Investigating Inequity in the Contexts of a Global Health Crisis and the Social Organization of Cities

Professor Luis Bettencourt of the Department of Ecology and Evolution recently published two papers that tackle the issue of social disparity in different contexts and suggest possible directions for mitigation. The first one does so by looking at mortality rates in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Sweden during the COVID-19 pandemic. The second one examines how the social organization of US cities may influence implicit racial biases and how such understanding might lead to designing for less biased urban areas.

COVID-19 and marginalized communities

As the COVID-19 pandemic fueled the debate on unequal health outcomes between urban populations in different neighborhoods, Dr. Bettencourt and collaborators in the US and Sweden set out to examine whether mortality rates from COVID-19 were higher among marginalized communities in Sweden in 2020. Availing themselves of the uniquely detailed and complete data from the entire population of Swedes aged 15 or above from that year, they were able to ascertain whether living in ethnically segregated and socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods led to higher fatality for individuals from COVID-19. Their findings, published in Scientific Reports last week, offer “new evidence on neighborhood effects on individual health outcomes in the context of a world-wide pandemic” and may surprise some.

Analyses of the geo-coded micro-level data showed that individuals living in disadvantaged communities in Sweden were not more likely to die with COVID-19 compared with people residing elsewhere. Instead, the health effect of living in marginalized communities in Sweden manifests in a higher-than-expected general mortality rate, in pandemic and non-pandemic times alike. While the recent pandemic “has highlighted the vulnerability of marginalized neighborhoods at a time of crisis,” the study’s authors write in conclusion, “we are learning that the best defense against the next pandemic may well be the systemic improvement of health conditions in disadvantaged communities at all times.”



Organization of cities and implicit biases

Given the detrimental effects across almost all aspects of life of implicit racial and ethnic biases, many studies have sought to understand their origins and how to mitigate them. Recent investigations have shown that implicit biases are driven more by social environments than by individual attitudes, and that city organization exerts a strong influence on social interactions and contexts. This prompted the authors of a new paper out last week in Nature Communications to ask: are there general ways in which urban environments might shape implicit biases?

In a collaboration that wove together diverse fields such as psychology, neuroscience, and urban science, researchers from the U.S. and Austria set out to answer this question by developing a complex system mathematical model linking the properties of cities with implicit psychological biases. The model predicts that larger, more diverse, and less segregated cities have lower levels of implicit racial biases, which is supported by Implicit Association Test data spanning a decade from 2.7 million individuals in U.S. cities and U.S. Census demographic data. The study marks a step towards “a principled and theoretical basis to reveal how the organization of people in cities may systematically influence [implicit] biases.” Equipped with such understandings, the study concludes, there may eventually be ways to leverage ecological situations in the form of “city organization and structure…to systematically intervene and design for less biased urban areas.”