Three Things We Learned From a City Exchange on Socio-Spatial Segregation

March 20, 2024
Findings from a GMF transatlantic city exchange point to the importance of cities in spatial decision-making, engaging with marginalized populations, and crafting a proactive and nuanced approach to data collection and analysis to guide investments and policy decisions.

GMF Cities’ Chicago-Torino Lab brought together ten people from each city for discussion and shared learning on disrupting the realities of socio-spatial segregation in cities. Chronic divestment, blatantly discriminatory regulation, individual and societal bias and discrimination, and barriers to opportunity all contribute to patterns of segregation in cities. This was an opportunity to move past the obvious differences in city and national histories and experiences, and to use Chicago- and Torino-based research as a jumping off point to examine the ways in which structures, systems, and policies create inequitable outcomes for residents by race, ethnicity, or country of origin. Most importantly, the participants discussed the changes that are necessary to counter the ongoing effects of biased policy and inequitable practice.

The following three opportunities surfaced in conversations between cities as areas for further action and investment. First, cities can play a key role in fostering a local culture of acceptance and inclusion, as well as in creating space for interaction. A lack of shared gathering places can be a major physical impediment to engaging across racial and ethnic community lines, leading to further spatial isolation among groups.

Second, an organized civil society plays a powerful role in establishing accountability and driving institutions towards change. Many Chicago groups have built strong, independent political power, something that is particularly profound for undocumented immigrants who amass political power through allyships with voting constituents. Torino’s local community nonprofit representatives noted their inability to critique and advocate for change due to their reliance on financial support from the city government. It matters who has leverage, and it matters what kind of leverage they must use.

Finally, disaggregated data can inform recommendations for addressing spatial segregation and barriers to opportunities. European data privacy laws can pose challenges for municipalities hoping to deepen their data-driven understanding of socio-spatial segregation and discrimination. However, Torino’s data clearly reveals lines of segregation for certain groups. The city’s declining population means that certain areas have significant vacancies, yet some residents—often migrants or those whose parents or grandparents migrated—remain cramped into crowded housing conditions in neighborhoods that have little to no available housing. The socio-spatial segregation and the policies and structures that keep people from moving to different neighborhoods produce barriers resulting in a segregation of opportunity that is passed down from generation to generation.

These findings point to key dynamics that cities should explore in their efforts to understand and disrupt patterns of socio-spatial segregation in their communities.