The Spatial Equity Paradox

Our cities grow and get better, but for whom?

‘California bill to extend school-choice law faces allegations of inequity’ – LA Times


By Justin Kearnan

Cities and, more specifically, our political leaders are burdened with a unique conundrum in human history: urban growth today provides far more opportunities to society, but to far fewer people. We call this the spatial equity paradox.

It gives me pause that there will be more development in my lifetime than there has been in the history of the world up to this point. Have we truly been prepared for doubling, tripling, or even quadrupling the population in our cities?

In 1/100th of the time?

I have seen access to jobs, fresh food, suitable housing, recreation, public transportation, amenities, health services and education increasingly deployed in greater concentrations within the cities I’ve inhabited. I have seen the residents of Los Angeles spend 47% of their income on housing, only 1-in-2 students graduate high school in East Chicago, and entire neighbourhoods in Oakland that only have fast food’s flavour-of-the-month as the option for family dinner. The mismatch between our high speed of urbanisation and our obsolete & sluggish infrastructure has corroded the foundations of social equity we’ve spent most of the modern era building.

The reality today is the top 0.1% of residents take in 188 times the income of the bottom 90%, and the cities we’re currently building help ensure the lion share of opportunities continue to concentrate around those at the top.

I don’t believe we can blame cities and political leaders for the spatial equity paradox.

Affordable housing tensions boil over in Logan Square


Political leaders have been faced with the unfortunate combination of unprecedented growth paired with a whirlwind of misinformation over the past three decades. They have been force fed a diet of piecemeal planning strategies reminiscent of a time when the largest industry was manufacturing and the sharing of information came in the form of a written letter. Surely their efforts to provide a bit of affordable housing here, and a pinch of light rail there helps – but a challenge as pervasive and omnipotent as spatial inequity commands an approach that is equally comprehensive and far reaching.

The discipline of urban design has fallen short. As urban designers it is our obligation to seek out and empower our political leaders and to provide them with new tools, the right methods, and the best information to make informed decisions. We simply haven’t held up our end of the bargain. City Collective recognises the generational challenge ahead of us and we have made spatial equity our priority in 2019.

Cities also require political leadership – the courage to first acknowledge that growth is inevitable and the humility to admit they do not yet have the tools to cope with it. Cities need to embrace new, comprehensive city-wide approaches that tackle the spatial equity paradox head on.

City Collective has created a new tool, SEAM (Spatial Equity Access Mapping), which is aimed at informing decision-makers about the current status and future considerations for spatial equity. SEAM is used as:

  • a framework for City Councils to evaluate potential development’s impacts on equity
  • a roadmap for City Councils to deploy infrastructure/transportation equitably
  • a resource for Real Estate Developers to consider equity-positive uses & products
  • a tool for Community Housing Providers to focus their effort and products

I believe spatial equity is the challenge that will define the success or failure of city-building in the 21st century’s Age of Urbanisation. It’s a tough challenge for this generation and City Collective will not shirk our responsibility in tackling this issue. Will you join us?