Governing Urban Diversity

In the last decades cities have become more diverse than ever before. Individuals who at first sight appear to belong to a fixed group may show different attitudes and behaviours. They may live in the same neighbourhood, but lead very different lives and have access to different opportunities. A European research team examined how cities can deal with and benefit from this diversity.

DIVERCITIES is the name of a research program which had conducted a comparative study from 2013 until 2017 in 13 European cities and Toronto. Their central hypothesis is that urban diversity is an asset. It can be a strength rather than a burden. It can positively affect social cohesion, social mobility and economic performance. According to them a re-think of public policies and governance models is needed to make more intelligent use of diversity’s potential.
Last month I visited their concluding conference. In this article a summary of the results by using extensively (copy-paste) the policy reviews they have written (Divercities, 2013, 2014a, 2014b, 2015, 2016a, 2016b).

Uniform or divers?
One of the critical lessons is that more awareness of and insight in neighbourhood level diversity is necessary to inform
public policymaking and social action. We have to move away from the term diversity, because it has to many definitions and understandings. The researchers introduces the term hyper-diversity, which takes account of the fact that, for example, a group of young poor Indian-born men living in a London neighbourhood may on first sight be considered as a very homogeneous group. But at a closer sight they may in fact be very heterogeneous, for example because some men of this group like watching sports on television at home, another part of the group's main activity may be a constant contact with the family in India (by email, Skype, Facebook, etc.), while a third section of the group likes to hang around the neighbourhood square and mainly talks with native Londoners. This makes the, on first sight, rather homogeneous group with respect to age, ethnicity and socio-economic situation quite heterogeneous in activities and places where these activities take place. The researches argue that there are no minorities. Everyone is a minority. To emphasize this Rikke Skovgaard Nielsen from the Aalborg University showed this striking video at the conference:

Hyper-diversity acknowledges that people belonging to the same population or ethnic group may show quite different attitudes in the work place, school, or at home towards other groups; and they may have very different daily and lifetime routines that should be considered. This altogether leads to people carrying out very different types of activities, some of them using the home as the main place to be, some using the street as their focal point, some using the city as the place to be and some using the whole world, by contacting their families and friends through the internet.

With other words: we now live in societies in which the traditional categories explain only a small part of how people act and what people’s chances in society are. Standardized views that look at the ethnic or cultural background of an individual as a primary reason of failure or success (with a standard expectation of ‘integration’) may not be realistic today. Instead, considering the complexities and dynamism in cities, an individual’s success or failure in a city (or an area) may be affected by the possibilities this area provides him or her to develop relationships, businesses, lifestyles, new activities, etc.

Countries or cities?
National governments (and media) are often becoming increasingly hostile to all kinds of diversity. In most countries in recent years there has been a clear move away from an agenda promoting multiculturalism towards an increased use of the more restrictive terms assimilation and integration. New populist politics are asking for new boundaries. The growing hyper-diversity of cities is increasingly viewed by national governments as a threat to social cohesion. In a wonderful keynote speech Paul Scheffer (Professor at the School of Humanities, Tilburg University) talked about these challenges of integration. Giving a sharp analysis and recommendations about shaping the flow of migration, the lost heritage and social-economic and social-cultural conflicts.

In contrast to governments many cities choose a more pragmatic approach to diversity which promotes the positive aspects of difference for competitiveness and social cohesion. At the sub-metropolitan scale are some of the most progressive and innovative policies and understandings of diversity. Local projects are working with the day-to-day effects of economic and social change on the ground and in many cases have adopted pluralist and open approaches. See also these short videos about urban policies on diversity in for example Istanbul, Warsaw, Rotterdam, Budapest, Copenhagen and Antwerp.  

Integration or interculturality?
One of the main questions is who is integrating to whom and to what? While city policies often pursue a strategy of integration or assimilation, the analysed local arrangements focus instead on interculturality – on cultural dialogue and spaces for interactions. They have a more pluralist and inclusive approach than city governments and sense the need to create spaces of encounter where people meet on equal footing and mutually learn from each other. While the complexity of diversity is not adequately mirrored and supported by public policies and bodies, local governance arrangements often do have an eye for the potential advantages of diversity.
Today’s rich diversity cannot be reduced to standard macro-categories. The political awareness of hyper-diversity and the arrangements’ activities may increase policy effectiveness by allowing better targeting. One of the means for spreading out the notion of diversity as a positive asset to the city and to a neighbourhood is the quest towards breaking down dogmas and prejudices and thus limiting the negative consequences of diversity such as racism and discrimination.

 Source: Lepole

Spatial segregation or desegregation?
Especially when parts of society are hostile to migration, the presence of members of the same ethnic group in the neighbourhood provide ethnic minorities with higher levels of physical, psychological and social security. In addition, some people end up in diverse and/or deprived neighbourhoods because they cannot afford to live elsewhere. Policymakers and civil society organisations should take this into account when criticising the concentration of ethnic minorities and people living in poverty in certain neighbourhoods. They should be aware of the temporary benefits the spatial concentration of ethno-cultural minorities in certain neighbourhoods offers to newcomers and support the specialisation of these neighbourhoods as gateways for newcomers into their city and the broader society through the establishment of ‘arrival infrastructure’, for example neighbourhood centres, supportive school environments,
and self-run organisations (see also the book Arrival City). Negative effects concerning spatial segregation should be countered through further measures to support social integration through labour market, education and housing policies rather than through spatial desegregation policies, according to the research team.

Bonding or bridging?
In many cities, low-income individuals tend to have more ethnically diverse networks than the middle classes. This is mainly the result of low-income individuals having a larger dependency on the social life of the neighbourhood. The middle classes maintain citywide and homogeneous ethnic and social networks (largely connected to their job environments), whereas lower class people are more inclined towards solidarity at the neighbourhood level.

Some inhabitants, mainly young and highly educated persons, appreciate diversity as an asset of their neighbourhood. For these individuals diversity is a pull factor to move to the neighbourhood. However, these inhabitants do not necessarily maintain diverse social networks. They mostly appropriate diversity through commodified services and products (ethnic restaurants and bars, ethnic grocery stores, etc.). From this point of view, they ‘consume’ diversity passively rather than actively through the creation of diverse social relationships. With other words, diversity operates as a background element of urban life. Individuals choose to live in the research areas for reasons that include the availability and the affordability of dwellings, good location and access to transport, the vicinity to family and friends, etc. Diversity occupies a secondary place in their motives for moving to the area. Thus ethnic, socio-economic, cultural diversity etc. comes as a non-planned result of many individual choices that follow their own logic. Residents are satisfied with diversity when their relations with persons with different ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds are characterized by civility and courtesy.

In line with this, everyday practices may bring together diverse people, but they do not necessarily mix with each other. Diverse people share public spaces such as parks and playgrounds but social interactions tend to be contained to among friends and members of the family. Everyday practices and public spaces do not seem to contribute to the creation of meaningful encounters and bonds between the individuals of different ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds who live in the same neighbourhood. Community centres constitute an important exception, hosting more substantial interaction among neighbours.

Hypermobility or sense of belonging?
The growth of ICTs and transnationalism may be leading to the decline of place-based local communities as a greater variety of places (i.e. the community of origin, but also other places where friends and family members have migrated to) other than the place where one resides may remain or become more important. This can have major implications for the everyday life in neighbourhoods. If residents are more interested in places elsewhere the question should be asked how important the residential neighbourhood still is and how policies aimed at neighbourhoods can be effective. These more relational and fluid forms of political identification represent one of the greatest governance challenges associated with hyper-diversity.

Physical or social approach?
Residents of diverse neighbourhoods are more concerned with material issues – housing prices and unemployment – than with diversity. Policies implemented in diverse urban areas should therefore be associated with these core issues. The research confirmed that the main impediments for finding a job are not associated with the neighbourhood; they are related to individuals’ skills, knowledge of language, the availability of suitable jobs, etc. This means that policies dealing with unemployment and social inequality should not necessarily be targeted on these specific urban areas, but should employ a citywide (or even regional) perspective and be part of broader policies using macro- and micro-economic tools. However, especially for some categories of the population, policies at the neighbourhood level may be effective. Local structures connecting individuals to the labour market may be helpful for low-income individuals who are not part of strong citywide social networks and do not have easy access to formal mechanisms that assist with finding a job.

What to do?
Finally, some recommendations from the policy review documents: 
  • Policies aimed at traditional categories such as the poor, or specific ethnic or age groups, or policies focused on one specific area without taking into account the immense diversity within a specific area are probably doomed to fail. Traditional policy frameworks often stick to stable and sharply delineated population categories or to specific neighbourhoods in a city and thus ignore the hyper-diversified social reality.
  • When we acknowledge the hyper-diversity of our urban societies, we must acknowledge that these societies cannot flourish from standard or generic approaches aiming at, for example, economic growth or better housing or more liveable neighbourhoods. Increasingly, more diverse and more tailored arrangements are needed.
  • In most cities inequalities, have grown. Yet policy responses focus on opening opportunities for citizens rather than seeking to ensure more equality in policy outcomes. More concern with the latter is a necessary prerequisite for enhanced policy effectiveness. By focussing only on opportunities, policies are currently failing those who are least able and most vulnerable. Individuals and communities are being given responsibilities without the resources to support their actions. There should be more of a focus on job creation, wage increases, direct welfare support for housing, and an emphasis on the creation of more diverse economies, rather than a limited concern with so-called ‘creative’ industries.
  • Communication and interaction between diverse groups is the best instrument to increase social cohesion and co-existence. Therefore, besides facilitating social mobility and economic performance, new governance arrangements should specifically aim to increase the interaction and communication between diverse groups of people with shared-activities. Public spaces in the neighbourhood (parks, playgrounds, squares, etc.) and networks among families whose children go to the same school are very important from this perspective as they bring people from different backgrounds together. If politicians want social and ethnic mix to generate social cohesion, they need to invest in programs that bring together the diverse groups of the neighbourhood. ‘Soft’ actions, which foster encounters and interactions between people with diverse backgrounds, such as educational programs in schools and libraries and festive events in the neighbourhood, are effective tools that can be used to positive effect.
  • One broadly shared observation is that many local policies have a one-sided focus on the highly-skilled, creative or innovative enterprises and disregard the many ‘non-innovative’ immigrant enterprises, which are often struggling to make ends meet. Policymakers are advised to develop policies that support all kinds of entrepreneurship in diverse neighbourhoods, perhaps with extra attention and support for those enterprises that are important sources of income for vulnerable families and/or have an important social role in the neighbourhood. Policymakers should therefore, in no way see entrepreneurship policies as a replacement for inclusive labour market policies. Policy-makers should focus on fighting discrimination in the labour market, the creation of jobs for the low-skilled and provide more flexibility in the recognition of foreign degrees. Effective zoning and planning policy measures are necessary to serve the individual and collective needs of entrepreneurs.
  • When developing anti-poverty strategies, policymakers are advised to prioritise direct investments in people living in poverty (education, job creation, etc.) over policies that aim to create a higher residential social mix. Next to measures against crime, drugs, waste and other nuisances, new events and activities can successfully attract people from all over the city to the neighbourhoods, and therefore create a better image of the area.
More information about the research program, case-studies and results on

More information on immigration policies and migrant neighbourhoods in the Netherlands in the article Arrival cities: the need for precision

Photos by Gerben Helleman


Divercities (2013) Hyper-diversity: A New Perspective on Urban Diversity. POLICY BRIEF  NO. 1

Divercities (2014a) Governing Diversity. POLICY BRIEF NO. 2

Divercities (2014b) Governance Arrangements and Initiatives: Utilising Urban Diversity to Create Positive Outcomes. POLICY BRIEF NO. 3

Divercities (2015) Living With Diversity. POLICY BRIEF NO.4

Divercities (2016a) Diversity in Entrepreneurship. POLICY BRIEF NO.5

Divercities (2016b) Governing Urban Diversity: What can policymakers and civil society learn from DIVERCITIES? POLICY BRIEF NO.6