Wealth and inequality seen from space

Most people know that inequality is high, just about everywhere. This is true between countries – Canada is a lot richer than Haiti – and within countries – the wealthiest 10% of Canadians are far richer than the poorest 10%.

Of course, inequality exists within cities as well. The blog Per Square Mile, written by Tim De Chant, has come up with an interesting way of showing this at a glance, using photos taken from space. As it turns out, poor neighbourhoods have fewer trees than rich neighbourhoods. So, using satellite images from Google Maps, you can actually get a pretty good picture of income inequality just by looking at tree cover. See the full post for several great examples, including Rio de Janeiro, Boston, and Beijing. (Hat tip: I came across this post thanks to one of my favourite blogs, I Love Charts)

Here’s my contribution to De Chant’s project: the Montreal neighbourhood I grew up in, Parc Extension (Parc Ex), and the neighbourhood right next door, the Town of Mount Royal (TMR).

Parc Extension at the top of the image, Town of Mount Royal at the bottom

The two neighbourhoods are separated by a single boulevard (and a sometimes controversial chain-link fence). But they’re demographically extremely different, as the image suggests, with TMR being much wealthier and much less densely populated. The tree cover and, I would suggest, the swimming pool count, show this disparity at a glance.

De Chant’s blog post reminds me of another post from the sadly defunct Aid Watch blog. The Aid Watch post pointed to a paper that uses the amount of light visible in nighttime satellite images as an indicator of economic growth. Growth, like inequality, is notoriously difficult to measure accurately, especially in developing countries. But the richer a country – or a region within a country – gets, the better its electricity supply is likely to be, and the more people are likely to be able to afford electricity in their homes. So, if the amount of light you can see from space grows over time, it’s fair to assume that the economy is growing as well.

To me, the most striking image from the Aid Watch post is a time-lapse comparison of the Korean peninsula. The image shows an explosion of light in South Korea between 1993 and 2008, and barely any change at all in North Korea during the same time period.

Light at night in the Korean peninsula

Read the full post from Aid Watch here, and read the working paper the images are taken from here.


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