Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Adaptive Behaviour in Urban Space;

Residential Mobility in Response to Social Distance

Sako Musterd1, Wouter P.C. van Gent1, Marjolijn Das2 and Jan J. Latten1,2

1 Urban Geography, Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam

2 Statistics Netherlands

Urban populations often show a high diversity in wealth or income. This is reflected in contrasts between affluent and poor neighbourhoods. Such contrasts feed policy and academic debates on housing market regulation and welfare arrangements. Generally, it is supposed that more liberal policy regimes give greater freedom for people to choose their residential location, which can lead to higher levels of segregation and homogenous neighbourhoods. This notion also often surfaces when differences in urban inequality between Northern American and Western European cities are discussed. The assumption is that European cities have a welfare state legacy of housing market regulation which assuages social segregation. Furthermore, social mixing policies try to bring a mix of different social strata into neighbourhoods in order to prevent unwanted patterns of segregation and accumulation of problems in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. So, rather than just choice, mobility is also structured by institutional arrangements like social housing waiting lists. Also, because income inequality is less pronounced and residential environments tend to be more mixed, people may not find it necessary to take the social composition of their neighbourhood into account.

Yet, despite regulation and interventions and lower inequality, Western European cities do exhibit patterns of social segregation with conspicuous concentrations of wealth and poverty. While acknowledging that segregation patterns within a city are produced and reproduced by a range of factors, we were interested in the role of individual residential moves in the continuous existing reality of contrasting affluent and poorer neighbourhoods in the Netherlands. Do we see that ‘birds of a feather flock together’? In other words, do people show a preference for living among ‘equals’ in their mobility behaviour? Even weak signals of this selectivity behaviour may help to understand why segregation at neighbourhood level survives, even if policy measures try to counteract it.

This article focuses on ‘socio-economic distance’: the discrepancy between households’socio-economic positions and the socio-economic profile of their neighbourhood. We analysed large-scale longitudinal register data for all residents of the four largest cities of the Netherlands that were available at Statistics Netherlands.

We found that, despite government regulation, the socio-economic distance to the neighbourhood is an important driver of socio-economic segregation. Both households that are more affluent than the neighbourhood average and households that are poorer more often move out of that neighbourhood. Moreover, movers tend to select destination neighbourhoods in which the residents resemble their own socio-economic position more closely. So, notwithstanding household change such as moving in together or separation, households who move tend to adapt to, and thereby sustain, the socio-economic status of neighbourhoods.

Our findings offer new input for debates and policies relating to segregation and social mixing, and pose challenges for policy makers and politicians who believe that segregated neighbourhoods will eventually have negative effects on the whole society. Our findings suggest that economic segregation in neighbourhoods cannot be counteracted by housing market rules and regulations alone. Individual choices of residents lead to more homogeneous neighbourhoods, either low income neighbourhoods or high income neighbourhoods. However, residential mobility is not always a matter of individual choice alone. There are many limitations related to access and affordability when there is scarcity on the housing market. Also, regulations may produce several constraints. The economically stronger households will more easily find a place that fits their position. The economically weaker may be more or less forced to move, for instance when the character of a neighbourhood changes significantly, as some of the gentrification literature claims.

Our research may trigger new investigations into the ‘functioning’of neighbourhoods. Not every neighbourhood will function in the same way. Some neighbourhoods with substantial social mix may stay attractive to a wide range of households. It might be worth investigating under what circumstances socially mixed neighbourhoods are sustainable, what the main characteristics of such neighbourhoods are in terms of location, tenure, housing type, demographic, cultural and other compositions, and why people decide to stay in such environments.