(Social): Session at the European Association for Urban History Conference: Cities in Motion 2020

How does inequality affect the social topography of cities? This session aims to explore recent insights in urban research that show an increase in inequalities from the Black Death to the dawn of the 20thC. Stimulated also by new generations of Historical GIS, we invite contributions on residential segregation and social topography to examine long run patterns of urban inequality.


Inequality is on the rise and this is increasingly seen as problematic. Its reduction features prominently on the list of Sustainable Development Goals advanced by the United Nations. Since Piketty’s Capital (2013) renewed attention has been paid to the long-term development of wealth – and to a lesser extent income – inequalities, with most historians and economists (Alfani, Scheidel, Milanović) observing an almost continuous rise in inequality, which apparently could only be curbed by catastrophic societal disruptions – think of both World Wars – and the significant redistributions of wealth that followed in their wake.

For (European) cities as well a significant increase in economic inequalities from the 15th century has been observed. Crucially, however, we lack insights into the mechanisms explaining increasing inequality and the geographic variations in inequality both between and within towns and cities.

In this EAUH session we seek to advance space as a promising way to explore evolutions in urban inequality. For an increasing number of towns and cities Historical GIS infrastructures have been developed which facilitate the mapping of wealth and income inequalities. Research on the social topography of cities often assumed that pre-1800 cities were mostly characterised by so-called ‘meso-segregation’, separating elite housing along main roads from the urban poor in back alleys ‘around the corner.’ In contrast, 19th and 20th century cities witnessed an increasing ‘macro-segregation’ between neighbourhoods with a clearly distinguished social profile. If this is so, the relationship between the history of inequality and the social topography of the city is subject to considerable interpretive change over time.

This session aims to confront recent advances in the study of urban inequality with studies of urban space and social topography. Topics which should be addressed include:

  • the spatial imprint of urban inequality
  • the use of Historical GIS to analyse inequality
  • the social fragmentation of neighbourhoods
  • the interaction between residential segregation and changes in welfare levels e.g. via the housing market
  • the impact of shocks (warfare, epidemics) on the social topography of cities
  • the relationship between individual social mobility and housing
  • the impact of policy decisions (clearances, infrastructural investment)

  • Spokesperson: Tim Soens, University of Antwerp
  • Co-organizer(s): Richard Rodger, University of Edinburgh
  • Keywords: History of inequality | Social topography | Urban space
  • Time period: All periods
  • Topic(s): Social | Geographic Information Systems
  • Study area: Europe