Pour la recherche urbaine

Adisson F., Barles S., Blanc N., Coutard O., Frouillou L., Rassat F. (Eds.). (2020). Pour la recherche urbaine. CNRS Éditions via OpenEdition, 441p.

Pour la recherche urbaine est un ouvrage de prospective nationale de la recherche urbaine, initié par Sabine Barles, Nathalie Blanc et Olivier Coutard, sous l’égide du CNRS, dans le but de réfléchir à l’avenir de la recherche urbaine en France, au sein d’un collectif pluriel en termes d’approches, de points de vue, d’affiliations et d’ancienneté de carrière. Basé sur les débats de six journées d’étude et d’une école thématique entre 2015 et 2016, cet ouvrage livre une synthèse riche de ce qui se fait actuellement dans la recherche française sur les villes, des questions nouvelles posées par les villes contemporaines et les processus qui s’y jouent, et enfin les directions  de recherche esquissées par les travaux et débats récents. La ville et la recherche urbaine y sont considérées dans leurs dimensions sociale, géographique, économique, matérielle, politique et environnementale. Cinquante-deux auteurs y ont pris part. Coordonné par les trois instigateurs ainsi que Félix Adisson, Leïla Frouillou et Fanny Rassat, il a été publié cet été par CNRS Éditions et est accessible gratuitement en ligne. Il couvre en quatre grandes parties et seize chapitres les grands domaines de la recherche française sur les villes et propose des pistes de recherche, des questions et des propositions (théoriques, méthodologiques et organisationnelles) pour le futur de cette recherche. 

J’ai trouvé la démarche de l’ouvrage très intéressante et sa lecture m’a beaucoup appris (autant sur les sujets qui me sont familiers que sur ceux qui ne le sont pas). Je trouve qu’il s’agit d’un outil indispensable pour les chercheurs francophones en études urbaines, jeunes ou plus confirmés, et en particulier lors de l’écriture d’un projet de recherche. En effet, l’ouvrage permet, grâce à l’apport de regards complémentaires et collectifs sur questions urbaines, de fournir un état de l’art de nombreuses questions scientifiques posées par les villes contemporaines, mais aussi de confronter son idée avec les perspectives de recherche ébauchées dans les différents chapitres. Pour ces mêmes raisons, la synthèse de cet ouvrage n’est pas aisée. Je vais donc tenter d’en livrer les principales lignes directrices plutôt que de faire une revue chronologique des différents chapitres.

 


 

Tout d’abord, la richesse de l’ouvrage s’exprime par la diversité de nature des chapitres qui le composent.

Certains se présentent principalement comme une revue thématique de la littérature. Ils offrent au lecteur un panorama de références classiques et contemporaines sur un aspect de la recherche urbaine. C’est le cas selon moi du chapitre 1 sur les approches critiques, ou du chapitre 7 sur l’écologie urbaine (considérée á la fois comme écologie dans la ville, et écologie de la ville).

D’autres chapitres proposent plutôt une forme de position de recherche collective. C’est le cas par exemple du chapitre 3, dans lequel les autrices plaident pour l’usage de l’expérimentation comme méthode alternative de recherche urbaine, c’est-à-dire la prise en compte des citoyens, de leurs visions diverses de la ville, de leurs ressources vernaculaires et d’une forme d’improvisation dans la conduite des projets urbains. Le chapitre 9 présente aussi certains aspects d’une position de recherche, en l’occurrence sur l’approche de la ville “par la rupture”. Les auteurs soutiennent que les crises (épidémies, attentats, séismes) permettent de révéler – et de donc de mieux comprendre – le fonctionnement et l’organisation des villes. “Aborder l’étude du risque par la crise pousse à l’approcher à partir des enjeux et de la fabrique de l’urbain. De ce fait, l’approche est plus décloisonnée et interdisciplinaire, car aborder le risque par les aléas tend à disciplinariser l’étude, à la segmenter en fonction de la nature de ces aléas. […] En effet, l’étude des risques urbains à partir du phénomène perturbateur transforme généralement celui-ci en principe actif, extérieur à la société urbaine, faisant de cette dernière un objet subissant. […] Envisager la crise en ville, […] C’est interroger l’urgence à la fois comme condition de la gestion et comme épreuve servant de justification des pratiques politiques et sociales nouvelles. […] C’est également insister sur la rupture comme une accélération du temps qui faire événement et s’interroger sur le sens de cet événement pour la ville“ (Sierra et al., chapitre 9, §2-4)

D’autres chapitres sont plus directement orientés vers une écriture prospective. Ils identifient explicitement les angles morts et questions ouvertes de la recherche urbaine contemporaine. Dans le chapitre 5 sur les hiérarchies urbaines par exemple, les auteurs se demandent “jusqu’où les grandes villes favorisent-elles la création d’une richesse qui peut ensuite être redistribuée? Jusqu’où ne sont-elles pas au contraire génératrices de surcroît d’inégalités? (Bisson et al., chapitre 5, §32); “les modèles de politiques urbaines qui [découlent des recommandations de R. Florida] sont-ils adaptés aux centre des villes moyennes? (§17) ou encore “Y a-t-il des forces politiques qui incarnent les valeurs de l’imaginaire métropolitain?” (§13). Sur le thème des services urbains et de leur provision par les acteurs publics, le chapitre 10 propose aussi de nombreuses interrogations et de pistes de recherche. Le chapitre 16 livre quant à lui un travail prospectif à propos de la circulation des modèles urbains.

Enfin, le chapitre 4 se distingue du reste de l’ouvrage par sa forme. Plutôt qu’un exercice collectif d’écriture sur un thème donné, il rend compte de discussions ayant eu lieu lors d’une table ronde sur l’avenir de la recherche urbaine.

 

En termes de sujets abordés, il est intéressant de noter que trois fils rouges apparaissent dans la majorité des chapitres de l’ouvrage, que se soit comme objets, facteurs ou ressources de la recherche urbaine : la comparaison entre villes “du Nord” et villes “du Sud”, la problématique environnementale et la question du numérique. Ainsi, les villes du Sud sont évoquées, non plus seulement en lien avec le développement économique, mais pour introduire l’importance des données massives dans la construction de politiques publiques de planification (Chapitre 2), pour insister sur les enjeux de mobilité durable dans les villes dont l’étalement se poursuit (Chapitre 5), sur l’enjeux d’une notion floue comme celle de résilience sur les financements institutionnels dirigés vers les villes qui la promeuvent (Chapitre 9) ou encore à propos des mobilisations citadines (Chapitre 12). Par ailleurs, les non-humains – animaux et végétaux – sont plutôt bien représentés dans cet ouvrage, en ce qu’ils permettent d’envisager de nouvelles définitions de la ville (Chapitre 6) ou de mieux comprendre son fonctionnement écologique (Chapitre 7). La dimension matérielle  de la ville est aussi mise à l’honneur, notamment dans la deuxième partie du livre. Le chapitre 1 l’envisage comme un marqueur de certaines approches critiques, le chapitre 8 s’en empare pour décrire le métabolisme urbain, le chapitre 9 s’en sert pour analyser les conséquences des crises urbaines et le chapitre 13 pour révéler les dispositifs sociotechniques de la production urbaine. Enfin, l’urban généralisé et de la gestion des communs sont évoqués à plusieurs reprises mais plutôt comme des thèmes problématiques ou non résolus de la recherche urbaine française.

En termes d’approches, l’ouvrage fait la part belle à l’étude des acteurs (de la production et de la gestion urbaine [chapitres 13 et 14], des luttes [chapitre 12], du foncier [chapitre 15], de la transition écologique [chapitre 7], des services urbains [chapitre 10], de la circulation des modèles [chapitre 16], de la recherche [chapitre 4]), de leur trajectoire (notamment dans le chapitre 11 consacré à la diversité ou dans le chapitre 12 consacré aux mobilisations) et de leur visibilité (mentionnées dans les chapitre 11 à 14 en particulier). La notion de visibilité est aussi mobilisée dans le chapitre 16 sur la circulation des modèles urbains : “Y a-t-il une concentration des études sur certains exemples emblématiques de logique entrepreneuriale (tels les mégaprojets, les waterfronts ou les business improvement districts) et une focalisation sur certains contextes géographiques, notamment les grandes villes (du Nord et du Sud) au détriment d’initiatives moins visibles ou de certains contextes moins étudiés et moins médiatisés qui pourraient venir infirmer les hypothèses d’une hégémonie des modèles néolibéraux ?” (Lemaire et al., chapitre 16, §32). Les autres méthodologies abordées dans l’ouvrages sont diverses et complémentaires : des critical studies du chapitre 1 à la méthode abductive pour analyses les données massives (chapitre 2) et à l’expérimentation (chapitre 3).

En termes d’échelles géographiques, la recherche urbaine passée, présente et future est envisagée depuis l’échelon du bâtiment (cf. les toits végétalisés dans le chapitre 7) à celle du monde (cf., les marchés financiers globaux dans le chapitre 15), en passant par les quartiers (chapitres 11 et 16 par exemple), les municipalités (chapitres 9, 13 et 15 par exemple) et les unités fonctionnelles plus larges (chapitres 6 et 7 par exemple).

En termes de contexte institutionnel de la recherche urbaine, l’ouvrage insiste sur les effets néfastes des nouveaux modes de financement de la recherche urbaine sur les objets et terrains étudiés, notamment par les jeunes chercheurs (cf. chapitre 4). Ce sujet est convoqué dès l’introduction: “En premier lieu, nous souhaitons redire ici l’importance de s’attacher à favoriser une plus grande pluralité des thématiques financées par les appels à projets incitatifs. […]. Deuxièmement, et indissociablement du point précédent, il convient de développer les financements non thématisés (appels à projets blancs ou sur des thématiques larges) pour permettre aux équipes de sortir des sentiers battus et des sujets rebattus. Troisièmement, une revalorisation importante des crédits de base des équipes et le développement de formes de financement pluriannuelles, au-delà du format typique (3-4 ans) des projets ANR, voire débarrassées de la logique compétitive des appels à projets, seraient plus cohérents avec le temps long de la recherche (surtout quand elle se veut interdisciplinaire) et des changements urbains.” (Adisson et al., introduction, §25). La collaboration interdisciplinaire avec les “sciences dures” (informatique, ingénierie, physique, biologie) est interrogée dans le chapitre 2, tandis que le chapitre 4 analyse l’importance de l’organisation de la recherche sur les production scientifiques. En particulier, “et c’est le […] paradoxe, les thématiques de la recherche urbaine sont foisonnantes et les événements scientifiques sont nombreux, mais l’hyperspécialisation conduit à un manque de débats transversaux et théoriques ainsi que d’espaces et de temps pour les structurer.” (Adisson et al., chapitre 4, §37-8)

 

Cet ouvrage se révèle comme un beau plaidoyer “pour la recherche urbaine” collective, plurielle, interdisciplinaire et critique. Il retravaille des questions très classiques sous des angles nouveaux (‘L’urbain par ses limites’ dans le chapitre 6 ou la ségrégation par la diversité dans le chapitre 11) et propose des analyses de questions nouvellement classiques (comme celle des smart cities  dans le chapitre 2 ou celle des mobilisations citadines dans le chapitre 12). On pourrait  toutefois interroger le choix de mener une prospective de la recherche urbaine nationale sans questionner ou expliciter l’existence (ou non) d’une spécificité française de cette recherche.

Pour mon projet sur les inégalités urbaines, le chapitre 5 est venu conforter mon opinion que les inégalités économiques dans et entre villes méritent une attention plus grande et que la recherche urbaine reste encore largement à faire sur ce sujet. Je souscris donc tout à fait à l’appel de B. Bisson et al. :

“Quelle est la contribution exacte des villes à ces inégalités ? Les villes permettent-elles de maximiser la richesse collective et donc les revenus à distribuer comme le soutiennent les thèses sur la surproductivité des métropoles ? Dans ce cas, le problème des inégalités pourrait être corrigé par des mécanismes de redistribution. Mais une autre hypothèse peut être faite : les grandes concentrations urbaines ne seraient-elles pas la cause du problème ? […] Piketty a prolongé ses analyses en soulignant une dynamique de concentration spatiale d’un capital devenu patrimonial. Il a notamment appelé dans un récent article des Annales à approfondir « […] les dimensions géographiques et spatiales du capital et les effets d’échelle » (Piketty 2015, p. 132). Cet appel, qui esquisse de nouveaux champs de recherche, mérite d’être entendu par les études urbaines pour approfondir les connaissances sur les mécanismes de production des inégalités, notamment monétaires, au sein des villes et de leurs relations pensées à l’échelle des systèmes urbains.” (Bisson et al., chapitre 4, §36)

 


 

Je partage ici, le type de document sur lequel s’est appuyé mon compte rendu. Il est constitué d’un recueil de passages du livre que j’ai considérés comme importants.

À ce jour, je n’ai pas connaissance d’autres comptes-rendus de cet ouvrage.

City of segregation

Gibbons A., 2018, City of Segregation, 100 years of struggle for housing in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Verso, 226p.

This review is slightly experimental, as it presents the work of Andrea Gibbons’s City of Segregation by relating it to three other books I have read alongside it over the past year, all of which explore, in complementary ways, the entanglement of space, race, class, gender, sex, family and the carceral system in American cities over the past century:

  • Shabazz R., 2015, Spatializing Blackness: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 153p.
  • Wideman J. E., 2005, Brothers and Keepers: a memoir, 272p, Mariner Books
  • Wolfe T., 1988, The Bonfire of the vanities, Toronto: Bantam Books, 752p.

 


 

  • City of Segregation is the work of a geographer, Andrea Gibbons, who explores how the ideological values of white privilege were enshrined into spatial patterns of land values in Los Angeles, despite civil rights struggles and fights for integration. She aims to show how this relation affects the social and racial makeup of the city nowadays. I encountered this book at its launch during the Royal Geographical Society annual meeting in August 2019. This conference had Rashad Shabazz as one of its keynote speakers.
  • Spatializing Blackness, by Rashad Shabazz, sits at the intersection of human geography, Black cultural studies, gender studies, and critical prison studies. It focuses on the spaces of Black masculinity in Chicago at different points in time, using the carceral framework to understand the various ways in which Black men have been spatially contained (in the Black belt zone of the agglomeration from the end of the 19th century, in the space of their own kitchenettes during the 20th, and in actual prisons in the 21st) and the effects it had on this population.
  • Brothers and Keepers is the work of an academic in Africana Studies who is also a novelist. This book contains an account of his and his bother’s trajectories from their youth in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania to their adult life. The book tries to explain how and why a decisive divergence in life paths happened between them (John Edgar became a university professor and award-winning novelist, whereas his brother Robert served a life-sentence in prison for robbery and murder). Through Wideman’s reflections and conversations with his brother, we are offered a complex picture of the challenges faced by Black youth in 1970s Pittsburg, but also of the spatiality of humiliation during prison visits and of the geographical implications of social mobility. I learned about this book via C. Jaquet’s Les transclasses ou la non-reproduction, reviewed (in French) on this blog.
  • The Bonfire of the vanities is a popular novel of class and race inequality set up by Tom Wolfe in his familiar environment of 1980s New York City. After a wealthy white Upper East Side banker hits a young Black man in the Bronx and runs, the whole city (from the media to the justice system, from Wall Street to the Bronx) seizes this story to reveal its double standard towards race, wealth, gender and space. Over 30 years later, The Guardian reports that the Upper East Side “remains the same” whereas the Bronx is now experiencing social regeneration, gentrification and displacement.

Although the four books differ in their formats, goals and perspectives, I found an interesting relation between them which sheds a complementary light on different time periods (for example, the 1970s and 1980s from the last two are the missing decades of Gibbons’ temporality), different gender groups (Shabazz focuses on masculinity, whereas Gibbons uses strong female leaders and feminist actions to inform her work), different cities (LA, Chicago, Pittsburg, NYC), different points of view (Tom Wolfe clearly tells his story from the point of view of his white characters, whereas John Edgar Wideman’s book stems from his own reflections and his brother’s words on what it means to be a man in a Black family, in a city with a history of discrimination, in groups of Black peers and in groups of white peers, on basketball pitches and university campuses) and different approaches (from academic to auto-biographical to fictional). This diversity only hints at how a wide subject of broad significance racial segregation in US cities is, and how current an issue it remains: “These histories of centuries of racism and segregation have shaped urban geographies to insulate and isolate many whites from the realities faced by residents of poorer segregated communities, whose exploitation and abandonment have been central to a suburban prosperity driven by development and government investment. The opportunities of suburban living have become taken for granted and treated as normal in press and television, while residence in these same suburban neighborhoods insulates families from any kind of challenge to these commonsense feelings of entitlement. This is a key aspect of what I join others in referring to as white privilege. Segregation insulates whites from the knowledge of the ghetto and any disturbing views into poverty, as well as from their own complicity in its continued existence through their support of the status quo.” (Gibbons, 2018, p.9-10).

 


 

City of segregation originates from a double ambition: 1/ understanding how racial segregation survived the efforts and “victories of a vibrant civil rights movement” (p.1), and 2/ using this knowledge to fuel militant organizing work and finally put an end to this segregation. According to Gibbons, segregation “is assuredly nothing natural; it has been built in LA just like it has been built in cities across the US, year by year and decade upon decade, with immeasurable impact on equality, well-being and life itself. Shocking inqualities in wealth – much of it grounded in the homes people own – continue to haunt Angelenos: Mexicans have a median wealth of $3,500, African American of $4,000, and whites of $355,000.” (p.1). After an introduction which sets the context of racial segregation and urban development in Los Angeles, the book is divided into three chronological parts.

The first part of the book takes us from the early 20th century to the landmark year of 1948. It tells the story of the de jure segregation in US cities, whereby people of colour were refused the freedom to choose their place of residence by restrictive convenants, by active opposition from the likes of the KKK and white supremacists, but also by profit-seeking professionals of the housing market (who equated land value with homogenous white space). Black families were contained within the racial boundaries of the ghetto in Los Angeles or of the Black Belt in Chicago, in order to reduce the interactions between Blacks and whites (Shabazz, 2015) as much as to preserve the privilege and value of white homes (Gibbons, 2018). “African Americans and other groups forced the ghetto walls back in two ways: through an unorganized but constant pressure by individuals buying and occupying property against great odds, and through local attempts to organize wider campaigns against covenants” (Gibbons, 2018, p.20), at the risk of harassment, racist attacks, arson and even lynching (Shabazz, 2015). This first part of Gibbons’ book is investigated via a meticulous archive work through several decades of publication by the California Eagle and its editor’s autobiography. “For Charlotta Bass, as editor of the California Eagle, as well as the editors of a second Black-owned paper in LA, the Sentinel (founded in 1933), real estate transactions were a race matter worthy of front-page headlines.” (p.27). Besides acknowleging a feminine figure leading the fight against racial segregation in Los Angeles, this citation shows how much housing and restrictions imposed on Black families were central to the struggle for equality and respect. Indeed, at the start of the 20th century, when zoning became unlawful in the US, property owners “turned to private agreements – the desire for segregated white space being stronger than a court ruling.” (p.23). Within the deeds of their property, they included a clause restricting further sale and transfer to non-white people. Viewed as an act of good “neighborliness” and even patriotism, this provided white homeowners with a control over the makeup of their neighborhood and schools, thus preserving their vision of communities, the monetary value of their homes and white privilege. In the cases where non-covenanted properties were bought by racial minorities, “African American put pressure on [the contradictions of a market driven by white supremacist ideas that equates real estate values with the racial makeup of the neighborhood], but by paying exorbitant prices in areas in which whites had become so desperate to leave that they were selling to speculators at a loss.” (p.30). We find a similar mechanism in Shabazz’s account of the housing situation in pre-war Chicago, where cramped insalubrious kitchenettes rented to single Black workers contrast with the large rent income they bring to white owners profitiring from the housing crisis. “This articulation of race and class prejudice with the social value of space led to a heavy emphasis among practitioners, policy-makers, and academics on the ideal of creating neighborhoods homogenous by class and race as they sought to provide a sound foundation for a scientific and professional approach to real estate.” (Gibbons, 2018, p.25). The most striking consequence on this articulation lays in the constitution of colour-coded maps by the HOLC (Home Owner’s Loan Corporation) based on the racial composition and homogeneity of neighborhood, which informed federal credit lending after the Great Depression:

“By providing lenders with risk-free investments, it opened a floodgate of new credit to white first-time homebuyers. At the same time, it categorically denied people of color the same opportunities, defining them as a ‘permanent, calculable risk to stable property values’. HOLC maps were never meant for public use, yet they were accessible to lenders, appraisers, and government officials, and most real estate professionals would most likely have known their content. This could explain why so many realtors were in the forefront of efforts to organise protective associations, blanket neighborhoods with covenants, initiate lawsuits, and protect their own neighborhoods’ homogeneity at all costs.” (p.44-5)

As meetings, pickets and lawsuits by various organisations (such as the Negro Victory Committee or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) secured small victories, the white reaction was as violent as the their fear of losing privilege along with economic value. Finally, “in spite of widespread grassroots opposition and horror, the Supreme Court ruled restrictive covenants unconstitutional on May 5, 1948, in the landmark case Shelley v. Kraemer. […] It was the result of decades of litigation against restrictive covenants by lawyers nationawide, years of specific strategizing by NAACP attorneys, and of course mass action and pressure directed at the federal government through the war, challenging the US’s role as the defender of equality and democracy across the world.” (p.63). However, this end of de jure segregation did not repair the economic segregation it has enshrined in space, nor the sense of identity built by Black men and women in the contained aresa of the ghetto and the kitchenettes (Shabazz, 2015), “it did not remove […] the [white] desire for separation.” (Gibbons, 2018, p.71).

The second part of the book transports us to the post-de jure segregation Los Angeles of the 1950s and 1960s, with the civil rights activists of CORE (the Congress Of Racial Equality) fighting against the remnants of white supremacy and in favour of equality on an ideological and moral level, although by ways of physical direct action when needed. It was counting without a major reality: “Capital’s need for a ‘spatial fix’ – solving the problem of overaccumulation of capital through its massive investment in suburban development intertwined with the new strategies for defending white communities, driving new forms of control and privatisation.” (p.75-6). This part of the book focuses on the housing and testing campaigns of CORE against development Don Wilson, who tried to fragment its market by the skin color of its buyers, isolating/protecting white wealthy developments (as in Torrance) and “abandonning” less prestigious developments with integrated school systems (as in Compton) to Black and minority buyers. White residents’ reaction illustrates a sadly common dynamics in US cities in the 20th century: “they fought to ensure these immediately connected spaces of social reproduction remained white, and when this failed they fled. Neighborhoods became prey to familiar block busting tactics and panic selling, as African Americans moved into a neighborhood and whites became willing to take whatever they could get for their homes.” (p.89-90). This reaction, along with freezing of homeowner taxes and the development of gating and privatisation, ensured that the levels of amenity and public services funding remained unequal, that integration remained limited in schools and neighborhoods, and that urban space and form remained a vector for economic and racial segregation, despite civil rights and legal victories such as the passage of the Rumford Act in 1963. What is more, the white residents of developments being picketed by CORE members for their discriminatory practices against potential Black buyers “recast themselves as a beleaguered minority, their own rights under attack, without making any attempt to try and answer the question of why this might be. This […] shows how they worked to overcome the destabilization of the old ideological certainties of white supremacy that Torrance was founded upon to find new forms of discourse to justify their untroubled enjoyment of its exclusive (and expensive) space.” (p.108). Gibbons concludes that the moral gains of the period, which were tremendous, did not hide the fact that efforts to integrate the different sections of population in cities had failed, creating immediate (such as expressed in Watt’s 1965 riots) and long-lasting frustrations in the Black community. In urban terms, this failure is illustrated by the widespread usage of gated comminities and other privatisation initiatives, which reflected the channeling of surplus capital into suburban developments, still following “the model laid down by HOLC in the 1930s [equating profitable real estate with] new tracts of homogenous housing protected to the greatest extent possible from ‘adverse influences’.” (p.120).

Before we dive into the third and last part of A. Gibbons’ book dedicated to privatisation of Los Angeles’ downtown in the 2000s, Brothers and Keepers and the Bonfire of the Vanities should help illustrate the situation in intermediate decades.

In New York City, T. Wolfe narrates the separation between Blacks and Hispanics in the Bronx and white professionals in Manhattan, with a great deals of fear from whites as they crossed racial boundaries, especially at night or in the subway. The novelist depicts at length the sense of entitlement of a wealthy white banker and his absolute repulsion and sense of injustice when conducted to jail in the Bronx, creating some sympathy and favourable treatment from other whites in position of authority (when it doesn’t go against their self-interest), whereas the position of Black and hispanic youth in the same circumstances is brushed as common. As the Guardian notes 30 years later, “at the end of the Bonfire of the Vanities, Henry Lamb, the young boy injured in the Bronx, is forgotten by every protagonist. He dies” without much attention or publicity, being only a resident of a project in the Bronx, found not to be a criminal but apparently not very worthy either.

In Pittsburg, J. E. Wideman describes the life trajectories of two bothers. The trajectory of the eldest brother (himself) shows social and geographical mobility, through basketball and university although at the expense of a strong sense of belonging and legitimacy. The other trajectory is one of brilliance, drugs and imprisonment, that of the youngest son (his baby brother Robert). He explains the choices his brother made as a way of becoming someone in the shadow of successful brothers and sisters, by becoming rich and famous quickly selling drugs. The geography of street corners and the architecture of the projects play a significant role in this story, along with police partiality and brutality, which culminates with Robert’s experience of serving a life-sentence in prison for murder and robbery. John Edgar narrates the spatial tools of humiliation towards the prisoners’ families, which begins with the parking lot being far from the entrance (and John Edgar’s monthly acts of resistance by parking on the guards parking lot closer to the entrance), continues with searching and waiting in crowded places, unsure whether the visit will be allowed, and ends in solitary isolation of the prisoners themselves. Given the level of mass-incarceration and its very strong racial bias against Black men (corroborated by national figures in Shabazz’s book as well), the negative consequences of this organisation are felt, suffered and resented mostly by Black families.

The third part of Gibbons’ book also touches upon the misuse of mass-incarceration against the fragile population of Skid Row. Skid Row belongs to a part of Los Angeles downtown being redeveloped into luxury lofts after decades of disinvestment by public bodies. “While some of the marketing discourse has changed to focus on selling points such as ‘live where you work’ and the excitement of the big city, in both discourse and practice it has retained key features developed through decades of struggle over residential space: defensible exclusivity, homogeneity, security, narrow definitions of community and responsibility, and increasingly privatized control over public areas. Above all, it has tried to replicate the white spaces so necessary to the social reproduction of white privilege. Unlike the development of the suburbs, however, the creation of such exclusive spaces has entailed the mass displacement of the poor, primarily poor communities of color. What we see today is segregation through an active displacement.” (p.125-6). This development and displacement is achieved through the privatisation of public space, using BID (Business Investment District): “The idea behind the BID is simple: through the self-taxing of business and property owners, they provide a level of service such as trash collection, street cleaning, and secutiry that cash-stripped cities are unable to provide. In Los Angeles this occupation of the public realm by private interests has been greatly facilitated by the city’s financial straits caused by the success of a white homewoner movement in passing Proposition 13 in 1975, which preserved their own assets by freezing homeowner taxes at the time of purchase. This decimated municipal tax bases available for public services.” (p.133). The BID leaders and managers identified the 2000 to 4000 rough-sleepers of Skid Row (predominantly Black and make) as the main threat to the profitability of their investment, and tried to displace them by all means, including state powers (for instance, the Los Angeles Police Department and courts of law). It promoted the passing of bills to “criminalise the activities of daily life for those who find themselves homeless” (p. 156), such as food distribution, public urination or outdoor sleeping. It used private security to promote gentrification and mass displacement. This resulted, with the complicity of LAPD, in a surge in tickets for minor infractions, a surge in arrests for failure to pay tickets from a very poor population, and eventually in the use of prisons and jails as a short-term solution to homelessness in downtown Los Angeles, despite its outright unfaireness. Gibbons relates the organising work from the community group of LA CAN to fight the arrests, monitor and train private security guards, but also bring the dispossession of homeless people by the police to the Supreme Court. She concludes that “Race remains as central to the urban form” (p.177) and that “neoliberalism helped rearticulate a desire and strategy to preserve spatial and racial privilege with an ideology able to justify it in non-racialized terms. […] When the BIDs and the private market proved ineffective in cleasing downtown of its poor, the business associations running them had little hesitation in once more mobilizing and promoting the power of the state. [She] would argue that neoliberalism’s importance as an object of struggle does not change the fact that it remains disposable if it ceases to serve white domination and preserve white privileged space.” (p.179).

 

 

This 200-page book has been very long and hard for me to read, as its writing is dense, intricate – sometimes extremely descriptive and precise -, it articulates very different levels of discourse, various information sources and methodologies, multiple angles and three distinct historical periods. It probably would not have comprehended its structure fully nor identified its main messages so clearly if I had not gone into the laborious task of reviewing it for this blog. However, I now realise how this book (and the three other books reviewed alongside it) forces me to admit that the study of economic segregation cannot overlook the dimension of racial or ethnic dimension of past segregations in western cities. The intertwining and intersection of land value with race and neighborhood composition challenges our models of the economic rationale behind urban segregation as well as our understanding of the spatio-temporal scales at which the housing market operates. Here and time again, schools seem to represent the ultimate reason to justify seeking exclusive and exclusionary urban spaces from privileged families’ residence. Finally, individual and collective activism is exposed and celebrated for its heroic contributions on the route to de facto equality, in an academic book on urban form and segregation.

 


 

Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Other reviews of this book have been published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, and in the Socialist review, as well as on the websites of Shelterforce and Counterfire.

 

A short history of inequality

Alacevich M., Soci A., 2017, A Short History of Inequality, Agenda Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 232p.

I have purchased this book in the hall leading to a Regional Studies Association conference in London last year. The promising title and the short format (232 pages including a 50-page appendix on the measures of inequality) suggested a quick read and a useful textbook to keep at reach for future reference. It has kept its promises and also delivered some surprises.

The first surprise is that the book is more a history of the economics of inequality than a history of inequality itself. Indeed, the title suggests that the reader will find at some point a collection of historical evolutions of inequality indices. There are some of such graphs, but they do no make the core of this book. Instead, the place of inequality within economics as a discipline and its main contributors are exposed and explained. This history of economics includes accounts of how measures of inequality came about and how they were used to support theories about the social distribution of economic resources. This approach can be explained by the profile of one of the authors, Michele Alacevich, who is an Associate Professor of Economic History and the History of Economic Thought at the University of Bologna. His collaboration with Anna Soci, Professor of Economics at the University of Bologna, dates back from their concomittant stay at Columbia University  in the early 2010s.

The second surprise of the book is an additional focus on dialectic relationships (inequality and globalisation in chapter four, inequality and democracy in chapter five) which brings insightful reflexions about the causes and consequences of inequality, even though it is sometimes detached from the main narrative. The biggest contribution of this book in my perspective is its general information on the history of inequality studies (for example the biographies of Lorenz, Pareto and Gini which were new to me) as well as the wide (yet digest) presentation of how inequality can be approached, in terms of scales (global, international and national accounts), of content (income, wealth, production, capabilities) and of rationale (equity, welfare, democracy). Obviously, some aspects and discussions (especially on data sources) are missing but the authors have compensated this by deeper analyses in the dialectic chapters, so that the small book does not cover only superficial categories. I think all in all, the book falls short of telling the history of inequality (which is fine since other books had done it already anyway), yet it provides an original and reflexive contribution well worth the (quick) read.

 


 

The book is structured around an introduction, six chapters and an appendix. The introduction and chapter one set the frame and incentives for studying inequality, recalling why it is a social issue that economists should address. Chapter two and three present how and why inequality has been sidetracked from mainstream economics until very recently, because of its object (individuals) and methods (distributional statistics). Chapter four deals with inequality and globalization, and chapter five with inequality and democracy. The last chapter opens on the future of inequality, including sectoral politicies expected to reduce economic inequalities. The appendix details the statistics of inequality through a more in-depth presentation of the main measures of inequality (Gini, Theil, P10/P90, etc.).

 

As the introduction recalls, despite the sizeable place that economics of inequality hold in the public debate in recent years, it has long been an issue relegated to the side of mainstream economics, which were far more interested in the dynamics of growth and production than in the individual distribution of income and wealth. This is especially true for early industrialised countries. “Whereas economic inequality per se cannot be said to be a new issue, its catalytic power in terms of political discourse is indeed novel. […] While we have been used to consider inequality as a basic characteristic of many less developed countries (except perhaps the very poor countries, whose low inequality is mainly attributable to everybody being poor), only in recent years have pundits, the economics profession at large, and public opinion awakened to the fact that inequality has become a fundamental problem in countries that have long considered themselves immune from it – mainly the advanced countries” (p.4). What has changed to push the issue of inequality to the forefront of political economics, according to the authors, is the post-crisis increase of domestic (within-country) inequality in ‘advanced economies’ as well as a bigger focus on individuals (in part through democracy) and their capabilities. The  processes of globalisation and democratisation are intertwined with inequality at various geographical scales, and according to the authors: “Wether we succeed in giving globalization a human face and keeping democracy a credible and truly representative political system will depend in greatest part on how we resolve the problem of inequality” (p.10).

The first chapter is entitled “Why inequality is the real issue”. It aims to show how inequality differs from the related issues of poverty and growth, and why it should have precedence in this book. This take opposes the views of scholars like Nozick, Toqueville and Mc Closkey, for whom poverty is the real issue to resolve, for example by fostering a general enrichment of society (of the like of industrialisation), regardless of the further enrichment of the already rich. By contrast, the authors argue that the gap between rich and poor is important itself, on an economic as well as political level, because “while poverty may be smoothed as a nonantagonistic question, inequality will always, sooner or later, trigger a discussion about the structure of power and social disparities in a given society” (p.15). In this first chapter, inequality is also related to its counterpart: equality, a much bigger subject in social philosophy and the first contributors to classical economics, whereas it became a strong deterrent in neoclassical economics, increasing the acceptability (and even desirability) of inequality in this body of work. For the authors, inequality is everything but a desirable outcome: “not only does structural inequality undermine the functioning of global and national economic systems, its disruptive power in the economic sphere also merges with other dimensions of inequality in a society, such as racial and gender inequality; inequality in education, opportunities, and other social attributes such as class and status; inequality in life expectancy; and, in less lucky countries, inequality in access to much more basic necessities, such as food and potable water. These inequalities reinforce each other (though not always in a linear ways) to produce visious circles, through a process called “cumulative causation”, that entrap most disadvantaged individuals or groups and make them increasingly behind the privileged ones. Social scientists have insisted on ‘self-reinforcing mechanisms’, ‘critical thresholds’, ‘dysfunctional institutions’ and other forces that perpetuate existing stratifications and work against social mobility” (p.22). One further argument against inequality in this chapter is that “Inequality deeply penetrates the social fabric, shapes it, and remains engrained in it, possibly for generations. Inequality, in other words, is inherited. […] It imperils the mechanisms of a healthy democracy” (p.23-4).

In view of this opposition of arguments, the second chapter contextualises “the long neglect of inequality” within the history of economic thought. The inter-individual inequality of wealth and income has been neglected in mainstream economics until recently for three reasons according to the authors. Firstly, “whereas a theory of personal income and wealth distribution, which is vital to the study of inequality, has been prominently absent from the economic literature, another kind of distribution has played a very important role, name functional distribution. […] Thus the distribution of production, central to the classical economic thought, is ‘functional’ since it pertains to the distribution of the product to the groups that contribute to production.” (p.27-31). The groups in question (workers and capitalists, or producers and consumers) are taken as homogenous units, leading the way to the ‘representative agent’ of neoclassical economics. This way of thinking excludes the possibility and necessity for a “complete theory of personal distribution because there are no person” (p.36). Secondly, the lives of individuals were not viewed as legitimate objects of economic analysis until recently. “Even during the French Revolution, the bourgeois favored political equality but not social or economic equality. The time was not ripe for a social revolution that would make the individual its center. Much time would elapse before the individual became the true focus of societal studies” (p.32-3). Thirdly, the study of inequality to inform the opportunity of state intervention lies on normative grounds, and presupposes the adoption of an idea of social justice, which mainstream economics (including the New Welfare doctrine) have rejected, focusing instead on “the problem of efficient allocation of resources in the form of so-called Pareto optimality, according to which an allocation is Pareto optimal whenever it cannot be reorganized so to improved the condition (utility) of somebody without worsening that of other” (p.38). Finally, the authors note that as a result, a complete and consistant theory of the personal distribution of income does not exist in the discipline. “Regrettably, at least for the construction of a theory of size distribution of revenues, twentieth-century economics has been occupied in diatribes between the two competing Keneysian and neoclassical theories, leaving no space for other ideas or for contamination from other disciplines, such as sociology and politics” (p.44).

Chapter three complements the picture by describing “the statistical drift of inequality studies”. Indeed, as a consequence of the absence of theory, the authors suggest that economics of inequality resorted instead to present factual observations and to design ever more sophisticated ways of summarising them (i.e. statistics and inequality measures). They review in details the landmark measures of inequality (Pareto’s alpha, Lorenz’s curve, Gini’s coefficient), highlighting their strength and weaknesses. For example, compared to the descriptive fitting of Pareto to a power law distribution, Lorenz introduced the idea of concentration of wealth/income with respect to the share of population holding it. “As Lorenz put it, the purpose of his 1905 article – apparently his only publication in a scientific journal – appeared to be rather humble: to discuss some techniques used thus far in distribution analysis, and to suggest ‘an additional one’ in order to ‘take account simultaneously of changes in wealth and changes in population’. In particular, Lorenz insisted on the benefits that a graphical representation of distributional data would offer” (p.51-2). By integrating over this curve to produce a bounded index, Gini popularised Lorenz’s curve and allowed for the scale- and population-independent comparison of spatio-temporal units with respect to inequality. “Contrary to Pareto’s outcome of a uniform distribution of wealth across countries and time, he found that total income distribution differs geographically” (p.53). The drawbacks of the Gini index are well-known (uni-dimensionality, low sensibility to extremes, non decomposability). The latter one was alleviated by Theil’s entropy index, which allows to measure “how much of the inequality is due to difference showed by the groups of observations in relation to each other and how much, conversely, is due to differences within each group of observations.” (p.55), distinguishing for example the within-country and between-country inequality. The presentation then turns to Kuznets’ theory and the inverted-U-shape curve that bears his name (although he never traced it apparently). The authors recall the principle of this theory: “During the process of economic development – that is, as the society as a whole comes richer – inequality rises, but eventually it reaches a plateau and starts to decrease while economic development proceeds” (p.61), its reliance on between-sectors processes (agriculture and industry in the original version) and how it might have been misinterpreted as an explanation for the differences in inequality between countries (non-ergodicity). The final developments detailed in chapter three regards Atkinson’s work of translating the Lorenz curve into welfare functions and vice versa and Sen’s introduction of the capabilities approach.

Chapter four dives into the relationships between inequality and globalisation. It starts by illustrating the relation with the phenomenon of international migrations: “the current Mediterranean migration underscores that migrations are a fundamental factor directly affecting and affected by inequality dynamics at the global level. People’s ability to migrate is not only an unmistakable sign that globalizing forces are at work; it is also one of the principal mechanisms for individuals to raise their standard of living and increase their position in the global income distribution” (p.73). The analysis is then split into within, between-country and global inequality. Within-country inequality is shown to have decreased after WWII, then reversed to increase again after the 1970s. “The downward trend of the Kuznets curve [in a number of countries] was due to a number of factors, some positive and some negative, such as the closing gap between rural and urban wages; the reduction in return on capital; destruction of capital; higher taxation, and inflation caused by the two world wars; and major political shifts in favor of inclusive and redistributive policies” (p.92). Since then, between-country (or international) inequality has increased and stagnated while population-weighted between-country (or global) inequality has decreased, especially thanks to the economic development of India and China. Thus, between-country is  becoming a less prominent contributor to the levels of global inequality (i.e. population-weighted between-country inequality). Therefore, to which family one is born is becoming more important than a few decades ago to explain their level of wealth and income, compared to which country they were born in (which explained the bulk of global inequality between WWII and 1980). To summarise “the combination of diminishing within-country inequality in large Asian countries and increasing within-country inequality in a number of rich countries, especially the United States, has important global consequences. The richest 1 per cent of any country’s population has obviously benefitted everywhere, taking an increasingly larger slice of the pie. Among the beneficiaries of this beneficiaries of this phenomenon, however, is also the emerging middle class in China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, where, of course, the middle class would be considered poor if compared in absolute terms with the middle class of Western economies. The great losers, in this global reshuffle, are those belonging to the lower middle class of rich countries, whose real incomes, in the last tweny-five years, have grown slowly or remained stagnant” (p.103).

In chapter five, the authors address the ‘open issue of inequality and democracy’. They recall the absence of univocal causal links between political equality and economic equality beyond the obvious: “the absence of political equality makes the issue of economic equality irrelevant” (p.109). However, the authors present arguments as to how economic inequality threatens democracy. For example “A substantial degree of economic inequality may corrupt political equality or slow the realization of its potential, even in a democratic regime. […] There is evidence that the rich have great influence on the behavior of elected officials while people in the bottom third of the income distribution seem to have no impact, and, in general, political leaders apprear to react to what middle- and upper-income citizens prefer.” (p.109-16). Economic inequality is shown to have negative consequences on other social features praised by democratic societies, such as health,  education opportunities, and intergenerational social mobility.

The ‘future of inequality’ concludes the book as a sixth chapter. It presents policies aimed at reducting inequality at different scales, based on four arguments: “first, inequality, though present in nature, is not inevitable in human societies. Second, values, ideologies, and institutions play an fundamental role in how and to what extent a society adopts policies that curb inequality. Third, excessive inequality is socially disruptive and lowers the standard of living of all members of a community, including the well-off. Fourth, policies are needed to redress inequality [… because] the market alone is unable to address complex social issues like inequality” (p.130). To curb within-  ‘advanced’ country inequality, the authors recommend fiscal policies (inc. tax rates, brackets and thresholds), corporate institutional reforms (transparency of financial operations, anti-trust legislation, minimum wages, social security), educational policies (in touch with the current technological needs) and social mobility programs. To curb within- ‘developing’ country inequality, the authors advocate for economic, social and institutional reforms, yet “gradualist and selective reforms, consensus building, the creation of an institutional infrastructure (which cannot happen overnight), phased restructuring, room for policy latitude – in sum, a sensitivity to the dynamics of change and transition – are equally as important if not more important” (p.140). To curb between-country inequality, they push for growth (to help alleviate international poverty) and between-country redistribution through international aid and a substantial contribution of rich countries towards ecological sustainability.

 


 

“As Nobel laureate Jan Tingergen noticed more than fifty years ago, the statistical description of income distribution was much more advanced than its economic interpretation. […] Today the situation is not substantially different, notwithstanding a flourishing new body of research. Some ‘building blocks’ – such as skill-based technical progress, human capital formation, and wealth accumulation – are recognized as among the main mechnisms operating on economic inequality, but a complehensive theory is still lacking” (p.60). Despite this brief in-passing note of the authors about building block mechanisms, I have not found this book to provide a comprehensive account of the dynamics of inequality. Similarly, despite some elements in the appendix, I found that the authors brushed aside the data question very quickly. However, what type of data is available, curated and used to apply the measures of inequality is a strong determinant of the quality of resulting analysis (especially when increasing/decreasing trends are not very stark). When crude and ‘dirty’ data is thrown at slick and sophisticated statistical apparatuses, unfortunately it tends to produce crude and ‘dirty’ rather than slick and sophisticated results. A deeper inquiry around data sources and quality could have also raised some questions about collection boundaries and the meaning of expressing inequality only in terms of between- and within-country. Inter- regional, continental, urban, local inequality are almost absent in economics of inequality, and potentially so because of the dominant use national accounts data (i.e. individual data aggregated at the state level). Survey data or other aggregations of individual data could offer a renewed vision of the state of inequality in the world, distinguishing the class (within-) and place (between-) terms for different types of spaces (and accessibility between them).

All in all, this small book does a good job at providing a thorough summary of the main contributions to economics of inequality, of statistics and scales involved, on policies proposed to curb inequality. It constitues a perfect introduction to the subject and points to a diversity of potential paths to explore further.

 

Here I share the type of file I use to document my readings and book reviews. It is composed of citations from the book which I considered important while reading.

Another review of this book has been published in the Journal of Economics.

Le capital au XXIe siècle

 Mon incursion dans l’étude des inégalités économiques a commencé avec la lecture de l’ouvrage de T. Piketty, Le capital au XXIe siècle, paru en français au Seuil en 2013 puis traduit et publié en anglais par Havard University Press en 2014 avant de connaître un succès mondial.

Ma lecture de l’ouvrage a donné lieu à un compte-rendu “de géographe” publié par la revue Cybergeo en 2014.

Ici, je partage le type de document sur lequel s’est appuyé mon compte rendu. Il est constitué d’un recueil de passages du livre que j’ai considérés comme importants.

Chaque citation est accompagnée d’un ou plusieurs mots clés (ou tags), précédés d’un # afin d’effectuer des recherches thématiques dans le document. Les passages en gras ne le sont pas nécessairement dans la version originale.