresponding action should come from urban authorities.

In the US, for instance, many areas are covered in layers of zoning codes and design regulations. These supposedly preserve historic buildings or maintain a standard of beauty but, in practice, are a means for enforcing the socio-economic status quo.

Loosen the restrictions, and low-cost developments can proceed in affluent neighborhoods. This increases mobility and opportunities for people who’d otherwise be forced to live in the poorer areas.

And in turn, that opens up space in poor neighborhoods, which can be used for green spaces or better infrastructure, raising the quality of living.

These changes won’t make an immediate impact, but over the generations, they will help more individuals to beat the odds. And for the neighborhoods themselves, the gulf of inequality will be narrowed substantially over time.

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