Heading for a big city? Be warned: they harbour big inequality

As cities get bigger, the people that live in them get richer – or, at least, some do.

Over the past few years, researchers have noted that, almost universally, cities with larger populations have better average wealth, higher productivity and interconnectivity than smaller cities. This phenomenon has been called “urban scaling”.

But a new paper in Nature Human Behaviour shows these benefits are not felt evenly.

“The higher-than-expected economic outputs of larger cities critically depend on the extreme outcomes of the successful few,” says study co-author Marc Keuschnigg, associate professor at the Institute for Analytical Sociology at Linköping University, Sweden.

“Ignoring this dependency, policy makers risk overestimating the stability of urban growth, particularly in the light of the high spatial mobility among urban elites and their movement to where the money is.”

The researchers examined data from cities in Sweden, Russia and the US, finding that earnings and urban interconnectivity were very unequal.

Read more: How high are Australian cities’ liveability, really?

They then traced data from 1.4 million Swedish wage earners over time, finding that those who found success early in large cities did better over time than those who were successful in small cities. “Typical” wage earners, on the other hand, had the same trajectories regardless of the size of the city.

This means that the inequality was exacerbated the most in big cities. Given that large cities are generally more expensive to live in, this means that average and low-income earners in big cities can be worse off than their small-city counterparts.

“Urban science has largely focused on city averages. The established approach just looked at one datapoint per city, for example average income,” says Keuschnigg.

“With their focus on averages, prior studies overlooked the stark inequalities that exist within cities when making predictions about how urban growth affects the life experiences of city dwellers.”

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