Building Inequality: Infrastructure and Intra-Urban Inequality in the Capitalist City

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Building Inequality: Infrastructure and Intra-Urban Inequality
in the Capitalist City
David López García
Ph.D. Student of Public and Urban Policy
The New School - Milano School of International Affairs,
Management and Urban Policy
In a study conducted during the 1990’s in Buenos Aires, Cohen and Debowics
(2009) found that the distribution of local public investment in infrastructure and
education by the City Government was highly skewed to some districts within the city.
From 1991 to 1997, 11.5% of the population received 69% of public investment in
infrastructure. Furthermore, they also found that those patterns of infrastructure
investment correlated very closely with the share of the population with unsatisfied basic
needs, primary and secondary school dropout rates, and the absence of health
insurance. Their analysis showed that local government decisions in infrastructure
investment were contributing to reproduce the existing patterns of intra-urban inequality
and poverty in Buenos Aires and that place mattered in the distribution of welfare and
Meanwhile, in an influential article Morrish and Brown (1995) pointed out a
paradox of infrastructure provision in capitalist societies. Infrastructures are the means
through which societies generate their wealth, but at the same time are the most visible
fruits of a society’s collective labor; thus, infrastructure is created by the collective efforts
and represents the collective wealth. However, this point is often forgotten, and in the
effort to maintain the wealth of central marketplaces “we have pursued a wasteful,
inequitable course that squanders this collective infrastructure investment, subdivides
what we share, and abandons poorer communities” (p. 146). Since the 1990’s, the
scholarship studying the relationship between urban-based economic activities,
infrastructure, and the broader patterns of intra-urban inequality has multiplied
exponentially across a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, geographical locations,
and policy issues.
The purpose of this paper is to entail a literature review of this scholarship to
discuss the ways in which infrastructure policy influence and is influenced by the political
economy of infrastructure in the capitalist city. By the capitalist city, I am referring to the
notion put forward by Katznelson (1992), meaning an intellectual effort
to understand the city as a capitalist city, whose main contours have been
determined by large-scale economic forces dictated by the rhythms of capital
accumulation, investment strategies, and the provision of a supply of labour, and,
second, the effort to specify the character and emancipatory possibilities of urban
social movements. (p. 103)
In this context, through this literature review, I will put forward the argument that
the current patterns of production of urban space in the capitalist city are actually
building intra-urban inequality. To do so, I will draw connections between the
construction of urban space under capitalism, the role of the state in providing
infrastructure to increase urban productivity, and the relationship between infrastructure
policy and the processes of socio-spatial exclusion from infrastructures that aggravates
the current trends of intra-urban inequality.
The paper is organized as follows: In the first section, I discuss the notion of the
city as a productive force –a city that is productive because of its infrastructural
entanglements without which production cannot be; I then move to discuss how the
constant construction of the city as a productive force is creating uneven development
within cities, and review some of the main explanations for the concentration of
economic activity in space; In the third section, I discuss a policy framework to overcome
the constraints to urban productivity and its implications for equitable growth; I then
discuss four plausible mechanisms of socio-spatial infrastructural exclusion, and review
the current debate on the consequences of intra-urban inequality; Finally, I draw some
conclusions derived from the literature review and discuss its implications for
infrastructure policy.
The city as a productive force
That capitalism required great infrastructural works without which production
cannot take place, and that it was the role of the state to provide them, was evident as
early as the writings of Adam Smith (1776). In the Book V, Part III, of The Wealth of
Nations, Smith reflects on the expense of public works and argues that the sovereign or
commonwealth has the duty of
erecting and maintaining those publick institutions and those publick works,
which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great
society, are, however, of such a nature, that the profit could never repay the
expence to any individual or small number of individuals, and which it, therefore,
cannot be expected that any individual or small number of individuals should
erect or maintain. (p. 723)
Smith (1776) goes on to argue that the goal of providing these works and
institutions is to facilitate the commerce of society. The type of infrastructures being
discussed in his analysis conveys the kind of economic activity at the time of his
writings. By discussing the erection and maintenance of good roads, bridges, navigable
canals, and harbors, Smith yields a vision of the importance of these infrastructures for
commerce within and between nations in the second half of the XVIII century. Robert L.
Heilbroner (1986) was accurate in identifying what the writings of Smith conveyed about
the role of the state in early capitalism. To Heilbroner (1986), the alleged state’s duty of
providing the public works needed for commerce is just another masked aspect of how
the burden of sustaining the economic realm of capitalism was placed in the hands of
the state. In Heilbroner’s words,
it is a manner in which inputs needed for the accumulation of capital, but
unprofitable to produce within the market framework, can be provided to the
economic realm. From this viewpoint the state does not merely add “public” works
to private ones. Rather, it accepts from the economic realm whatever necessary
undertakings cannot remain in it. (1986; pp. 101-102)
The key point in Heilbroner’s argument is that the great infrastructural works
alluded by Smith were and still are necessary for the accumulation of capital. They are
therefore a necessary condition for the normal functioning of capitalism, “necessary
inputs for the operations of the M-C-M circuit” (1986; p. 102). The roots of this argument
can be found in Friedrich List’s theory of the productive forces published in 1841 (Garza,
2013). According to List, a nation’s progress is not only explained by the individual
performance of its entrepreneurs and workers –like Adam Smith’s approach would
suggest. To List, it is also explained by the development of the nation regarding the
macro social determinants that will enable production and commerce –like science and
scientific innovation, the existence of public institutions to guarantee moral, safety, and
ownership, a monetary system, units of measurement, and a transit system–, which he
called the productive forces. Among them, List made explicit reference to the
transportation infrastructure of his time such as roads, harbors, canals, and railways
(Garza, 2013; p. 41-50). In this way, List makes the first theoretical links to think of the
city as a productive force, but the coupling of transportation infrastructures and the
advantages of urban agglomeration would transform cities into colossal productive
forces (Garza, 2013).
Later on, while discussing the instruments of labor in Volume I of Capital, Karl
Marx puts forward the existence of what he called
the objective conditions necessary for carrying on the labor process. These do
not enter directly into the process, but without them it is either impossible for it to
take place, or possible only to a partial extent. () Instruments of this kind, which
have already been mediated through past labour, include workshops, canals,
roads, etc. (1867; p. 286)
Marx is making specific reference to the infrastructures without which, in his view,
the productive process cannot take place, and therefore are part of the productive
forces. In Volume II of Capital, Marx furthers the discussion of this kind of objective
conditions for production and how its financing is usually not through firms, but through
the state:
At the less developed stages of capitalist production, enterprises that require a
long working period, and thus a large capital outlay of a longer time, particularly if
they can be conducted only on a large scale, are often not pursued capitalistically
at all. Roads, canals, etc., for example, were built at the cost of the municipality or
the state. (1885; p. 310-311)
This view is consistent with Adam Smith’s understanding that the erecting and
maintenance of the public works needed for the functioning of capitalism cannot be
expected from an individual or a small number of individuals. Marxist scholarship has
deepened the analysis of the objective conditions for carrying out production mentioned
by Marx and has related them to urban infrastructure. This scholarship has named them
the general conditions of production, whose adequate provision has been seen as a
specific function of the state (Folin, 1981; Pianta, 1989). List and Marx theorized the city
as a productive force through the analysis of transportation infrastructures like roads,
harbors, canals, and railways, maybe because the circulation of raw materials and
commodities was so important for the kind of production of their time. However, the
concept of the general conditions of production can be extended to other kinds of urban
infrastructures like water systems, electricity provision, public transport, and more
recently optical fiber for Internet provision.
In more recent times, the concept of the general conditions of production has had
two salient theoretical refinements. Castells (1977) made the first, who in The Urban
Question argued that the main function of the capitalist city had historically been to
provide collective consumption for its dwellers. In Sir Peter Hall’s account, Castells was
referring to means of collective consumption such as “public housing, or schools, or
transportation –to help guarantee the reproduction of the labor force and to dampen
class conflict, essential for the maintenance of the system” (2014; p. 401). In
Katznelson’s account, to Castells “the requirement that capitalism reproduce the supply
of labour through the process of consumption” (1992; p. 113) was the formative element
for the making and remaking of urban space. In addition, Katznelson (1992) clarifies that
in Castell’s view, “the state increasingly intervenes in the consumption process by the
provision of collective goods and services to ensure that capitalism has the level and
character of urban space and consumption that it requires” (p. 113).
The implication of Castells’ influential arguments is that the theory of the general
conditions for production was thereafter twofold. On the one hand, there are the great
public works theorized by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, needed for carrying out the
production of goods and services and without which production can not be: means of
production that are not owned by firms, but socialized and provided by the state. On the
other hand, there are the public goods for consumption that are necessary for the
reproduction of the labor force, like housing stock, hospitals, schools, green space, etc.:
means of collective consumption provided by the state.
The second theoretical refinement was made by Garza (2013), who pointed out
that the theoreticians of the general conditions of production have hitherto been focused
on the physical aspect of the urban infrastructures that are external to firms, but neglect
that its material component represents only the fixed capital of a complex service. Garza
(2013) argues while the physical infrastructure needed for supporting production is
indeed an important component of its delivery –like in the provision of electricity, water,
communications, health, education, etc.–, the existence of physical infrastructure is not
enough for these public goods to be delivered. The provision of these services is also in
need of an administrative infrastructure, which is comprised of physical infrastructure
like office spaces, transportation and maintenance equipment, etc.–, and a considerable
amount of labor –with employees and technicians to keep the services going and
management personnel to strategically administer the organizations that provide the
services. Thus, in addition to the general conditions of production –which represents the
physical component of urban infrastructure–, Garza (2013) put forward the existence of
what he calls the general services of production, referring to the services needed to
keep the physical infrastructure working and securing the continuous flow of that that the
infrastructure is intended to deliver. Thus, the general conditions for production and the
general services for production constitute a dual category, organically articulated which
constitute an indivisible unit (Garza, 2013; p. 120).
The implication of Castells’ and Garza’s arguments for the theory of the city as a
productive force is that the making of the city as such should be studied through two
dimensions of analysis. First, urban infrastructure enables production in the capitalist city
whether by providing socialized means of production to support the making of goods
and services or by providing means of collective consumption for the reproduction of the
labor force. If an infrastructure is whether a socialized mean of production or a mean of
collective consumption is a matter of debate. The categories are not a clear-cut
classification –take, for instance, the case of water infrastructure that simultaneously
supports industrial production and the reproduction of the labor force through human
consumption. Second, the continuous functioning of infrastructures that support
production in the capitalist city needs two flows of investment; one to build the physical
infrastructure –namely the general conditions of production–, and another for the
services to keep the infrastructure working and delivering what it’s intended to deliver
namely the general services of production.
Lastly, the construction of the city as a productive force is an ongoing process
that never ends, as the provision of the general conditions and services of production
are influenced by and evolve with the kind of goods and services being produced in the
capitalist city. Schumpeter (1942) sharply pointed out how capitalism “is by nature a
form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary”
(p. 82). Therefore, a process of creative destruction is an essential fact about capitalism,
which “increasingly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly
destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one” (p. 83). As capitalism at the
abstract level, urban space is also the object of a continuous process of creative
destruction, reshaping the built environment of the city to serve the purposes of
For instance, the phase of pre-capitalism in the XVII and XVIII centuries saw the
rise of what Hardt and Negri (2009) call the commercial city, in which societies were
dominated by agricultural production and cities provided a site for exchange. Michel
Foucault (2007) gives an account of the urban space that was constructed for the early
capitalists cities of the XVIII century, pointing that the main concern in urban design was
“a matter of organizing circulation (), of planning access to the outside, mainly for the
town’s consumption and for its trade with the outside” (p. 18). In Foucault’s account, the
kind of roads infrastructure that had to be built to allow the circulation of goods ought to
ensure four functions:
First, hygiene, ventilation, opening up all kinds of pockets where morbid miasmas
accumulated in crowded quarters, where dwellings were too densely packed ().
Second, ensuring trade within the town. Third, connecting up this network of
streets to external roads in such a way that goods from outside can arrive or be
dispatched, but without giving up the requirements of customs control. And finally,
an important problem for towns in the eighteenth century was allowing for
surveillance, since the suppression of city walls made necessary by economic
development meant that one could no longer close towns in the evening or
closely supervise daily comings and goings, so that the insecurity of the towns
was increased by the influx of the floating population of beggars, vagrants,
delinquents, criminals, thieves, murderers, and so on, who might come, as
everyone knows, from the country. (2007; p. 18)
According to Garza (1980), the industrial revolution increased exponentially the
productivity of the primary and secondary sectors. The workforce displaced from the
agricultural sector was rapidly assimilated by the industrial sector, which in turn
heightened the concentration of population in cities. Industry tended to localize in pre-
industrial cities that had the conditions for the production and realization of industrial
goods, like transit infrastructure through land and sea, water availability, a developed
labor market, and a market of consumers. This trend was also favored by the
transformation of the city’s wealthy merchants into the capitalists in burgeoning new
industry. This gave rise to what Hard and Negri (2009) call the industrial city, one of the
primary levers that make possible the rise of capitalist production” (p. 251). For the first
time in humankind, there is a systematic increase in the ratio of the urban population of
the world (Garza, 1980).
The industrial city and its patterns of capitalist-industrial urbanization thrived well
into the XX century. However, from the 1950s onward the world entered the so called
tertiary revolution, in which the bulk of economic activity shifted from industry to the
production of immaterial goods based on knowledge within an increasing technological
advancement in many fields (Garza, 2008). Following to Sassen (1991), beginning in the
1960s economic activity entered a period of profound transformation that shaped life in
cities and considerable ways like “the dismantling of once-powerful industrial centers in
the United States, the United Kingdom, and more recently in Japan; the accelerated
industrialization of several Third World countries; (and) the rapid internationalization of
the financial industry into a worldwide network of transactions” (p. 14).
Among other kinds of urban landscapes, the tertiary revolution sparked the
emergence of what Sassen (1991) has called the global city, defined as major cities that
function as concentrated command points in the organization of the world economy, key
locations for finance and specialized service firms which have replaced manufacturing
as the leading economic sector, sites of innovation and production of these leading
industries, and markets for the products and innovations produced. Like other kinds of
capitalists cities, the global city has showed that it demands specific patterns of
urbanization in which the deployment of telecommunications and information
technologies infrastructures, along with high end amenities for a cosmopolitan labor
force, have played a central role. According to Garza (2008), the tertiary revolution is still
in its early stages but it is already evident how the shift from a manufacturing to a
service economy is having a spatial impact on cities throughout the developed and
developing world.
More recently, scholars from the Italian radical school of thought have theorized
the latest shift of the tertiary revolution –that from service to immaterial production– and
its impacts in the patterns of urbanization and the build environment of cities (Lazzarato,
1996; Lazzarato & Negri, 2001; Hardt & Negri, 2009). According to Lazzarato (1996),
immaterial production involves goods such as “audiovisual production, advertising,
fashion, the production of software, photography, cultural activities, and so forth” (p.
136). This kind of immaterial production needs immaterial labor, which is engaged in
transforming, creating and maintaining the ideological and cultural identities of
consumers (Lazzarato & Negri, 2001). Hardt and Negri (2009) call this ‘biopolitical
production’, where the core “is not the production of objects for subjects, as commodity
production is often understood, but the production of subjectivity itself” (p. x). This new
form of production that involves information, codes, knowledge, images and affects, is
once more changing the patterns of urbanization because “producers increasingly
require a high degree of freedom as well as open access to the common, especially in
its social forms, such as communications networks, information banks, and cultural
circuits (Hardt & Negri, 2009; p. x). Thus, Hardt and Negri (2009) contend the
emergence of the biopolitical city, in which the predominant pattern of urbanization is the
building of ‘the common’, defined as “those results of social production that are
necessary for social interaction and further production, such as knowledges, languages,
codes, information, affects, and so forth” (p. viii). To these authors, the “production of the
common is becoming nothing but the life of the city itself” (p. 252).
As this account conveys, the construction of the city as a productive force is
never a finished work. The kinds of goods and services being produced in the capitalist
city are constantly evolving, and the shift in production demands the constant change of
the patterns of urbanization, which in turn have an effect on the production or urban
The Production of Uneven Urban Space
The aim of this section is to argue that the endless construction of the city as a
productive force also implies an endless process of producing unequal urban space.
What are the forces driving this process? There are two salient scholarships putting
forward answers for this question, one of them rooted in the neoclassical school of
thought while the other is rooted in Marxism. Both of them accept that the concentration
of economic activity in space creates landscapes of uneven development, but while the
neoclassical scholarship understands this pattern of urbanization as a natural
consequence of how markets function, the Marxist scholarship contends that uneven
spatial development is the consequence of the decisions and cycles of capital.
The neoclassical explanations
This scholarship explains uneven development as the product of locational
decisions in the marketplace both by firms deciding where to place their economic
activities and by urban dwellers’ residential location. This scholarship rests on the
assumption that both firms and city dwellers have the freedom to exercise their
locational decisions, which in turn shapes the geographies of the city. The discussion
about economic unevenness across geographic space started during the 1950’s and
1960’s in the field of regional development. According to Kuznets (1955), the
appearance of new industries sparked by “the dynamism of a growing and free
economic society” (p. 11) impedes wealth accumulation by the higher strata of the
population and while it creates inequality in the short-term, it also decreases it in the
long run. Kuznets hypothesized that, over time, the relationship between income
inequality and the processes of industrialization and urbanization follow an inverted U-
shape curve: with income inequality “widening in the early phases of economic growth
when the transition from the pre-industrial to the industrial civilization was most rapid;
becoming stabilized for a while; and then narrowing in the later phases” (p. 18). This is
so because, Kuznets’ hypothesis goes, “once the early turbulent phases of
industrialization and urbanization had passed, a variety of forces converged to bolster
the economic position of the lower-income groups within the urban population” (p. 17).
This hypothesis gave rise to the theory of convergence in the field of regional studies.
While empirical research tends to support the Kuznets curve hypothesis towards
convergence within countries (Barro & Sala-i-Martin, 1995, cited in Shefer & Antonio,
2013; Williamson, 1965), the further research identified a widening gap in inequality
between regions within countries (Kanbur & Venables, 2005). In a seminal paper,
Krugman (1991) showed how countries endogenously become differentiated into an
industrialized ‘core’ and an agricultural ‘periphery’. According to Krugman, “in order to
realize scale economies while minimizing transportation costs, manufacturing firms tend
to locate in the region with larger demand, but the location of demand itself depends on
the distribution of manufacturing” (1991; p. 483). Thus, a region with a large urban
population will be an attractive place to locate and produce, economies of large-scale
production will emerge; population will start to concentrate and regions within countries
to diverge (Krugman, 1991). Krugman highlighted that once started, this process will
feed on itself creating a “possibility of what Myrdal (1957) called circular causation and
Arthur (1989) has called positive feedback” (as cited by Krugman, 1991; p. 486).
Further studies confirmed that economic activity tends to concentrate on space
within cities due to the benefits of agglomeration economies. Ellison, Glaeser, and Kerr
(2010) found evidence to support the Marshallian theory of urban agglomeration.
According to Marshall (1920), there are three kinds of transport costs for firms: the costs
of obtaining inputs and moving goods, the cost of accessing to a labor pool, and the cost
of accessing to ideas and benefiting from knowledge spillovers. It follows that
agglomeration of economic activity over space occurs because proximity reduces
transport costs. By studying the US manufacturing industry, Ellison et al (2010) found
evidence supporting each of the three Marshallian mechanisms of agglomeration,
arguing that the three of them are similar in magnitude. While acknowledging the lack of
evidence in their study to generalize their finding to other industries, the authors do think
that the input-output relationship could be particularly important in the service sector and
that ideas and knowledge spillover may be very important in very innovative sectors.
Glaeser (2011) argued, “proximity also improves the efficiency of labor markets by
providing workers with a plethora of employment options. These agglomeration benefits
seem particularly relevant for services, which may explain why services (), not
manufacturing, dominate American cities today” (p. 593).
Centripetal forces of economic agglomeration proved to be at work in the
differentiation of space within a city. Yet, further research showed that the composition
of the labor force and its residential decisions are key factors in the differentiation of
urban space. In an influential article, Glaeser, Kallal, Scheinkman, and Shleifer (1992)
tested empirically three competing theories of technological spillover generating urban
growth –the Marshal-Arrow-Romer (MAR) theory of spillover within an industry, the
Porter theory of local competition, and the Jacobs theory of cross-fertilization of ideas
across different economic activities. Glaeser et al concluded that the evidence is
“negative on MAR, mixed on Porter, and consistent with Jacobs” (1992; p. 1129). The
evidence collected by Glaeser et al (1992) suggests that cross-fertilization of ideas
across industries speeds up growth, showing that diversity is the prominent source of
growth in cities (as cited in Shefer & Antonio, 2013).
Research by Duranton and Puga (2001) revealed that diversified and specialized
cities actually coexist, but that diversified cities play a central role in fostering innovation.
According to their empirical findings, “new products are developed in diversified cities,
trying processes borrowed from different activities. On finding their ideal process, firms
switch to mass production and relocate to specialized cities where production costs are
lower” (p. 1454). Simultaneously, Florida (2002) theorized the rise of the ‘creative class’
and argued that the shift of economic activity towards a knowledge-based economy
meant that innovation and diversity were key determinants of economic growth. Taken
together, the studies by Glaeser et al (1992), Duranton and Puga (2001), and Florida
(2002) set the stage for a scholarship understanding urban economic growth as a
product of diversity and innovation. A research agenda that, paradoxically, Jane Jacobs
(1969) proposed as far as two decades before mainstream urban economists took it
The research on diversity, innovation and economic growth pointed researchers
to look for the roots of intra-urban inequality in the composition of the working force and
their individual choices. Researching the case of French cities, Combes, Duranton, and
Gobillon (2008) found that up to half of the spatial wage disparities can be explained by
differences in the skill composition of the workforce, and that workers with better income
tend to agglomerate in the larger, denser, and more skilled local labor markets. In a
study on American cities, Gleaser, Ressenger, and Tobio (2009) found that one-third of
the variation in city-level income inequality can be explained by city-level skill inequality,
“while skill inequality is itself explained by historical schooling patterns and immigration”
(p. 617).
The search for a better quality of life within cities by the wealthier members of the
labor force also plays a role in the emergence of intra-urban inequality. Shapiro (2006)
investigates the underlying mechanisms of the correlation between the urban
concentration of human capital and the local area employment or population growth. By
analyzing data from metropolitan areas in the United States, Shapiro (2006) confirmed
that 60% of the employment growth effect if due to the increase of skilled labor.
However, he also found that roughly 40% of the effect on employment growth is due to
what he calls growth in the quality of life. This finding suggests that quality of life
demands, like living near urban amenities, also plays a role in the residential location of
the high skill workers. Facing these findings, Shapiro (2006) hypothesizes that the
concentration of skilled residents may encourage the growth of consumer services, such
as restaurants and bars, making an area more attractive to potential new residents.
The research agenda on the geography of inequality continues to attract
considerable attention from researchers. More recently, Florida and Mellander (2016)
conducted a study across US metropolitan areas to assess the geographical relationship
between wage and income inequality. Their main findings are that wage inequality and
income inequality exhibit different geographic patterns. There is little overlap between
the two, and the geographic variation of each of them is explained by a different set of
factors. On the one hand, the variation in wage inequality “is associated with human
capital, skill levels, and occupational structure, in line with previous studies of skill-
biased change and job polarization” (p. 80). On the other hand, the variation in income
inequality “is associated with factors more closely identified with the literature on race
and poverty, such as geographic variation in poverty and race as well as regional
differences in unionization and tax rates, factors that play at best a modest role in wage
inequality” (p. 80). Additionally, Florida and Mellander (2016) found that wage inequality
explains only 16% of income inequality across the US metropolitan areas. Taken
together, these findings suggest that wage inequality is more related to the
characteristics of the labor market, while income inequality is more related to the
structural order of society.
The Marxist Explanations
Smith (1982), Katznelson (1992) and Slater (2013) would agree that the first
exploration ever made of –and a useful starting point for the study of –the patterns of
uneven spatial development and intra-urban inequality is Engels’ pre-Marxist text The
Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1843. Katznelson (1992) claims
that the book is flawed in many ways –“(Engels’) ideological commitments biased the
use of evidence, at times in a heavy-handed way. Manchester was not a representative
city. The portrait of Manchester, and the other ‘great town’, is something of a cartoon” (p.
144). Nevertheless, Katznelson also highlights that all those flaws are not important
because what the study did achieve was to capture “precisely the chief emergent
features of the burgeoning capitalist city” (1992; p. 144). Engels achieved to connect the
new urban form of the modern industrial capitalist city with the processes through which
“the organization of city space affected social relationships within and between classes;
and he tied this social geography to the suffering and coming to consciousness of the
new proletariat” (p. 144).
According to Katznelson (1992), the Marxists long neglected Engel’s pre-Marxist
book, and for the following century, Marxism was not focused on urban concerns.
Following Slater (2013), by the time Engels published his seminal work the field of urban
studies was not even born in the social sciences:
The field “as it is known was arguably born in 1920s Chicago as a consequence
of the prolific writings of Robert Park and his colleagues. () There was little
place for Marxist reasoning amidst all their land-use models, ethnographic
accounts of Chicago life, appeals to natural-science metaphors and
interpretations of the city as a social ‘laboratory’. By the 1960s, urban studies had
crystallized into a hegemonic blend of the social and spatial theories of the
Chicago School, infused with the methods and assumptions of neoclassical
economics. (2013; p. 373)
It was not until the early 1970’s, fueled by increasing social revolt and the
retrenchment of the positivists from the intellectual field of battle that the Marxists took
possession and started what Peter Hall (2014) qualifies as “a remarkable resurgence
indeed a veritable explosion–of Marxists studies” (p. 401). According to Katznelson
(1992), in the early 1970’s David Harvey and Manuel Castells –inspired inescapably by
Lefebvre’s writings on the right to the city and the production of space– emerged as the
two most influential urbanists seeking “to return Marxism to urban concerns” (p. 93).
David Harvey published two seminal books in the fields of geography and urban
studies. The first is his 1969 Explanation in Geography, a methodological treatise calling
to complement the methodology of geography with a philosophical position providing a
steering mechanism, and a theory providing controlled, consistent, and rational,
explanation of events. Harvey found that theory in Marxism (Katznelson, 1992). The
second book was his influential 1973 Social Justice and the City, in which Harvey laid
out what would become his research agenda for the following twenty years (Katznelson,
1992). One of such pending research projects was to understand the structure of the
circulation of surplus value in the city, thus explaining the geography of capitalist cities.
Harvey supplied that missing study in his 1982 The Limits to Capital (Katznelson,
1992). Harvey argued that the special organization of capitalism is more than just the
reflection of capital accumulation –“I view location as a fundamental material attribute of
human activity but recognize that location is socially produced. The production of spatial
configurations can then be treated as an ‘active moment’ within the overall temporal
dynamics of accumulation and social reproduction” (1982; p. 374). From this insight,
Harvey developed the influential theory of the ‘spatial fix’. By looking at what he calls the
‘spatial structures of the city –the built environment–, Harvey (1978) highlights a key
paradox of the capitalist city:
These spatial structures are expressed in the form of transport facilities and
ancillary facilities implanted in the landscape. We can in fact extend this formation
to encompass the formation of the built environment as a whole. Capital
represents itself in the form of a physical landscape created in its own image,
created as use values to enhance the progressive accumulation of capital. The
geographical landscape that results is the crowning glory of past capitalist
development. But at the same time it expresses the value of dead labour over
living labour and as such it imprisons and inhibits the accumulation process within
a set of specific physical constraints. (p. 124)
Thus, the paradox of the spatial fix in the urban process under capitalism arises.
Spatial structures of the city have to be constructed. However, once the spatial
structures take material form they enable and constrain at the same time. New forms of
capitalist accumulation can potentially need new spatial structures, but the ones at place
constrain the new possibilities of capital accumulation. Harvey continues his argument:
Capitalist development has therefore to negotiate a knife-edge path between
preserving the exchange values of past capitalist investments in the built
environment and destroying the value of this investment in order to open up fresh
room for accumulation. Under capitalism there is, then, a perpetual struggle in
which capital builds a physical landscape appropriate to its own condition at a
particular moment in time, only to have to destroy it, usually in the course of a
crises, at a subsequent point in time. The temporal and geographical ebb and
flow of investment in the built environment can be understood only in terms of
such a process. (1978, p. 124)
According to Slater (2013), Harvey showed that “the urban process under
capitalism was far more than a matter of capital flows: it was about class inequality” (p.
377). It was about the violence inflicted over the working class due to the destruction of
the physical landscape for the sake of new forms of capital accumulation. According to
Soja (2010), Harvey’s theory of the spatial fix was a challenge both to orthodox
neoclassical economics and orthodox Marxism, which tended “to treat the economy
almost as if it existed on the head of a pin, with no significant spatial dimensions or
spatiality” (p. 88). Thus, to Harvey there are powerful social forces arising from
capitalism and shaping the built environment of the city; the geographies produced to
meet the needs of capital produce injustices and inequalities across space.
Neil Smith, one of David Harvey students at The Johns Hopkins University,
assembled a compelling theory to explain the patterns of uneven development of the city
driven by the relocation decisions of capital. At the heart of Smith’s argument is the
insight that capitalism as a system of production “strives more and more to produce a
differentiated (urban) space as a means to its own survival” (1982; p. 152). By uneven
development, Smith referred to “the self-evident truth that societal development does not
take place everywhere at the same speed or in the same direction” (1982; p. 142). This
statement seems too obvious, but Smith claims that uneven development is a process
specific to capitalism and rooted in the social relations of that mode of production. To
Smith, the key to understanding the relationship between developed and
underdeveloped areas within cities under capitalism lays in understanding how capital
moves spatially throughout the city. To do so, in his doctoral dissertation Neil Smith
proposed a theoretical framework comprised of three central aspects of uneven
The first aspect is theorizing the relationship between “two contradictory
tendencies toward, on the one hand, the equalization of conditions and levels of
development and, on the other hand, their differentiation” (Smith, 1982; p. 142). While
Smith acknowledged that equalization could actually occur at the national or regional
scales of analysis, that is not the case at the urban scale. According to Smith (1982), the
crucial economic force mediating the patterns of uneven development within the urban
scale is ground rent, which in turn is driven by two major forces. The first is functional,
“meaning the difference between residential, industrial, recreational, commercial,
transportational, and institutional land uses” (p. 145). The second is “differentiation
according to class and race” (p. 145).
The second aspect is the valorization and devalorization of the built environment
capital, which Smith (1982) theorized as a cycle. The capital invested in the built
environment has a number of purposes; whether to provide the means of production
(logistics infrastructure, power, etc.), the means of reproduction (houses, parks,
schools), or the means of circulation (banks, offices, retail facilities). Given the spatial fix
theorized by Harvey (1978), the physical infrastructure must remain in use and cannot
be demolished, creating barriers for new development. Over the long run, and without
investing capital periodically in the form of repairs or replacements to the physical stock,
devalorization will occur. Thus, “the steady devalorization of capital creates longer term
possibilities for a new phase of valorization” (p. 147), which coupled with disinvestment
of new capital will create what Smith called the rent gap:
Essentially, the devalorization of capital invested in the inner city built
environment leads to a situation where the ground rent capitalized under current
land uses is substantially lower than the ground rent that could potentially be
capitalized if the land use were changed. This is because devalorization leads to
physical decline, which in turn lowers the market price of the land on which the
dilapidated buildings stand. When, and only when, this rent gap between actual
and potential ground rent becomes sufficiently large, redevelopment and
rehabilitation into new land uses becomes a profitable prospect, and capital
begins to flow back into the inner city market. (1982; p. 149)
Following Smith (1982), the rent gap leads to the creation of new investment
opportunities precisely because an effective barrier to new investment had previously
operated. To Smith, the key element of the analysis is to examine the periodicity of this
cycles of disinvestment/investment opportunities, which constitutes the third element of
his theory. The rhythm of unevenness in capitalist economy is closely linked to the
broader performance and the shift of the economy; “with falling rates of profit in the
major industrial sectors, financial capital seeks an alternative arena for investment, an
arena where the profit rate remains comparatively high and where the risk is low” (p.
150). This creates a locational switch of capital throughout economic activities and
spatial locations, and the capital tends to land over the unvalorized spaces of the city
with big enough rent gaps. This cycle completes the theory of uneven development as
proposed by Smith:
The logic behind uneven development is that the development of one area
creates barriers to further development, thus leading to underdevelopment, and
that the underdevelopment of that area creates opportunities for a new phase of
development. Geographically, this leads to the possibility of what we might call a
‘locational seesaw’: the successive development, underdevelopment, and
redevelopment of given areas as capital jumps from one place to another, then
back again, both creating and destroying its own opportunities for development.
The process of uneven development as theorized by Smith has two major
implications for intra-urban inequality. The first is that the poorer residents of a city can
only afford to move to the devalorized and disinvested areas of the city, thus remaining
stuck in place and sparking the vicious cycle theorized by the neighborhood effects
literature. The second is that the processes of gentrification don’t abolish the urban
pathologies put forward by the neighborhood effects literature; “they are merely shifted
elsewhere” (Engels, 1872, as cited by Smith, 1982; p. 152).
Finally, I summarize the work of the prominent geographer Edward Soja, who
studied the processes producing unjust geographies within cities. Soja (2010) makes a
distinction between exogenous and endogenous generated geographies. By exogenous
geographies, he refers to “the imposition of political power, cultural domination, and
social control over individuals, groups, and the places they inhabit” (p. 32). Examples of
these exogenously generated geographies range from the immigrant-impacted
banlieues surrounding Paris to the colonial and postcolonial geographies, the drawing of
boundaries defining electoral districts in a representative democracy, the security-
obsessed urbanism, and burgeoning gated communities throughout cities (Soja, 2010;
pp. 33-46).
By endogenous geographies, Soja refers to those “configured from below through
what can be broadly called endogenous processes of locational decision making and the
aggregate distributional effects that arise from them” (2010; p. 47). In this case, Soja
(2010) argues that the unjust geographies of the city are the outcome of countless
decisions made about where things are put in space, and distinguishes four different
kinds. The first is distributional inequality, which refers to the uneven distribution across
space of “all the basic needs of urban life, ranging from such vital public services as
educations, mass transit, police and crime prevention, to more privatized provisioning of
adequate food, housing, and employment” (p. 47). The second is spatial discrimination
and the law, which refers to the “discriminatory biases, from patriarchy and heterosexism
to cultural nationalism and racism, (that) accentuate spatial injustices and provide ample
opportunities to raise legal and/or constitutional challenges and claims of civil rights
violations” (p. 49). The third kind is environmental racism, which refers to “the tendency
for poor and minority populations, especially African Americans, to suffer
disproportionately from air and water pollution and the siting of hazardous or toxic
facilities” (p. 52). The fourth type is through segregation, which “whether imposed from
above or generated by spatial decision making from below, segregation or the
confinement of specific populations to specific areas seems clearly to be connected to
the production of spatial injustice” (p. 54).
Urban Productivity and Equitable Growth
The role of cities as the engine of national economic activity and growth is clearer
than ever. In the year 2015, the world population living in urban areas reached 54% (UN
Habitat, 2016), and the projections indicate that urban population will double by the year
2050 (New Urban Agenda [NUA], 2016). This is a time qualified by the United Nations
as an urban era (Habitat, 1996), and more recently as a time of planetary urbanization
(Brenner, 2013), in which the bulk of economic and cultural life takes place in cities.
According to the latest World Cities Report (UN Habitat, 2016), 80% of the global Gross
Domestic Product (GDP) and 70% of global dioxide emissions are accounted by cities.
The contribution of cities to national income is greater than their share of national
population. For example, Paris is 16% of the population of France but accounts for 27%
of the country’s GDP. Kinshasa is 13% of DRC population but contributes 85% of the
country’s GDP. Manila, that represents 12% of the Philippines’s population, contributes
47% of the country’s GDP (UN Habitat, 2016).
However, the benefits of urban agglomeration, with its economies of scale and
increases in productivity have not been equally distributed across urban populations. In
the year 1991, a World Bank policy paper prepared by the Urban Development Division
identified that
although the growth of urban markets has led to higher aggregate levels of
productivity, income, and welfare, it has not been uniformly beneficial for urban
populations. Many households have prospered in relative terms, but others have
been unable to find jobs or to generate incomes sufficient to purchase needed
shelter or gain access to urban infrastructure and social services. (World Bank,
1991; p. 19).
The policy paper pointed out that, given the increasing importance of the
productivity of urban markets for national economic growth and its contribution to
alleviating the incidence of urban poverty, it should be a priority of development
agencies to find specific ways to enhance urban productivity (World Bank, 1991). To do
so, the report outlined a policy framework for improving the contribution of cities to
national economic growth. The policy framework proposed that the productivity of urban
based economic activities “is affected by factors that emanate both from national policies
and the city level itself” (p. 30). It established linkages in both directions between
macroeconomic policies at the national level and urban policies at the city level:
“macroeconomic policies affect the city, while urban economic activities have
macroeconomic consequences” (p. 30).
The policy framework proposed by the World Bank in 1991 started by discussing
the spatial dimensions of the urban economy. Given that urban-based economic
activities benefit from economies of scale and of agglomeration and from the proximity of
labor, capital, and technology, cities are the center of high-density social and economic
interactions among firms and households. The concentration of population leads to
increased demand for goods and services, which results in productivity growth for
households and the firms that supply them. However, the policy framework recognized
that investments in one location can result in costs or benefits to others, and in the
existence of negative externalities of the concentration of economic activities such as
traffic congestion, pollution of air and water, and other environmental degradation. Thus,
for the Urban Development Division of the World Bank, the challenge of urban policy
was “to maximize the agglomeration economies and their positive externalities while
minimizing the diseconomies and negative externalities” (World Bank, 1991; p. 35). To
do so, the policy framework identified four major constraints to improved urban
productivity while proposing a strategy for poverty reduction by improving productivity at
the individual, household, firm, and urban levels.
The first constraint to urban productivity refers to infrastructure deficiencies and is
based on recognizing that both urban economic activity and the well being or urban
populations depend heavily on infrastructures. When urban infrastructure fails to deliver
effectively they “impose heavy burdens on the productive activity of urban households
and enterprises” (World Bank, 1991; p. 36). A study by Sik Lee, Anas, and Oh (1996)
compared the cost of infrastructures deficiencies in manufacturing in Indonesia, Nigeria,
and Thailand, and revealed that the private costs of infrastructures deficiencies are
substantial and that the burdens are much greater in small firms than in large firms.
According to their study, 92% of Nigerian firms, 66% in Indonesia, and 6% in Thailand
had their own electricity generators to supplement the deficient public supply. In
addition, the total share of capital investment in private infrastructure was 16% of all
capital in Indonesian firms, and 14% in those of Nigeria (Sik Lee, Anas, & Oh, 1996). In
the Namuwongo slum of Kampala, in Uganda, the lack of basic sanitation infrastructure
makes 12,000 residents wait in line for hours to use one of the 18 toilet stalls that cater
for the whole area (Terreni, 2015). The time that residents spend in line to use a toilet
stall is time not spent on productive activities or leisure.
The second constraint to urban productivity is the regulatory framework. The
World Bank policy framework pointed out that over-regulation imposed by both the
national and local level can work in detriment of urban-based economic activities. The
net effect on firms of over-regulation is “to produce higher overall costs that outweigh the
intended benefits of individual rules” (World Bank, 1991; p. 39). In a recent study in the
San Francisco Bay Area about the relationship between the regulation of urban
development within different jurisdictions and land prices, Kok, Monkkonen, and Quigley
(2014) found that, ceteris paribus, cities that require a greater number of independent
reviews to obtain a building permit or a zoning change have higher land prices. Getting
back to the Namuwongo slum example, in Kampala, Uganda, toilets and sewerage
infrastructure cannot be built, it is argued by the city’s public officials because the people
that live there illegally should go (Terreni, 2015).
The third constraint is weak municipal institutions. Given that many essential
services in cities are managed by the local governments, “the financial and technical
weakness of municipal institutions can place severe constraints to important urban
based economic activities” (World Bank, 1991; p. 40). Using data from the World Bank
Enterprise Survey, Gillanders (2014) tests the relationship between corruption and
infrastructure at the country and regional level and finds that there is a statistically
significant and considerable relationship between the measures of corruption and the
measures of electricity and transportation infrastructure. Countries with more corruption
tend to have the worse infrastructure, and within-country variation in corruption has a
significant effect on regional infrastructure (Gillanders, 2014).
The fourth constraint to urban productivity is inadequate financial services, as “a
poorly developed financial sector poses major constraints to urban investment, both
public infrastructure investment and private investment in the housing stock” (World
Bank, 1991; p. 42). The four major cities in Bangladesh are comprised of 313 poorly
budgeted municipalities which have to provide public services acting as independent
jurisdictions. Considering the poor governance, lack of capacity and skilled manpower,
and an inadequate budget, Bangladesh national government, and the World Bank have
fostered the creation of Municipal Development Funds, which are parastatal institutions
that lend to local governments for infrastructure investments. According to Ramahan,
Dhar, and Hossain (2014), the Municipal Development Funds can be considered a good
practice in infrastructure funding strategies, as they reach “far more local authorities and
smaller projects than it would be efficient for international institutions to try to finance
directly” (p. 52).
In addition, the policy framework proposed by the World Bank assumed the
challenge of increasing urban productivity “while directly alleviating the growing
incidence of urban poverty and thereby also improving equity” (World Bank, 1991; p.
44). To do so, the policy framework was based on the assumption that there is not
necessarily a trade-off between strategies to promote economic growth and to reduce
poverty, as “poverty reduction is possible in part through improving productivity at the
individual, household, firm, and urban levels” (p. 45). The policy framework identified
three mechanisms through which economic adjustment at the macroeconomic level can
have a direct incidence on urban poverty.
First, decrease in wages. The urban poor are more dependent on their labor than
on asset ownership and therefore bear the greatest risk when unemployment rises due
to monetary and fiscal policies that constrain urban labor markets. Second, adjustment
in prices. On the one hand, the prices of goods and services adjust more rapidly than
wages, which puts pressure on the real wages of the urban poor. On the other hand,
fiscal reform usually involves an increase in tariffs, which tend to affect the urban poor
disproportionally. Third, the effects of public services. The cuts in public expenditures
are usually associated with the retrenchment of subsidies and adjustments in public
programs like health or education, which again tend to be disproportionally important for
the urban poor (World Bank, 1991; p. 46-47). Altogether, these three mechanisms tend
to have an effect on reducing urban real incomes, which in turn affect the productivity at
the household level.
To alleviate urban poverty, the policy framework proposed by the World Bank put
forward three strategies that would simultaneously contribute in overcome the
constraints to urban productivity. First, to manage the economic aspects of poverty by
increasing the demand for labor through policies that encouraged labor-intensive
productive activities; by reforming regulations that limit the access of the poor to urban
services, infrastructure, credit, and markets; and by reducing constraints to labor-force
participation like promoting childcare and other family responsibilities. Second, through
managing the social aspects of poverty by increasing social-sector expenditure in
human capital development of the urban poor; by increasing access of the poor to
infrastructure and housing; and by empowering the poor to meet their own needs
through community initiatives. Third, through building a ‘safety-net” assistance to those
more vulnerable to short term shocks by directing cash transfers for basic needs on a
short-term basis, and by introducing measures to moderate the decline in private
consumption (World Bank, 1991; p. 10-11).
Mechanisms of Infrastructural Exclusion
This section discusses four useful theoretical approaches for the analysis of
infrastructural exclusion. Then, the section puts forward four mechanisms through which
socio-spatial infrastructural exclusion can operate in the real world.
First, Infrastructures can be classified as public or private goods based on two
characteristics: rivalrousness of consumption and excludability. Rivalrousness refers to
the degree to which the consumption of a good by one person will lessen the ability of
others to consume. Excludability refers to the degree in which a person can be excluded
from consuming a good (Frinschmann, 2012). Graham and Marvin (2001) offer
examples of how to classify infrastructures based on these characteristics. Public goods
are non-rival and non-excludable, and among the infrastructures that can be classified
as such, we find air traffic control, highway signals and traffic control, primary/trunk
roads, tertiary rural roads, and solid waste disposal. Private goods are both rival and
excludable, and infrastructures with these characteristics are airport services, electricity
generation and distribution, value-added telecom services, urban transport like bus, taxi,
and metro, and water supply piped and non-piped. Toll goods are excludable but not
rivalrous, and among them, there are toll highways, basic telecommunications networks,
ports and gateways, and power transmission. Finally, common pool goods are rival but
not excludable, and among the infrastructures with such characteristics, there are rural
water systems, storm drainage, and the waste water network and treatment (Graham &
Marvin, 2001; p. 146).
Second, Graham and Marvin (2001) bring to the analysis the institutional
arrangements of infrastructures that determine whether they are provided by the public
or the private sector, or a combination of both. In this sense, the authors put forward
eight different institutional alternatives for the provision of infrastructures. In their
classification, the role of market incentives ranges from low to high, and the
responsibility of the public sector decreases from one category to another being
gradually transferred to the private sector. The classification is as follows: a) provision by
a government department, in which the service is provided by civil servants and
accounts in government budget; b) provision by a parastatal, an organization owned and
control by the state; c) provision by a service contract, in which the public sector
manages publicly owned infrastructure for a fee or performance-related fee; d) provision
by leasing, where private sector operates a public facility for a fixed period but does not
provide fixed assets; e) provision by concessions, in which the private sector leases an
infrastructure for an extended period; f) provision by communal arrangements, in which
users cooperatively plan, build, maintain, and manage infrastructure; and g) provision by
private entrepreneurship, where there is ownership by private sector either through
transfer of assets from public sector or new entry (Graham & Marvin, 2001; p. 151).
Third, the characteristics of rivalry and excludability and the institutional
arrangements of infrastructure provision give place to what Graham and Marvin (2001)
have called infrastructural bypass, which operates at the local, glocal, and virtual levels.
In the case of the local bypass, Graham and Marvin define it as “the development of a
parallel infrastructure network that effectively connects valued users and places while
simultaneously bypassing non-valued users and places within a city” (2001; p. 167).
Potential users of infrastructures can be classified as non-valued users –and therefore
bypassed by infrastructures– for a number of reasons, which include their inability to pay
for services or reasons related with social stratification within societies.
Fourth, infrastructural systems make it possible to move materials and people
between places, thus enabling population growth and market formation. The
sociotechnical relationship underlying the supply of key resources in cities expand over
time, and private firms, governmental organizations, and populations become
interdependent through incremental and contingent sociotechnical expansion (Deener,
2017). By looking at the sociotechnical relationships embedded in infrastructural
systems, Deener has proposed a concept of infrastructural exclusion to explain the
existence of vast spaces within cities lacking physical access to infrastructures.
Infrastructural exclusion occurs when “sociotechnical interdependence develops into a
semi-autonomous and path-dependent force that generates unequal access to
resources” (2017; p. 1287). From this view, the infrastructural transformation is not only
the product of strategic political-economic goals, the competition among firms, or
ideological regimes. Rather, “it involves an incremental, highly competitive, and
economically contingent process of inscribing organizational routines into changing
systems. Infrastructural exclusion emphasizes how sociotechnical relationships
materialize into a semi-autonomous, and path-dependent force that compels
organizational mistakes and unanticipated consequences” (Deener, 2017; p. 1288).
Altogether, these four theoretical approaches suggest that infrastructures can
take many configurations of economic, political, and institutional characteristics, playing
different but complementary roles in the production/consumption processes of urban-
based economic activities, and are embedded in evolving sociotechnical relationships
that take material form across urban space. In this context, I put forward four
mechanisms through which the poor and vulnerable populations can be excluded from
infrastructures: a) lack of physical access, b) lack of income, c) institutional constraints,
and d) social stratification barriers.
By lack of physical access, I refer to the circumstance in which an infrastructure is
whether absent of a specific urban space or is located far enough to make a specific
population’s physical access unfeasible. As Deener (2017) has pointed out, lack of
physical access to infrastructures is the outcome of the incremental and contingent
sociotechnical expansion of infrastructural systems that develop into a path-dependent
force leading to the absence of a specific infrastructure. In a study on access to urban
green spaces in Iasi City, Romania, Rosu and Codorescu (2013) found a great deficit of
parks, as 25% of the population is located at more than 12 minute walking distance to
green space, and only 5% of the population can be hosted by existing parks. In addition,
the central and northern part of the city is by far more advantaged than the peripheral
neighborhoods. Deener (2017) used the case of the origins of food deserts in
Philadelphia to develop the concept of infrastructural exclusion as a new form of urban
inequality. Defined as geographic pockets without access to supermarkets, food deserts
lack affordable fresh fruit and vegetables that disproportionally impact low-income
communities and communities of color throughout the United States urban areas.
By lack of income, I refer to the circumstance in which infrastructures are
provided in an institutional arrangement allowing for levels of marketability –in different
combinations of rivalrousness and excludability– and the urban poor or vulnerable
populations lack the income to have access to infrastructure and public services through
the market place. Oftentimes infrastructure provision is subsidized, making access for
the urban poor more feasible. However, the retrenchment of public subsidy to
infrastructure provision has a disproportionate effect on the urban poor via the
adjustment of prices and its effects on real incomes. In Cape Town, South Africa, the
parastatal Eskom has installed prepaid meters that measure networked services like
water and electricity and automatically disconnect users in case of nonpayment. If users
want to access services they have to purchase and load credit in advance by entering a
code or using a magnetic key. According to von Schnitzler (2013), the use of prepaid
meters has become ubiquitous in South African cities, and while also installed in middle-
class neighborhoods, “the meters are primarily deployed in poorer, historically black
townships and informal settlements (p. 671).
By institutional constraints, I refer to the ways in which urban codes and
regulations make access to infrastructure and services difficult or even impossible for
the urban poor. Urban codes and regulations determine which territories or populations
are entitled to which kinds of infrastructures and public services. They also have an
influence over the prospects of marketability of infrastructures, enabling marketability in
some cases while constraining it in other. Urban informality and irregular settlements are
a textbook example of this constraint. As mentioned above, residents of the slum of
Namuwongo, in Kampala, Uganda, have been unable to be served with sanitation
infrastructure by the city because they are irregular settlers and to the eyes of the city
they should relocate to formal settlements (Terreni, 2015). In Guadalajara, México, the
construction of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) infrastructure was canceled because three
municipal governments of the metropolitan area denied making changes in the land use
regulation that was needed for the implementation of the project.1
By social stratification barriers, I refer to the ways in which social stratification in
terms of race, class, and gender have an effect on determining which populations have
access to infrastructures and public services, and which have not. In a recent study, van
Gent and Jaffe (2016) argued how cinematic imaginaries operate to culturally justify an
unequal urban order in which Amsterdam’s city center is depicted as white, middle-
class, and civilized, while the post-war urban periphery is cast as a mysterious place of
racialized poverty, squalor, and pathological behavior. According to the authors, this
cultural depiction favors the depoliticization of state-led gentrification and normalizes
change in the material cityscape. Levine and Gershenson (2014) entailed a study of the
spatial distribution of the request from basic city services by residents in Boston,
Massachusetts. The study found that neighborhoods with high concentrations of first-
generation immigrants are less likely to request city services and that the concentration
of African Americans is associated with high increases in neighborhood service
requests. Their findings suggest that underrepresentation of immigrants neighborhoods
in direct government contacting suggest their incomplete political incorporation, a form of
political inequality, that leads to the under-provision of public goods to these
neighborhoods, which is, in turn, a form of material inequality (Levine & Gershenson,
These mechanisms of infrastructural exclusion operate to create landscapes of
intra-urban inequality in the access to infrastructures and services across urban space.
There are three relevant characteristics of this classification that should be mentioned
and kept in mind. First, the four mechanisms can operate by their own, or in combination
to create unique forms of infrastructural exclusion. Second, these mechanisms operate
simultaneously for inclusion and exclusion; they allow for the exclusion of some
populations while simultaneously including other segments of the population in the
provision of infrastructures and public services. Third, these mechanisms can exclude
specific populations either from the city as a productive force or from the infrastructures
and services of the city as a mean of collective consumption.
The Discussion on Intra-Urban Inequality
So far, this literature review has been focused on discussing the processes
through which the landscapes of intra-urban inequality are produced and reproduced in
the capitalist city. However, the last part of this paper will review the literature
addressing the consequences of intra-urban inequality, and the ways in which
governments have tried to face the problem.
According to Lobao, Hooks, and Tickamyer (2007), from the 1980’s onwards
sociologists in the United States started to pay attention to the intra-urban inequalities of
their society. This scholarship bridged social inequality with space in four different ways.
First, by studying how space intersects with primary categories of social stratification like
class, gender, and race/ethnic differences “not only in how populations are distributed
across space, but also in how space is used and experienced by different social groups”
(p. 10). Second, by understanding how space can channel inequality processes, and
how it constrains or amplifies its effects. Third, by researching how space itself can be
created through inequality processes. Finally, by exploring how space and inequality
processes can be treated as causally intertwined (p. 10).
The field developed two different approaches to the study of inequality and space,
both equally influential but underpinned in different philosophical and epistemological
stands. The first is the place-in-society approach, which is rooted in understanding the
role of specific places–sometimes in comparison with others–, in a society and in light of
social theory. The second is the society-in-place approach, which interested in how
social processes work across space starts the analysis at the societal level and then
moves to the study of specific places (Lobao et al, 2007; p. 11).
Published in 1987, it was the seminal book of William Julius Wilson The Truly
Disadvantaged that started the study of inequality and space by looking at specific
places. By pointing out to the “sharp increase in social pathologies in ghetto
communities” (p. 6) in the United States, Wilson brought the term of the underclass2 to
urban sociology. To Wilson, the underclass was comprised of the most disadvantaged
segments of the black urban community who were stock into jobless ghettoes that
perpetuated joblessness. By claiming that “thoughtful explanations of the recent rise in
the problems of the underclass depend on careful empirical research” (p. 18), Wilson’s
influential book started a vast research agenda on neighborhood effects.
In 1997, Ellen and Turner synthesize the empirical findings of ten years of
research on how neighborhoods affect families and children. Ellen and Turner (1997)
conclude that the bulk of empirical studies find that neighborhoods do matter. They also
identified six different causal mechanisms through which neighborhood conditions may
influence individual outcomes: “quality of local services, socialization by adults, peer
influences, social networks, exposure to crime and violence, and physical distance and
isolation” (p. 836). The quality of local services refers to the availability and quality that
are delivered at the neighborhood, like schooling, after school programs, and medical
care. Socialization by adults refers to what children learn about what behaviors are
normal or acceptable from the adults they encounter in their community. Peer influence
refers to how the values and behavior of young people are influenced by their peers.
Social networks refer to how access to economic opportunities depends on the persons’
network of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Exposure to crime and violence
refers to how people living in high-crime neighborhoods face a higher risk of being
victims of crime. Physical distance and isolation refers to the physical proximity and
accessibility to economic opportunities and jobs; “Residents of neighborhoods that are
long distance from job opportunities or that lack access to public transportation may be
unable to get decent jobs even when the possess adequate skills and motivation” (Ellen
& Turner, 1997; p. 842).
In addition to the significant amount of empirical research summarized by Ellen
and Turner (1997), the publishing of the book Place Matters: Metropolitics for the
Twenty –First Century by Peter Dreier, John Mollenkopf, and Todd Swanstrom in the
year 2000 represented the consolidation of the place-in-society approach with its focus
on neighborhood effects. This influential textbook, now in its third edition (2014),
includes a chapter with a comprehensive survey of the empirical research on
neighborhood effects on family’s and individual’s lifetime outcomes demonstrating the
main claim of the book: that place matters.
Dreier et al (2014) identify six domains of mechanisms through which place
matters. Three of them match with the effects found by Ellen and Turner (1997), while
the remaining four are different kinds of effects. The first is related to job access, both by
being physically isolated from economic opportunities and from lacking social networks
for accessing a job. The second is access to health care, which resembles Ellen and
Turner’s category of quality of local services. The third is related to the effects of crime in
three ways. One of them refers to increasing risk of being a victim of a crime because
crime tends to cluster in certain neighborhoods. Another effect is that living in a
disadvantaged neighborhood blocks economic opportunities, thus making people turn to
crime because they cannot obtain material goods and respect through conventional
channels. Yet another effect of crime is social disorganization given that safer poor
neighborhoods tend to keep themselves apart from the more dangerous ones. The
fourth domain is economic disadvantage because the poor pay more for living in the city.
According to Dreier et al (2014), there is enough evidence to claim that the poor in
disadvantaged neighborhoods pay more for consumer goods, financial services, and
healthcare. The fifth is that the physical and social environment affect the health of
people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods through mechanisms like unhealthy
lifestyles, unhealthy places to live, lack of urban infrastructure for exercising, bad air
quality, or environments of enduring stress. The last domain is the effect on politics.
Dreier et al (2014) bring evidence to support that economic segregation causes citizens
to prioritize their interests at the expense of the greater regional public interest, dampens
political participation, and frustrates effective public policies.
The literature on neighborhood effects has multiplied exponentially. A literature
review published in the year 2002 found that the neighborhood effect scholarship was
publishing at the rate of 100 papers per year (Sampson et al, 2002, as cited by Slater,
2013). More recently, scholars like Chetty, Hendren, and Katz (2015), Sharkey (2016),
and Lens (2017) are advancing the neighborhood effects research agenda focusing on
public policies for economic mobility. Chetty et al (2015) assess evidence from the
Moving to Opportunity (MTO) experiment and find that “moving to a lower-poverty
neighborhood significantly improves college attendance rates and earnings for children
who were young (below 13) when their families moved” (p. 2). The children who moved
also live in a better neighborhood themselves as adults, are less likely to become single
parents and have an income 31% higher on average than the control group (Chettey et
al, 2015).
Sharkey (2016) reviews the available evidence on the effects of relocation and
community change programs on economic mobility, and conclude “the research
explaining geographic variation in economic mobility remains at a very early stage.
Generating causal evidence on the mechanisms explaining (geographic) variation in
economic mobility is the most pressing challenge for researchers in this area” (p. 168).
Lens (2017) calls to walk away from researching the negative effects of disadvantaged
neighborhoods and to articulate research designs positively by measuring the
geographies of opportunity. This implies measuring how “living among a set of assets
and amenities (can) allow for positive individual and family outcomes throughout the life
course” (p. 17). To do so, Lens (2017) claims that, as a starting point, researchers need
to include data on “the structural characteristics of neighborhoods –such as crime, job
accessibility, and school quality” (p. 3).
One of the latest developments in the neighborhood effects literature is the study
of the consequences of exposure to durable inequalities3 on health. An article by
Kravitz-Wirtz (2016) examines whether cumulative exposure to neighborhood
disadvantage affects self-rated health in adulthood and the extent to which variation in
such exposure vary by race. Her findings suggest that “prolonged exposure to
neighborhood disadvantage throughout childhood and adolescence is strikingly more
common among nonwhite versus white respondents and is associated with significantly
greater odds of experiencing an incidence of fair or poor health in early adulthood” (p.
The research on neighborhood cumulative effects is rooted in the cumulative
inequality theory proposed by Ferraro and Shippee (2009) in the field of gerontology,
which is in turn rooted in the theory of cumulative advantage/disadvantage put forward
by Dannafer (2003). These theories bring insightful theoretical approaches to the study
of the underlying mechanisms driving the effects of intra-inequality on the truly
disadvantaged. According to Dannafer (2003), cumulative advantage/disadvantage is
the “systematic tendency for interindividual divergence in a given characteristic (e.g.,
money, health, status) with the passage of time” (p. 327, as cited by Ferraro & Shippee,
2009; p. 333). Integrating the theory of cumulative advantage/disadvantage with the life
course or life span approach proposed by Elder (1994, as cited in Ferraro & Shippee,
2009), Ferraro and Shippee proposed the Cumulative Inequality (CI) theory, which
specifies that “social systems generate inequality, which is manifested over the life
course via demographic and developmental processes, and that personal trajectories
are shaped by the accumulation of risk, available resources, perceived trajectories, and
human agency” (p. 334). The theory of CI rests on five axioms: 1) social systems
generate inequality, which is manifested over the life course through demographic and
developmental processes; 2) disadvantage increases exposure to risk, but advantage
increases exposure to opportunity; 3) life course trajectories are shaped by the
accumulation of risk, available resources, and human agency; 4) the perception of life
trajectories influences subsequent trajectories; and 5) cumulative inequality may lead to
premature mortality –therefore, nonrandom selection may give the appearance of
decreasing inequality in later life.
The prolific production of the neighborhood effects literature has increased
considerably the empirical research on intra-urban inequality. However, it has also
sparked critics. DeFilippis (2017) discusses the new edition of Place Matters and pose
two fundamental problems with the ‘place matters’ approach as proposed by Dreier et al
(2014). A first criticism is posed to the treatment of the market and the state. According
to DeFilippis, too much emphasis is placed by Dreier et al to make the case that it has
been the state, though poorly designed and implemented public policies, who has
reinforced the appearance of disadvantaged neighborhoods. DeFilippis highlights
quotes like: “the way American Cities have spread out, with high levels of economic and
rational segregation, was not inevitable. It was powerfully shaped by public policies and
institutions” (Dreier et al, 2014; p. 55), or “Federal policies initially helped to create and
then exacerbate the concentration of poor blacks and Hispanics in ghettos and barrios”
(Dreier et al, 2014; p. 127). To DeFilippis, the accumulation of these quotes conveys,
“the patterns of segregation are a product of the state, and not the market” (2017; p.
A second critique raised by DeFilippis is that Dreier et al are “inflating the role of
space in social relations, or, perhaps more accurately, misunderstanding the complex
and dialectical relations between society and space” (2017; p. 193). DeFilippis is
accusing Dreier et al of being too spatially deterministic, highlighting that there is a
conceptual problem of using space to solve social problems because “we need to
recognize that the social issues of race and class are not caused by the spatial
arrangements of people in metropolitan areas” (2017; p. 194). To DeFilippis, Dreier et al
approach to solving the problem of disadvantaged neighborhoods is “the spatial
equivalent of conceptions of justice that are solely distributional (as, most famously,
Rawls’s conception of justice), rather than both distributional and procedural” (2017; p.
195-6). At the heart of DeFilippis critique is that
Space and place play vital roles in the shaping of social relations and the political
economy. And () capital flows, race relations, state structures, and migration
(), are all deeply and thoroughly spatial. The question becomes, “What are the
logics and values inherent in, and manifested through, such spatialized
processes?” Those logics and values, in turn, are functions of power relations
between groups within society. Thus, it is those power relations that we must
analyze and transform. Focusing on the current spatial configuration of social
relations is to focus on the symptom and not the cause. (2017; p. 195).
In yet another critique, Slater (2013) argues that “the where you live affects your
life chances thesis, however well-intentioned, misses the key structural question of why
people live where they do in cities” (p. 367). Given that where people live affects their
live chances in the way that the place matters scholarship predicts, Slater contends that
then “it seems crucial to understand why that individual is living there in the first place.”
(2013; p. 369). At the heart of Slater’s critique is the claim that by inverting the
neighborhood effect thesis to your life chances affect where you live, “then the problem
becomes one of understanding life chances via a theory of capital accumulation and
struggle in the city” (2013; p. 369).
The capitalist city is a colossal productive force in permanent construction. The
process of creative destruction that operates at the level of business models also takes
material form at the level of urban space. The built environment of cities has to be
constantly adapted to evolve with the nature of urban-based economic activities.
Infrastructure policy serves this purpose, constantly reshaping urban space to allow the
flow of key resources for production and consumption in cities, whether that is raw
materials, intermediate materials and supplies, services to producers, labor, or the
realization of products and services in the market. Unfortunately, the new possibilities of
production and consumption created by the constant construction of the city as a
productive force are not equally distributed across populations and urban space, which
sparks processes of socio-spatial inclusion and exclusion within cities. The populations
and territories lucky enough to be needed by the evolving urban-based economic
activities will be included in the streams of production and consumption, while those not
needed are likely to be left behind.
This trend of inclusion/exclusion in urban-based economic activities has
implications for infrastructure policy. State’s efforts to overcome infrastructure
deficiencies can have a dual effect on urban poverty and inequality. On the one hand,
the populations included in the new economic opportunities created by the infrastructure
policy will benefit from infrastructure public investment, which in turn will alleviate urban
poverty. A new massive transit infrastructure can increase real wages by lowering the
time and economic resources that some populations will allocate to their commutes
across the city. Public investment in infrastructure to develop a new brand of urban-
based economic activities will create new job opportunities for the populations with the fit
human capital to participate in the new labor market. The location of new industries in a
city will benefit the population working for firms providing services for the new industries.
On the other hand, the populations and territories not useful for the current or new
urban-based economic activities will be left behind. This means that there will be poverty
reduction for some sectors of the population while others will be outcast from the
benefits of increased urban productivity. In other words, overcoming the constraints to
urban productivity related to infrastructure deficiencies could come at the cost of
increasing intra-urban inequality.
Based on the literature review presented in this paper, I put forward the following
four analytical tools for studying the relationship between infrastructure policy and intra-
urban inequality. First, understanding the shift in the urban-based economic activities for
which infrastructures and thus urban space is built for, and the kinds of inputs and
populations that have to be connected to the streams of production and consumption
within the city. Second, distinguishing if an infrastructure is being built to enable
production or for collective consumption, or a combination of both. Third, distinguishing
the flow of public investment allocated for the construction of the general conditions for
production –the material component of infrastructure–, from the investment to provide
the services needed for infrastructures to deliver its intended function –like labor,
intermediate inputs, or maintenance. Finally, evaluating the ways in which the four
mechanisms of socio-spatial exclusion discussed earlier in this paper are at place –lack
of physical access, lack of income, institutional constraints, and social stratification
Altogether, these analytical tools can potentially yield a more nuanced image of
the spatial impacts of the access to or the lack of access to infrastructure. For instance,
there could be populations or territories of the city not needed for the processes of
production and consumption of urban-based economic activities, therefore being left
behind from infrastructure provision. In other cases, the neglect of infrastructure
provision can show itself as lack of investment in the general conditions for production
physical infrastructure–, while in other cases can come as lack of investment in the
general services for production –lack of maintenance or adequate personal to run
infrastructures. Yet in other cases, there will be territories fully equipped with
infrastructures for the production of goods and services –water irrigation systems for
agriculture, water and electricity for industrial production, logistic infrastructures for
commerce, optical fiber for the global services industry, etc.–, while other territories will
lack it. There will be an uneven distribution of investment in the provision of
infrastructure for collective consumption –both in terms of physical infrastructures and
the needed services for infrastructures to deliver. Most saliently, even in the cases in
which it would appear that there enough pubic investment of both infrastructures for
production and consumption, and in physical infrastructures and its complimentary
services, the mechanisms of socio-spatial exclusion discussed earlier in the paper could
be at work including some sectors of the population in the stream of economic
opportunities and public services, while excluding others.
Lastly, there are many scholars studying the consequences of intra-urban
inequality and how to overcome these problems through urban policy. However, this
scholarship is increasingly being contested by other scholarship arguing that what
should be studied is not only the consequences of inequality once at place, but the
reasons underlying the existence of intra-urban inequality in the first place. There seems
to be a two-way relationship that reinforces each other between the causes and the
effects of intra-urban inequality in the access to infrastructure and public services. On
the one hand, the urban poor lack the resources for locating near infrastructures or
paying access to infrastructure’s services. On the other hand, the lack of access to
infrastructures hampers the ability of the urban poor to acquire the resources that would
give them access to infrastructures. The direction of the causal relationship between
urban poverty and access to infrastructure is contested.
Infrastructure policy, however well-intentioned, is ultimately embedded in the
political economy of infrastructure, and the decisions of how to allocate public
investment are the outcome of complex processes of politico-economic struggles. These
processes produce winners and losers and, unfortunately, in the efforts to overcome the
constraints to urban productivity through our infrastructure policy we are actually building
intra-urban inequality. Some populations will be included and able to participate in the
city as a productive force, while others will be left behind. Of course, there is a
consensus of the minimum means of collective consumption that cities must provide to
their dwellers –basic infrastructure, affordable housing, efficient transport, and the like.
However, current infrastructure deficiencies, inadequate regulatory frameworks, weak
municipal institutions, inadequate financial services, and the mechanisms of socio-
spatial exclusion discussed in this literature review, they all work together to hamper the
ability of cities to deliver.
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