Category Archives: Big Ideas

Spatial Justice: a more level playing field

A more level playing field? Change how the field is used

Cheong Suk-Wai meets a thinker in this fortnightly column, which alternates with her book review column The Big Read

For all of his adult life, American geographer Edward Soja has been championing spatial justice, or transforming urban areas to improve the quality of life of the poor

ASK American geographer Edward Soja why he has devoted his entire adult life to championing the idea of spatial justice, and he says: “I guess you could call it trying to increase happiness everywhere.”

That is because his life’s work has been to watch closely for ways in which cities are developed, lest they lead to prime land becoming playgrounds for the rich while the poor are left to languish in ghettos, steeped in pollution.

The focus of spatial justice is squarely on cities because its overcrowded environs intensify resentment and the sense of unfairness among people.

He was in Singapore recently to talk about spatial justice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He had first visited Singapore in the 1980s and then late last year, to talk to architectural students of the National University of Singapore about his work.

Professor Soja, 73, says: “I try to get people to realise that planning and deciding public policies all shape public places, and sometimes create bad spaces.

“But, more importantly, if we have made things worse, we can make things better too!”

His main argument is that by scrutinising how people interact in living spaces, you will begin to see all kinds of injustices, such as the best schools and roads being usually in the wealthier neighbourhoods. “This is a geography we have created,” he points out. “It is not something natural or inevitable.”

So understanding the dynamics that lead to, and entrench, inequalities will help you map out what he calls “the uneven geography of power and privilege” and enable everyone to see immediately which areas within a city need the most attention.

The one thing to remember, he says repeatedly during this interview, is that spatial justice cannot result in complete equality.

“That’s never going to happen,” he stresses, because living on Earth’s uneven surface – with those on mountains much poorer than those in valleys – creates its own inequalities.

“Friction and distance in geography are the main elements that lead to unequal human development,” he notes. “So where there is space, there will always be inequality.”

More seriously, he points out, once certain segments of society gain an advantage over an area, they not only prolong that advantage, but also sometimes extend it over wider areas.

“Whether it be occupying a favourite position in front of a TV set, shopping for food, finding a good school or finding a location to invest billions of dollars (in)… human activities not only are shaped by geographical inequalities but also play a role in producing and reproducing them.”

The point then, he says, is to improve life for the disadvantaged slowly but surely, while “embarrassing the wealthy” into lowering the barriers between them and the have-nots.

He muses: “One of the great myths that have to be dispelled is the idea that progress is a zero-sum game, that to improve the poor, the rich have to suffer terribly.”

For example, he points out, Singaporeans should acknowledge that part of their country’s stunning wealth today “came from the shoulders of its immigrant population”, given how much cheaper it has long been to hire foreigners for work here.

The rub is, he adds, the problems of the poor rarely get most people’s attention, and this lack of visibility makes it all the more harder to get justice for them, spatial or otherwise.

In that, Prof Soja has a cautionary tale to share: In 1996, a California court compelled Los Angeles’ public transport authority to put the needs of poor commuters above those of the rich for 10 years. That was after the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union (BRU) sued the authority for discrimination because it spent more money building highways than subways or buying more buses. This meant that those who owned cars benefited more than those who were dependent on public transport.

Unhappily, Prof Soja adds, the footnote to this landmark case was that in 2000, when a Spanish-speaking Hispanic man in Alabama sued the transport authority there because the all-English driving test discriminated against him, the US Supreme Court ruled that any American who alleges discrimination had first to show that the discriminating party intended to be unfair.

Worse, the same court added, no private person or organisation could sue the US government for discrimination. That stopped the impact of BRU in its tracks.

So, yes, spatial justice is still very much a work in progress.

In that vein, he pooh-poohs economists who reason that most people today are jobless because the Information Age has rendered their jobs obsolete and that is why they have dropped out of the market. “That’s silly because there are so many other things causing it, including changing geographies in cities that are creating new inequalities.”

For example, few would link a spike in divorces, suicides and spousal and child abuse to the daily drudge of commuting to and from work. But Prof Soja’s long and deep studies of his home base Los Angeles show that spending four hours to travel from one’s home to one’s office, and back, exerts such a toll on one’s self-worth that it is a major factor in families breaking up.

So by, say, finding ways either to reduce time spent travelling or to enable employees to live closer to their workplaces, the bonds of family are less likely to fray.

Prof Soja’s parents were uneducated Polish immigrants. His father drove a taxi while his mother was a housewife. From the age of 10, he says, he was fascinated by maps and travel stories, although he travelled “only in my mind”. Now a married father of two and grandfather of three, he is a distinguished don in urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles as well as the London School of Economics.

In December last year, the 109-year-old non-profit society Association of American Geographers awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Honour for reshaping the relationship between people and the city.

Pioneering Singaporean architect William Lim says of Prof Soja, who is his friend: “For more than 30 years, Edward has shaped spatial justice such that it is now a respected conversation topic.”

suk@sph.com.sg Continue reading

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What drives success? The Triple Package of traits

A SEEMINGLY un-American fact about America today is that for some groups, much more than others, upward mobility and the American dream are alive and well. It may be taboo to say it, but certain ethnic, religious and national-origin groups are doing strikingly better than Americans overall.

Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly $90,000 per year in median household income versus $50,000). Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners. In the last 30 years, Mormons have become leaders of corporate America, holding top positions in many of America’s most recognizable companies. These facts don’t make some groups “better” than others, and material success cannot be equated with a well-lived life. But willful blindness to facts is never a good policy.

Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based. Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.

The most comforting explanation of these facts is that they are mere artifacts of class — rich parents passing on advantages to their children — or of immigrants arriving in this country with high skill and education levels. Important as these factors are, they explain only a small part of the picture.

Today’s wealthy Mormon businessmen often started from humble origins. Although India and China send the most immigrants to the United States through employment-based channels, almost half of all Indian immigrants and over half of Chinese immigrants do not enter the country under those criteria. Many are poor and poorly educated. Comprehensive data published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2013 showed that the children of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese immigrants experienced exceptional upward mobility regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic or educational background.

Take New York City’s selective public high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, which are major Ivy League feeders. For the 2013 school year, Stuyvesant High School offered admission, based solely on a standardized entrance exam, to nine black students, 24 Hispanics, 177 whites and 620 Asians. Among the Asians of Chinese origin, many are the children of restaurant workers and other working-class immigrants.

Merely stating the fact that certain groups do better than others — as measured by income, test scores and so on — is enough to provoke a firestorm in America today, and even charges of racism. The irony is that the facts actually debunk racial stereotypes.

There are some black and Hispanic groups in America that far outperform some white and Asian groups. Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana, and Haiti, are climbing America’s higher education ladder, but perhaps the most prominent are Nigerians. Nigerians make up less than 1 percent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry; over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites.

Cuban-Americans in Miami rose in one generation from widespread penury to relative affluence. By 1990, United States-born Cuban children — whose parents had arrived as exiles, many with practically nothing — were twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to earn over $50,000 a year. All three Hispanic United States senators are Cuban-Americans.

Meanwhile, some Asian-American groups — Cambodian- and Hmong-Americans, for example — are among the poorest in the country, as are some predominantly white communities in central Appalachia.

MOST fundamentally, groups rise and fall over time. The fortunes of WASP elites have been declining for decades. In 1960, second-generation Greek-Americans reportedly had the second-highest income of any census-tracked group. Group success in America often tends to dissipate after two generations. Thus while Asian-American kids overall had SAT scores 143 points above average in 2012 — including a 63-point edge over whites — a 2005 study of over 20,000 adolescents found that third-generation Asian-American students performed no better academically than white students.

The fact that groups rise and fall this way punctures the whole idea of “model minorities” or that groups succeed because of innate, biological differences. Rather, there are cultural forces at work.

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success.

It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it’s precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself. Add impulse control — the ability to resist temptation — and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment. Continue reading

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Ideas that Matter

Ever had a feeling that whatever we are discussing has a bigger name to it? That the complexities of the issue not withstanding… there is really a name to all these parts?

A personal dictionary of IDEAS, BIG EXCITING NOUNS (!)  that have a bearing on our understanding of the world is an invaluable resource for any GP student – heck, it is valuable resource for anyone who has a stake in communicating his thoughts.

A dictionary of ideas (more than the sampling provided in Themes of the World) is a starting point that enhances our understanding of the world, its movements, the possibilities emerging, and gives us LANGUAGE to label the intellectual world.

Some examples:

Eco affluence. Commodification. Commercialism. Scientisim. Welfare. Aesthetics.  

Enrichment materials for self-learning. Download Big Ideas

Once again, TED (with its tagline ‘ideas worth spreading’) takes the prize for the most up-to-date and engaging resource to build literacy in both the scientific and cultural aspects. http://www.ted.com/watch/topics

2 books I’d recommend, easily available from Kinokuniya (add to cart!)

Ideas That Matter : The Concepts That Shape the 21st Century (Reprint)50 Big Ideas You Really Need to Know -- Hardback

Ideas that matter – concepts that shape the 21st century

50 Big Ideas you really need to know