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Cities today are the great driver of the economic and social growth of humanity. Yet even in this opportune moment, cities, and especially those in the developing world, face problems of increasing socioeconomic segregation and a lack of social cohesion.

Because cities are such a magnet for personal economic opportunity compared to rural areas, they face the dual issue of continuing to provide opportunity while also integrating new economic migrants. Currently more than two thirds of the urban population in the world live in cities where the income gap has widened sharply in the past three decades. These gaps often lead to spatial segregation between rich and poor and greater socioeconomic disparity. This can breed discontent and limit the upward mobility that cities provide.

The Casey Review, commissioned in July 2015 by the then-Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May, notes that separation between members of different communities leads to mistrust and prejudice. Conversely, the mixing of people with different backgrounds can enable individuals to get on better in employment and social mobility, two of the core benefits of city life. With such a significant downside to the present socioeconomic segregation, choosing smart urban planning and public policies to support cohesion can have beneficial effects for both the individual and the community.

Around the world there have been many successful approaches to increasing social cohesion in diverse cities. The Dutch Government is subsidising activities that will facilitate inter-ethnic interactions in public spaces. Amsterdam’s parks provide a location for informal interactions that can stimulate social cohesion between members of different ethnic and economic groups. Investment in public spaces like parks, streets, and libraries, and more importantly in the cultural uses of that public space has a significant capability to bring people together. The mere provision of public areas can be  enough for a community to define the space and in turn begin forming connections to their surroundings and each other.

Transit Oriented Development involves connecting economically encumbered regions that are hard to get to. The potential success of this can be seen in Portland, Oregon and East London. Portland was faced with the problem of a vacant and decaying industrial sector to the north and south of its city centre. To help revitalise these areas and provide much needed opportunities to their residents, the city built the first modern tram system in America in 2001. Costing $100 million to build, the tram system led to $2.4 billion in new commercial and housing development, increasing the viability of once isolated and poor regions.

Likewise, East London was lacking rapid transit links to the centre of the city, which led to residents having fewer opportunities. The Docklands Light Railway (DLR) has helped to fill this gap by connecting deprived areas with centres for commerce and employment. However, there have also been increases in home prices around DLR stations that can exacerbate existing social exclusion. It is therefore important to combine development that connects people with development that allows the economically disadvantaged to maintain their access to these new connections.

One of the chief causes of socioeconomic segregation is the disparity of affordable housing between areas with the means to stimulate diverse interactions and the areas without such means. It is troubling, therefore, to see the fall in social housing stock from 6.5 million homes in 1980 to 2 million in 2017. The Right to Buy program, while beneficial to the people able to purchase their homes, has failed to maintain the number of affordable homes available for the next generation. It is important in any new development to attempt to maintain a diversity in the housing, retail, and employment opportunities available. If the economically disadvantaged are priced out of a development that is meant to connect them with the city, the development has failed.

Combining social housing with developments with new transit links and public spaces such as parks and libraries can effectively bring together diverse groups who would not have interacted otherwise. Once these interactions occur, the city’s role as an economic and cultural engine will be strengthened as new points of view are integrated into the socioeconomic fabric. Urban planners and city leaders therefore have a significant role to play in the crafting of policy that can ensure future social cohesion among the disparate groups who come to the city for the social and economic benefits it provides.

Ben Hopkinson is a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, studying for a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He is currently undertaking a week’s work experience with Bright Blue. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.