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Urban segregation and social inequalities: towards a metropolitan social agenda

Ismael Blanco

Professor of Political Science at the UAB and Director of the IGOP

Thirteen years have passed since the bursting of the housing bubble, which ushered in the Great Recession. After a few years of timid economic recovery, we have once again experienced a great global crisis, derived in this case from the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The cumulative effects of these two great crises are far-reaching and structural in nature: their footprint, from the point of view of social inequalities, is profound and will foreseeably last for a long time. The economic recovery after the Great Recession took place on a growth model that perpetuated job and residential precariousness for large segments of the population. The effects of the COVID-19 crisis are raining down wet.

The data that the Institute of Regional and Metropolitan Studies of Barcelona has recently published show the serious social effects of the pandemic in the metropolitan area of Barcelona (IERMB, 2020). In 2020, the average income of households fell by 20% compared to 2018. Social inequality returned to the level it was in 2011. Moderate poverty has increased between 4 and 5 percentage points in 2020. Population at risk of extreme poverty has grown by some 5,000 more people. And these effects are particularly intense in segments of the population that previously had great economic vulnerability, such as the working classes, children, the young population and immigrants: poverty among the working classes grows, while managers and professionals they avoid its impact; child poverty increases by 7 percentage points; the migrant population at risk of poverty increases between 5 and 10 points and today it is already close to 40%, in contrast to 13% of the autochthonous population; young people in the whole of Spain have had a drop in income four times higher than that of adults (20% compared to 5%). The effects of the crisis on the mental health of the population –another critical aspect of the pandemic– also show a strong gender and class bias, with a prevalence of this type of problem that is 10 points higher in women than in women. men and 6 points higher in youth from vulnerable neighborhoods than in wealthy neighborhoods. And the crisis only exacerbates the vulnerabilities of those neighborhoods and municipalities that had barely recovered from the effects of the Great Recession.

As a result of the accumulation of the effects of these two great crises, the socio-spatial structure of the metropolis today appears much more fragmented and polarized. From the social point of view, the effects of both crises present, as we have seen, strong class, gender, age and origin biases. In order to understand these effects and the challenges they pose, we need to adopt an intersectional perspective, sensitive to the interaction of the set of sociodemographic factors that place certain groups (such as young migrants, single-parent mothers with low socio-educational levels, older people with low incomes and who live alone ...) in a situation of extreme social vulnerability. We must also learn more about the territorial inequalities that occur within the metropolis and the resulting dynamics of urban segregation.

In several studies carried out over the last few years, we have been able to show a significant increase in inequality in the living conditions of different metropolitan neighborhoods and municipalities. Today, both the situations of poverty and social vulnerability and those of wealth and well-being tend to be much more concentrated territorially than in the past. Between 2001 and 2012, the number of vulnerable census sections (those with the highest levels of social and residential vulnerability) increased by 112% in the Metropolitan Region of Barcelona; In the same period, the number of accommodated census tracts (those with the highest levels of socio-residential well-being) increased by more than 300% (Blanco and Nel·lo, 2018). And, what is more worrying: this increase in territorial polarization, accelerated by the dynamics of residential change during the real estate bubble and aggravated by the unequal distribution of the social effects of the crisis, has today experienced a scale jump of such magnitude that inequalities occur today between municipalities and between trans-municipal axes, rather than between neighborhoods within the same municipality. Returning to the data generated by the IERMB on the social effects of the pandemic, in 2020, 51% of the inhabitants of Santa Coloma de Gramenet, for example, reside in extremely vulnerable neighborhoods; in Cornellà de Llobregat, 28%; in Hospitalet de Llobregat, 27%, and in Badalona, ??26%. The differences in income level between the different metropolitan municipalities are also intense and tend to become chronic: the Gross Available Family Income per inhabitant in Sant Cugat del Vallès, for example, is 75% higher than that of Santa Coloma de Gramenet (€ 24,800 versus € 14,200).

The challenges posed by the aforementioned social and territorial dynamics are far-reaching and have strong implications for municipal and metropolitan policies. On the one hand, we cannot ignore the fact that, despite strong limitations of competence and resources, municipalities play an essential role as the first line of response to social emergencies that arise during the crisis. Given the growing territorial concentration of social needs, it is necessary to reinforce the territorial sensitivity of social policies and the intervention capacity of the government spheres closest to the people. But, precisely because socio-territorial inequalities increasingly have an inter-municipal scope, we must also bear in mind that institutional response capacities are also very unequal, being significantly lower in those municipalities where the most vulnerable situations are precisely concentrated. For example, a recent study shows that 75% of the vulnerable population (defined, in this case, as those living in census tracts with a median income corresponding to the lower decile) is concentrated in the municipalities of the first quartile by income level and 96%, in municipalities that have per capita income below the average (Checa, Donat and Nel·lo, 2022).

Municipalism, by itself, today can be a reproductive factor of social inequalities. We need to move towards a metropolitan social agenda, whose redistributive policies reinforce the capacity for institutional action of the municipalities where the situations in which the social need is greatest are concentrated. We also need territorial and housing policies that moderate the dynamics of metropolitan residential segregation. The measures that could allow us to advance in this direction are many and diverse, but two particularly urgent and significant could be highlighted: 1) the review of the financing model of municipalities, in particular of the criteria by which transfers are granted to other administrations , which should consider the socioeconomic variables when determining the amounts, in order to guarantee the principle of horizontal equity, which is not being fulfilled today (Vilalta, 2015), and 2) promote redistributive socio-territorial policies, as could be a Metropolitan Neighborhood Plan, which would make it possible to reinforce spending and investments in those municipalities that concentrate the neighborhoods with the greatest social vulnerability.


Blanco, I.; Nel·lo, O. (2018): Barrios y crisis. Crisis económica, segregación urbana e innovación social. València: Tirant Lo Blanch.

Checa, J.; Donat, C.; Nel·lo, O. (2022): “La segregación residencial y los recursos municipales”. A: Blanco, I.; Gomà, R. (coord.), Vidas segregadas. Reconstruir fraternidad. València: Tirant Lo Blanch (pròxima publicació).

IERMB (2021): La metròpoli (post)-COVID. Impactes, escenaris i reptes. Barcelona: IERMB/AMB.

Vilalta, M. (ed.) (2015): Autonomía y equidad en la financiación municipal: dos principios compatibles. Barcelona: UB.

Social inequalities, municipal resources and metropolitan funding ”, is a conference organized by the Catalunya Catalunya Foundation, the Barcelona Metropolitan Strategic Plan (PEMB) and the Club of Rome, which is part of the“ Multilevel Metropolis ”debate series of the participatory process Barcelona Demà Compromís Metropolità 2030, launched by the PEMB.You will find more information about the session here.