Brief encounters in the multicultural city

Words by Mo Sarraf

illustration of Mo Sarraf

City planners should worry less about making communities diverse, and more about creating ’overlapping spaces’ between them, argues Mo Sarraf

When we talk about segregation, we immediately think of neighbourhoods where there is a concentration of particular ethnic backgrounds and we identify these areas as problematic in some way. But maybe the areas we think of as the most segregated are not actually that segregated at all.

My research involves using highly granular census and GIS data to find out what’s really going on, comparing cities in Sweden, the UK and Canada. I’m studying the UK because that’s where the concept of multiculturalism originated and also because it’s among the most multicultural societies in Europe, and Canada because it is almost the only state that still describes itself as multicultural.

I’ve chosen Sweden because that’s where I’m based, and because data is available at a very high resolution about every single individual: where they live, where they work, how much they earn, what sort of house they have. I’m aiming to use this to question the meaning of segregation, and especially the way that we relate it to ethnicity.

According to one of the pioneers of multicultural theory, a society is a “community of communities”. For instance, an individual might belong to the community of white British, black British, Muslim British, female, male, young, old. All of those categories might overlap one another, so we cannot put people into a fixed community. In my research, I’ve been trying to show that this understanding of multicultural theory can be translated exactly to the urban form and spatial relations. Neighbourhoods that might have a concentration of particular ethnicities are not necessarily socially separated from the rest of the city if there are “overlapping spaces” between those areas and others.

Nowadays when we talk about bringing people of different cultures or backgrounds together, we tend to talk about building a so-called meeting place — a cultural space where people can come and exchange ideas and get to know each other better. This is important and necessary but perhaps our expectations of these spaces are too high. Do people who are totally different from each other really go to a public space, share a cup of coffee with a total stranger and then become friends or start to understand each other better? Do we want to go to public spaces to have meaningful interactions or encounters with other people at all, or do we just want to see them around us without necessarily becoming involved in a social interaction? Overlapping spaces bring different communities within sight of each other to encourage these constant intercultural negotiations, so being different doesn’t necessarily mean being strange. Put more simply, overlapping spaces make difference visible.

Often the two terms of separation and segregation are used interchangeably. But I believe that there are some fundamental differences when it comes to urban planning. Segregation is a social problem because it excludes individuals or groups of people from others, and because it affects their way of life and their access to resources. It’s usually based on differences like race, age or gender, so just because people are different in some way, they are excluded from what everyone in an equal society should have. The question of inclusion is actually a question of justice.

Spatial separation, on the other hand, is not a problem per se. Where different groups of people live is not necessarily important, unless it leads to segregated lives. People may not be aware of what life is like in other areas simply because they have never been there, or even been through them on their way to and from home. So those areas are invisible to them and so are the people who live there — people may share a city but be totally invisible to one another. Stockholm could be argued to be an extreme example because it consists of so many different islands which are topographically separated, so people who live in one part might never visit other areas. Whereas in London, which expanded outwards from the river, you might live in one area but you’ll have to go through many others to reach the centre, so the life of those neighbourhoods isn’t invisible to you.

The other important question is whether we really need every part of the city to be totally diverse in every aspect. Isn’t that a tokenistic way of thinking?

colourful illustration of people in a circle

"Do we really need every part of the city to be totally diverse in every aspect? Isn’t that a tokenistic way of thinking?"

Maybe we don’t, and maybe it’s not even possible. People who share similar characteristics have always chosen to live together — not only grouped by ethnicity but by income, age, household size, way of life. That only becomes a problem when the social life of a neighbourhood becomes segregated from the rest, with no connection at all.

The most difficult question is what we can do about this in an urban planning or architectural sense. We need to bear in mind this ideal of diversity, to think about it and design for it. For example, a homogeneous approach to housing design is more likely to lead to a more homogeneous neighbourhood. Urban form or structure is a very powerful means to physically shape the city and reflect society’s ideas. It should reflect democratic values — or at least not make the situation worse. We need to examine whether a particular structure allows people to avoid others, or whether it can bring different people into sight of others while they go about their daily movements. It’s always better not to disconnect or exclude neighbourhoods from others, or to separate them from the life of the city.

The most important thing that happens in a city is movement: humans move from one place to another and this is the first step towards any type of social interaction. The most obvious pattern of movement is transport networks, so they will have an important impact on social patterns too.

Any line that a planner or an architect draws on paper or on a computer will become a physical thing, capable of separating people or bringing them together. Physical interventions have always been used for political purposes, to include or exclude. This remains an incredibly powerful idea — as we see when leaders talk about building walls between countries. When we design cities, we’re not creating a sculpture, we’re shaping people’s lives, and we need to remember the power that we hold.

Dr Mo Sarraf is an urban planner at Uppsala University in Sweden and a visiting research fellow at the University of Sheffield in the UK. He is working with WSP as a senior adviser on urban planning projects

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