Practising urban diversity

I’ve been reading Sharon Zukin’s latest book, and it is a stark reminder of the plight of current urbanism. While focused solely on New York, the sentiments hold true for a number of other cities around the world (but by no means all). In criticizing Jacobs, a bold move it has to said, she outlines the fact that ‘authenticity’ in cities that Jacobs so vehemently fought for is as manufactured and socially-constructed as the gentrifying forces of modernism she rallied against. The desire for bohemia and the ‘next cool place’ creates streetscapes that are a certain kind of authenticity that is sanitised. (I’m slightly paraphrasing and using a more verbose vernacular to highlight the point and because I haven’t finished the book yet!)

The point is well made, and it struck me that diversity, which Jacobs herself recognised as so vital to cities has become part of the political urban rhetoric. Economic development is predicated on a diverse provision of goods and services, mono-industrial cities rarely survive one crisis of capitalism, let alone several. Social diversity, again is considered an inherently good thing, indeed one of my blog posts argues along similar lines. Having a good mix of races, religions, peoples and ideas, if you purport to a Jacobs reading of urbanism is a healthy diagnostic of city status. But having considered this along side the often fractious schisms that occur in these areas, increased diversity seems less inviting. Sure, surrounding yourself with like-minded people can breed isolation, individualism and and increase in idiosyncratic values (sometimes to the point of excess). But the opposite of this (heterophiliy) is not always a panacea; in fact, it can be equally as deleterious.

The mere presence of diversity then, it seems, is not enough. The important conceptual ingredient here is practice. Having just finished a paper with some colleagues on the nuances of network practices (including not-working as well as networking), the message there is as pertinent to urban diversity as it is to economic geography. Having a wide variety of people and ideas in one place can only be productive if the practice of networking, or the relationships that occur within that diversity is constructive. The theory is that a more diverse population will create a wider variety of progress, innovation or community. The most innovate companies are those which create heterophilic networks and nurture the innovative thinking that arises (even if it doesn’t work). This is most evident in the disruptive innovation theories.

So perhaps the celebration of diversity should be directed at the constructive practice of connecting diverse groups of people together. Cross-Community groups are an example of these kinds of initiatives, and on a much larger more political scale, we saw the mutli-faith protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo coming together to enact political change. Cities will become (indeed, they are becoming) more crowded – that is a fact that we cannot ignore. As such they will inevitably become more diverse with in-migration and the increase ease of mobility (the current program on BBC2 ‘The Chinese Are Coming‘ is a good, palatable example of how globalisation, mobility and the spread of capitalism is creating more diverse urban populations). So surely it is of more benefit to focus on the action and practice of relationships (and championing models of good practice), then the presence of diversity itself?

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