Chesire examines mixed communities in Bolton seminar

“This talk is both scholarly and polemic,” began Paul Chesire, professor of economic geography at the London School of Economics, in a talk last Friday at the Oakley Center. Titled “Policies for Mixed Communities: Faith-Based Displacement Activity,” Chesire’s lecture critiqued policies that promote mixed communities – where individuals of lower socioeconomic status are given subsidies or other incentives to live in more affluent neighborhoods.

Chesire began by explaining that mixed communities have seen a resurgence since the 1980s and are now a feature of urban planning for many European Union countries. An early example of a mixed community is London’s Bedford Park, built in 1879 with the first subways. Despite its celebrated status as a model of urban planning, Bedford Park quickly became a high-income suburb with policies that kept the “wrong sorts of people” from moving in. Bedford Park’s failure would foreshadow the disappointments and ambiguous achievements of future mixed communities.

Current proponents of mixed communities point to the disadvantages of deprived neighborhoods, including high levels of crime, unattractive housing, few educational resources and scarce healthcare services. In the poorest 10 percent of neighborhoods, life expectancy is two years lower than the mean, and one third of the population has no formal education.

However, Chesire questioned whether the lower standard of living was caused by deprived neighborhoods or whether the lower standard of living was caused by poverty that is correlated with less expensive areas of cities. He set forward four questions to consider for evaluating mixed communities: is concentrated poverty worse than diffused poverty? If so, what is the extent of the benefit? What are the costs of mixed neighborhoods? Are mixed neighborhoods cost effective?

Chesire answered the first two by examining several recent studies. In general, these studies showed that after moving to more affluent neighborhoods, members of low-income families experienced a modest increase in health, particularly in mental health, apparently due to lower crime rates. Short-term studies also indicated that there were modest improvements in the behavior of children from low-income families in mixed neighborhoods compared to their peers in deprived neighborhoods.

Later studies focusing on adolescents, however, showed more complex and negative results. In one 2005 study, property crime rates increased for adolescent boys after they moved to mixed communities. Additionally, there were few economic gains for adults, and average income did not increase for low-income individuals living in mixed neighborhoods. Given these and other indicators, Chesire concluded that living in a mixed neighborhood was not life-enhancing in itself.

Turning to the third question, Chesire argued that neighborhoods differentiated by income levels help allocate facilities and services, in addition to providing job matching. Specialized neighborhoods are efficient for poorer neighborhoods as well as wealthier neighborhoods. “Neighborhoods for affluent people also have local services and public goods which attune to the demands of higher-income people – upmarket delis, fine restaurants, for example,” Chesire said. “If you’re poor, you can’t benefit from an upmarket restaurant – you would benefit more from cheap take-out.” Chesire added that many of the costs of mixed communities are hidden, whether in the planning process or through inefficient allocations of these services.

Chesire ended by mentioning alternatives to mixed neighborhoods that treat the underlying causes of poverty. With the costs and limited benefits of mixed neighborhoods, policies such as better policing or education may be both more effective and more equitable. In this sense, it is not only the few lucky individuals who move into mixed neighborhoods that benefit, but the entire deprived neighborhood in general. “There’s no obvious evidence that the poor derive positive externalities from living together with affluent, educated people,” Chesire said. “Maybe it’s just self-gratification for us well-meaning people.”

Colloquium

Chesire’s lecture was the last in a colloquium entitled “Understanding Place and the Economics of Space: Celebrating the Career of Roger Bolton.” The two-day event included presentations from Harvard professor Edward Glaeser, Williams Economics Department Chair Stephen Sheppard and a number of other scholars.

The colloquium honored Emeritus Professor of Economics Roger Bolton who retired from the department in 2003. He currently serves as a research associate at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Studies and recently coordinated the self-study for reaccreditation. Bolton, a member of the College community since 1966, specializes in regional and urban economics, geography, history of economic thought and the philosophy of Jurgen Habermas.

“Professor Bolton is very well-respected as both an economist and regional scientist,” Sheppard said. He explained that the College was invited by the International Regional Science Review to publish a special issue relating to Bolton’s numerous contributions to the field. “The co-editor [Shelby Gerking of the University of Central Florida] and I thought a good way of moving this project forward would be to have a small conference to bring people together and see the first draft of papers.”

This special issue of the Review will be published in late 2008 or early 2009.