Successive governments in Europe have impressive visions for the future of our cities. These reject the divisive urban model of earlier decades, where richer people moved to low-density, car-dependent suburbs, leaving inner cities predominantly to the poor.
In the sustainable cities of the future, the vision is to attract richer people back to city centres. This will reduce their need to travel and increase public transport use. Importantly, these movements are supposed to bring about more mixed communities of people from different walks of life, living alongside one another harmoniously.
To achieve this urban renaissance, the UK has, for example, been directing housing development towards brownfield sites in the core of cities, limiting greenfield development at the edge. It has also been among those pushing substantial investment through urban regeneration schemes in land preparation or infrastructure.
Sure enough, this has halted and in some cases reversed the population losses which core cities have experienced for decades as richer people have been attracted back to the centres. Yet poorer people are being pushed out; poverty is “suburbanising”. We have seen this pattern in the US and more recently in England, particularly London.
Scotland’s four largest cities are also experiencing this trend, as new data confirms. In Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee, the share of each city’s population living near the centre either stayed the same or rose between 2004 and 2016. At the same time, the proportion of poorer people has been falling (see graphs below).
Income-deprived population living in central city (%)
Non-deprived population living in central city (%)
The central area of Edinburgh has seen a loss of approximately 4,000 people in low income households over the period. In Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, where this trend has been identified before, the figure is approximately 6,000. For the smaller cities of Aberdeen and Dundee, the losses were around 400 and 700 respectively.
What is driving this change? As city living has become more popular, poorer households are finding it harder to compete for housing. Social housing stock has fallen for decades, meaning those in poverty are having to rely more on renting privately. When cities attract wealthier people, landlords can charge rents that poorer people struggle to afford.
Meanwhile, recent welfare reforms have successively cut the housing benefits that subsidise rent payments for those on low incomes – at the same time as inequality levels have been rising more generally. The net result is that these people are pushed towards cheaper areas, away from the more central neighbourhoods.
As in other countries, this suburbanisation of Scottish poverty looks to be a steady but largely hidden process. If it continues, the cities of the future will be far from the visions set out by policymakers and planners.
Instead, they will continue to be marked by segregation and deep division, only now with poorer households pushed to the edge. That has potentially serious implications for these people’s welfare, particularly their ability to access employment. It also threatens broader social cohesion. If politicians are serious about their visions for the future, it is time we recognised these trends and started talking about how to halt them.