Inclusiveness is a worthy policy goal, but in practice turns out to be devilishly hard to measure. A recent report from the Urban Institute shows some of the pitfalls: looking just within city boundaries ignores metropolitan context and gives a distorted picture of which places are inclusive.

(Editor’s note:  Over the next several days, City Observatory will be taking an in-depth look at a recent report from the Urban Institute that attempts to measure and rank the inclusiveness of US cities. “Inclusion” has become one of the most popular buzzwords in the urban realm right now. While it seems like the term is simple, and agreement over its merit–the idea of reducing unwarranted inter-group disparities–the practical business of defining and measuring it is not at all simple.)

Achieving a more inclusive nation,  more inclusive metropolitan areas, more inclusive cities, and more inclusive neighborhoods is a critical national priority.  Fifty years after the Fair Housing Act, America remains deeply divided by race, and there’s strong evidence that we’ve become more segregated by income. As we’ve stressed at City Observatory, concentrated poverty makes all of the pathologies of poverty worse. But this is not a simple problem, and is difficult and potentially misleading to characterize with seemingly obvious statistics relating inter-group disparities within cities. We think a recent Urban Institute report, Measuring Inclusion in America’s Cities, while well-intentioned, falls prey to some of the complexities of describing the nature of segregation and separation.

We want to stress that we have enormous respect for the researchers at the Urban Institute: over the years we’ve learned tremendously from their work. We and everyone who cares about cities has a huge debt for their scholarship and advocacy. They’ve provided powerful evidence of the huge economic and human toll continuing racial and economic disparities in their report “The Cost of Segregation.” Our own report on concentrated poverty Lost in Place, draws liberally from the canonical work by the Urban Institute. The critique presented here is meant to advance our shared understanding of how we can build more inclusive cities. We conferred with the authors of the report earlier this year and shared these concerns with them. The analysis presented here remains solely the responsibility of City Observatory.

Our analysis is divided into five parts. First, we address some of the broad conceptual issues in defining inclusiveness, and explore why disparities and inequality, particularly when measured for small geographies defy easy interpretation. Part one is presented in this commentary; future commentaries will address the other four issues. Second, we take a close look at the limits of city boundaries as a frame for measuring inclusion,arguing that the varied and fragmentary geography of cities is a poor lens for understanding actual  disparities,. Third, we explore a particular problem of using cities to measure change over time, showing that annexations and boundary changes easily confound measurement and comparisons. Fourth, we question whether racially homogenous cities in a deeply segregated metropolitan area can be regarded as meaningfully inclusive. Fifth, we ask whether it’s appropriate to rank some of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs as its “most inclusive” communities.

This post introduces the Urban Institute report, and considers discusses the difficult and often paradoxical connections between city inequality, diversity and inclusion.


If there’s a mantra in urban economic development, its all about inclusivity.

The Urban Institute Report:  Measuring Inclusion

Earlier this year, the Urban Institute released a new report, “Measuring Inclusion in America’s Cities.” The study is based on developing a series of metrics of racial disparities, income disparities and economic performance of the nation’s 274 largest cities, and examining how these have changed over time. It aims to benchmark where cities stand on inclusion, understand how inclusion relates to economic growth, and provide lessons for policy makers.

The report attracted predictable attention.  CityLab‘s article “America’s Most Inclusive Cities, Mapped,” called the report a “roadmap for a deliberate effort to mitigate the forces that have created unequal communities.”  Next City’s story, “Why it matters who get’s to shape a city’s economy,” reported that Urban Institute’s researchers had identified four cities–Louisville, Lowell, Midland and Columbus, OH, that had experienced “inclusive recoveries,” i.e. growth their economies and made progress on measures of racial and economic inclusion. As CityLab related:

 The ten cities faring the best on the inclusion metrics in 2013 were also flourishing economically. “There is a strong relationship between the economic health of a city and a city’s ability to support inclusion for its residents,” the authors write in the report.

We’ve taken a close look at the report, and while well-documented and certainly well-intended, we’re concerned that some of the metrics it offers and some of the findings it presents make an already tortuously difficult policy area even more confusing.

Part 1. What constitutes “inclusion?”

Paradoxically, at the very local level equality is fundamentally at odds with inclusion

On its face, it seems like defining inclusion would be simple. It ought to be the absence of disparities in a community. But the reality its much more complicated. Measured economic disparities in a city can be very small, if for example, everyone is rich or everyone is poor.

Urban Institute’s report measures two different dimensions of inclusion, racial inclusion and economic inclusion. In the case of racial inclusion, they look at segregation (whether the white and non-white residents of a particular live in different or similar neighborhoods), and whether there are disparities in educational attainment and home-ownership between whites and non-whites. They also look at the total fraction of the population of a city that is non-white.

In almost every case, the Urban Institute report defines inter-group disparities as an indicator of a lack of inclusion. If, for example, homeownership rates differ greatly between persons of color and whites, that suggests an area isn’t inclusive.

With each of these measures, cities score highest if they have very little inter-group variation.  If white and non-white incomes, unemployment rates, and homeownership rates are very similar, the Urban Institute defines an city as “inclusive.” For example, if everyone in a community is high income, regardless of race or ethnicity, then it is “inclusive.”  Similarly, if everyone in a community is low income, regardless of race or ethnicity, then it is also “inclusive.”

Equality is not the same as inclusivity

There’s some merit to this idea, but it’s really focusing on “equality” rather than “inclusion.”  It’s entirely possible for a community to be “equal” without at all being inclusive.  In fact, communities that are exclusive tend to be highly equal.  If, for example, you have a community where all housing costs at least $500,000 and there are no apartments, , it’s unlikely that you will have many poor, or unemployed, or renters. And it may be that there are very limited economic disparities between residents of different racial and ethnic groups (everyone who can afford to live in such a community, regardless of race or ethnicity, almost certainly has a high income).

Conversely, very inclusive places, where people of widely varying incomes reside, almost by definition have high levels of inequality. A community composed of equal measures rich and poor, homeowners and renters, and with a wide variety of housing sizes and types, including mansions and public housing, will have larger measured disparities in incomes, in homeownership rates, in poverty and so on. It’s a seeming paradox: a place that is truly diverse and inclusive, whether measured by income or race and ethnicity, by definition needs to unequal.

This is not the first time this issue has arisen: We’ve pointed out that applying a broad standard of equality to small geographic areas produces a kind of weird parallax effect: places that have low levels of measure income disparity tend to be homogenous (usually all rich, or all poor), meaning that they are either exclusive or failing. We wrestled with this issue in our own recent report America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods rather than labeling them racially or economically “inclusive,” we opted for neutral, statistical language “diverse” in the case of racial/ethnic characteristics, and “mixed income” in the case of economic characteristics.

The bottom line is that a truly inclusive place may in fact have high levels of measured disparity. As a result, there’s an important conceptual flaw in metrics that focus solely on the localized presence of disparities to discuss inclusion.  We think that’s a key reason to question the usefulness of the Urban Institute’s metrics. We’ll explore how this conceptual problem plays out across metropolitan areas, in central cities, and in suburbs, in the next posts in this series.