COVID-19 urged the European Association of Urban Historians to cancel its 2020-conference in Antwerp. With over 90% of all reported COVID-19 cases in cities, one of the most significant dimensions of the pandemic is its connection to urbanisation and urban inequality in especially. In a recent policy report the United Nations went as far as to conclude: “The pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, with the sharpest fault lines evident in our cities. Without inclusive cities and urban development, the impacts of future shocks and stress may be as acute as – or greater than – they have been during the current outbreak. If cities continue to be divided starkly along lines of income, service access, race, and migration status, leaving no one behind will be progressively more difficult. Investing in inclusive cities means investing in inclusive nations. Reducing urban inequalities is a cornerstone to ensure we are all better prepared for future shocks and crises and are able to thrive.” (United Nations, COVID-19 in an urban world, July 2020, p. 19). While the connection between urban density and the pandemic is by far not a deterministic one, pandemics cannot be defeated without adequately addressing urban inequality. Over the past decades social inequality had already been identified as one of the most pressing global challenges at the start of the 21st century. An alarming process of growing inequality in many countries throughout the world was said to disrupt societal stability, impede economic growth, even threaten the political foundations of democratic societies. Meanwhile global urbanization still continued at a fast pace and cities are often considered to be hotspots of growing polarization and rising inequality.
The main ambition of the EAUH is to reconsider the historical relationship between urbanization and inequality. For various reasons cities are indeed (perceived as) loci of inequality, in the past as well as today. Inequalities in wealth and income, but also in bodily health and integrity, in the access to political power, justice or education, or in the exposure to environmental hazards and nuisances, often seem more visible in cities, and especially in larger cities. Yet, cities are also drivers of economic growth and social emancipation. New forms of solidarity, cultural expression, concern for health or respect for non-human beings often originated in cities. As the city did not exist, the nexus between cities and inequality was far from stable. The social architecture of cities varied with the variety of functions fulfilled by different urban settlements across the urban hierarchy. The question whether or not specific forms of urbanization produced, reproduced or mitigated specific outcomes of social inequality is especially relevant.
The European Association of Urban Historians invites all scholars to reflect on the complex relationship between social inequality and the city. While traditionally social inequality is a preferential playing field for economic and social historians, the conference’s main goal is to tackle this vast theme from a multi-dimensional perspective. Social inequality is not only mirrored but also wrought in forces as different as spatial dynamics, gender, race and class relations, demographic structures, housing and sanitary conditions, labour markets, social security systems, literacy and education, crime, public transport, ecological concerns and so on. This interconnectedness is the very essence of urban social inequality, and more often than not it is also closely linked to historical path-dependencies. Hence, in order to adequately address the historical relationship between (in)equality and the city, a perspective is needed that includes the social, political, cultural, economic conditions thereof across urban societies.
On behalf of the European Association of Urban History and the local organizing committee Antwerp 2021
Peter Stabel, chair of the EAUH