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Towards mapping the impact of multiple inequalities on political participation and the quality of Democracy

Written by Alfonso Alfonsi, Maresa Berliri, Daniele Mezzana (K&I, Rome)

The public discourse about inequality is gaining saliency both at the global and local levels. The Fairville initiative can offer fresh approaches to tackle the issue in its many dimensions. To this purpose, we are engaged in constructing an initial information base to map the impact of multiple inequalities on political participation, democratic quality, and social stability in the urban context. 

The first step has been to collate existing data sources on the various types of inequalities in both diachronic and spatial terms to identify the various intersections between inequalities, participation, and quality of democracy.

This produced a first tool, in the form of a reasoned and annotated repository of resources offering data relevant to the Fairville topics at both the global and the local level. It included a description of the sources on inequalities and political participation, the kind of data they provide, main interpretations, and emerging trends, both on inequality and on the quality of democracy. It includes also the actual, searchable, repository of all the resources found on the phenomena of inequality and political participation.

The second step is ongoing and involves a review and analysis of existing scientific literature linking inequalities and political participation.

These sources are going to be integrated (and this is the third step) by “citizen-generated data” through the collection of narratives and biographies of engagement among SCI actors per each of the Fairville Labs, as well as with the consultation of locally relevant key informants and stakeholders.

These three different rounds of data generation will feed a common database and be analysed to map the impact of multiple inequalities on political participation and democratic quality that will provide an overview of contextual challenges and configurations.

From the first overview of the sources collected, inequality has emerged as a complex, multifaceted phenomenon that needs to be analysed by considering different areas of human well-being and different types of data sources (datasets, maps, reports, scientific articles, platforms, etc.).

So, consideration must be given to the multiple impacts of inequality on people and social entities as the result of large concomitant economic, social and environmental dynamics that impact different population groups in many different ways (intersectional approach). In recent years megatrends and calamities such as Covid-19 have further worsened the inequalities of many vulnerable groups.

It is also highlighted that major progress in fulfilling basic needs has only partially moderated inequalities among some population groups. Evidence suggests that gaps in more advanced accomplishments persist or are widening. In fact, several data sources point to the re-emergence of economic inequality (e.g., in Europe since 1980), its persistence or decrease in some areas of the world, as well as growing inequality in the labor market. In any case, despite progress in some countries, income and wealth are increasingly concentrated at the top tier of society. For instance, in Europe in the last 25 years, the difference in wealth between the top 1 % and the lowest 50% of the population has significantly increased as shown in the table below.

Source: World Inequality Database (WID)

Some of the collected interpretations are focused on inequality within spatial dynamics, e.g., spatial segregation by income within metropolitan areas, the economic differences between city and country, regional differences, as well as the multiple factors impacting on urban and territorial inequalities. According to the United Nations, by the year 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in cities. However, the UN also estimates that 1 in 8 people in the world currently live in slums; furthermore, slum populations are growing at a rate of 4.5% per year. Some authors speak about rising inequalities leading to rising levels of socio-economic segregation almost everywhere in the world. Levels of inequality and segregation are higher in cities in lower-income countries, but the growth in inequality and segregation is faster in cities in high-income countries, which leads to a convergence of global trends (Urban socio-economic segregation and income inequality – A global Perspective). Different methods have been defined to measure urban inequalities, such as that proposed by UCL (The Urban dimensions of Inequality and equality, 2021) or that proposed by TADAMUN  for Spatial analysis for Urban Cairo in 2021  as well as to draft spatial map of inequality (see also example the the Atlas of the “Zones Urbaines Sensibles ‒ ZUS” of France). Linked to these interpretations there is the claim to territorial and spatial justice. 

For what concerns political participation, the aim is to go beyond the forms of citizen consultation and enrichment of decision-making process within a representative democracy framework and recognize and document the many and diverse paths that citizen’s engagement can take in deprived areas, giving raise to significant experiences of bottom-up democratic participation, such as parallel planning, self-managed initiatives about urban green space, knowledge co-production, actions to foster the “right to the city,” the creation of support networks and the like but also protests. All of them are expressions of the willingness of citizens to be lead actors in those processes of urban development that directly affect their lives and well-being.

As for quality of democracy, we have focused on the ways in which the major institutes that provide measures of democracy have operationalized it. The Varieties of Democracy project (V-dem) has individuated seven key principles of democracy, which taken together provide a fairly comprehensive understanding of the concept: electoral, liberal, majoritarian, consensual, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian. Out of these principles five independent indexes have been produced. The result is a multidimensional and disaggregated dataset that provides information relevant to our purpose.

On the other end, the Democracy Index of the Economist is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. Based on its scores on a range of indicators within these categories, each country is then classified as one of four types of regimes: “full democracy”, “flawed democracy”, “hybrid regime” or “authoritarian regime”.

From the first consideration of these data sets democracy (and its quality) results as a complex system of rule that goes beyond the simple presence of elections and that must be analysed at different levels and considering diverse variables.

In these last years the sources considered point to some phenomena that are relevant to Fairville concerns.

“Democracy appears to be in decline, whether we look at big changes in the number of democracies and the people living in them; at small changes in the extent of democratic rights; or at medium-sized changes in the number of, and people living in, countries that are autocratising.” (B. Herre in Our World in Data)

Global levels of democracy are sliding back and advances made over the past 35 years diminishing. Most of the drastic changes have taken place within the last ten years. The indicators deteriorating the most include media censorship, disinformation, repression of civil society organizations and academic freedom (Varieties of Democracy project - 2023 Report). The Report describes the evolution of the democracy indicators from 1971 till 2021 at the global, regional, and national level for each world country. The project provides also a report for each world country describing the democracy evolution over time. 

Globally, voter turnout has decreased in recent decades at the national level with most countries posting lower voter turnout in recent elections than in those that took place 20-30 years ago, a phenomenon that has been described as voter apathy, or voter suppression. (Our World in Data - Voter turnout by country). 

The table below shows this decline in each of the seven Fairville Labs countries.

Variation in voter turnout by country


% variation

Years and percentage values



1981: 94,87 → 2019: 88.38



1987: 50.32 → 2020: 29.07



1981: 70.35 → 2022: 46.23



1980: 88.57 → 2021: 76.58



1989: 84.50 → 2023: 53.74



1990: 79.69 → 2020: 31.95



1983: 56.00 → 2022: 46.64

United Kingdom


1992: 77.83 → 2019: 67.55

Source: K&I elaboration from Our World in Data – Voter turnout

Even at the local level, the same type of phenomena is observed, which obviously manifest themselves differently depending on the contexts.

The relationship between inequality, participation, and democracy is the subject of increasing attention. As far as our mapping work is concerned, we intend to consider, first of all, the interconnections and impacts between inequalities and participation (e.g., situations in which inequalities discourage or motivate participation, or forms of inequality within the participatory phenomena themselves). In this context, it is also important to consider the level of participation and engagement of particular categories of people like women, youth, people with disabilities, ethnic minority groups, etc., studied at the national level or in some cases at local/municipal levels, using an intersectional approach. On the other hand, we aim to identify the emerging criticalities of the relationship between inequalities and participation with respect to the quality of democracy and its stability (regarding, for example, the crisis of representative democracy, or the processes of autocratisation).

All this may take the form of a 'concept map', to organise and represent this knowledge, and which may not only be a further source for Fairville's actions, but also the basis for future research and activities. 

This work, which will be completed in February 2025, will involve a number of steps relating to: i) identify the domain of the map; ii) define/construct the focus question that will be addressed; iii) define the key concepts that apply to the chosen domain; iv) define a list of concepts, to be ordered; v) selecting the concepts and materially insert them into the map; vi) insert links between concepts; vii. validate and finalize the map; viii. (where possible) update and revise the map periodically. The concept map will be grounded on the annotated repository of resources described above, and on the on-going literature review and the citizen generated data by interviews and narratives.

Given the Fairville approach, it will be essential that the concept map be co-constructed. In fact, there are several ways to set up concept mapping exercises and before making our concept map, we would like to co-define some issues, starting from these questions. 

  • What are the purposes that we want to achieve with the map? The map, for example, might provide  researchers with suggestions and inputs on specific issues to investigate; suggest specific interventions and actions to policymakers, legislators, and public administrators; provide civil society organisations and activists with inputs for inspiring new activities, increasing the effectiveness and relevance of their actions or promoting advocacy initiatives; propose to FVLabs inputs and information on obstacles and enabling factors for their actions of co-production of urban planning, environmental risk management, etc. 

  • What kind of content do we want to represent on the map? Are there specific topics that have to be included in the map? The map might include, for example, concepts, descriptions of phenomena, experiences, bottom-up initiatives on different forms of political participation ‒ including protests ‒ and different kinds of inequalities, including Fairville topics - housing, environmental risk, access to social services, co-production, territorial justice, etc. 

  • Who should use the map (researchers, policy makers, activists, community leaders, etc.) in which context and at what level (global, regional, municipal, or local)? Which form should be used?

  • Based on this point of view, who has to be involved in the collaborative mapping activity?  For example, members of the FVLabs, researchers, leaders of civil society organisations and community-based organisations, public administrators and policy makers, experts, etc. might be involved in the co-production of the map. 

The answers to these questions will help us in the coming months in the work necessary for the realization of the concept map.



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