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Contested mix: towards a reframing of spatial policies in multi-ethnic environments

Final Report Summary - CONTESTED MIX (Contested mix: towards a reframing of spatial policies in multi-ethnic environments)

The project Contested mix. Towards a reframing of spatial policies in multi-ethnic environments has been carried out between October 2012 and March 2014 at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London. The project aimed at exploring planning in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in a global city. In general terms, the debate on urban space and immigration has always focused on the problematic aspects of the newcomers’ concentration in specific neighbourhoods. Spatial policies have been characterized by a dominant approach aimed at mitigating forms of concentration. In the last twenty years these forms of intervention have mainly resulted in the rediscovery of “social mixing” initiatives in many cities and it is an assessment of these that forms the basis of this research project. Some core concepts and narratives that underpin analysis and forms of intervention in multi-ethnic neighborhoods have been considered as “assumptions” that, far from being proven, play a large part in conditioning the public debate and policy agendas on this issue. In this general context, the project aimed at:
1. challenging existing descriptions of multi-ethnic settlements, considering the “concentration/segregation” issue as a powerful “assumption” that is both descriptive and prescriptive, leading to mixing policies as an embedded answer to descriptions based on concentration;
2. detecting alternative modes of interventions in such urban environments with a particular attention to the role that the public hand may play in the face of the welfare restructuring;
3. developing innovative methodologies and intellectual approaches to multi-ethnic settlements;
4. establishing a series of policy recommendations that will be of value to urban policy across the EU.

The work performed since the beginning of the project implied literature and key policy documents’ review, case-studies (with a particular attention to knowledge exchange with policy makers and direct participant observation with community groups resisting to social mixing initiatives), networking with researchers working on these issues in London and all over Europe. A multidisciplinary approach was adopted and the conceptual framework was constantly updated in the face of the results of field research.

Regarding objective (1), literature review on planning and urban policy in Britain and in London (Colomb, 2007; 2011), on social mixing initiatives’ main problematic aspects (Arthurson, 2012; Allen et al, 2005; Arbaci & Rae, 2012; Bridge et al, 2012; Cole & Goodchild, 2001; Davidson, 2008; Demaris et al, 2013; Galster, 2007) and on the absence in Europe and in Britain of phenomena of concentration/segregation that may be compared with the North American ghettos (Finney & Simpson, 2009; Musterd, 2005; Peach, 1996) set the context for the selection of case studies. A starting point was that, in the face of a widespread rhetoric of the value of diversity and social mix in the city, few policies have been put in place to “protect” the existing social composition of urban areas which are relatively mixed but are rapidly gentrifying (Colomb, 2011). For this reason, dynamics occurring in already mixed areas in the face of mixing initiatives were put under critical observation. Two case-studies were realised in Dalston (London Borough of Hackney, East London) and Tottenham (London Borough of Haringey, North London). These are both super-diversified (Vertovek, 2007; 2010) areas in terms of ethnicity, class, cultural background of people and socio-economic condition. At the same time, these areas are facing relevant transformation due to the presence of very good transport connections, and being along one of the main development corridors individuated at the metropolitan level by the London Plan approved in 2011.

Case-studies were developed in the context of objective (3). In this direction, a particular attention was given to literature focussed on how much stigmatisation shapes policy intervention (Atkinson, 2000). Narratives of place built-up by “external” views set by the media – but also by the policy makers at the local and metropolitan level – concentrate mainly on problems, not being able to see the often hidden resources that may be found in these places (Campkin, 2013; Tomaney, 2013). As suggested by literature on site-specific development policies (Palermo & Ponzini, 2010), a broad definition of “resource” was mobilised, not focussing only on financial ones, but concentrating on existing local assets, associations and networks.
Although diversity has become a key concept to describe and intervene in contemporary cities, what is notable is a lack of investigation on how this concept is currently used in policy agendas, and on how local already diverse communities respond to spatial policies aimed at dealing with diversity and at promoting diversity. Literature has underlined that it is quite common for these policies to create spaces that are contested and unwelcome at the local level (Lupton & Fuller, 2009). These “contested spaces” have been used as lenses to observe local assets and networks, focussing on the diverse composition of groups who resist, addressing the lack of critical thinking upon the often contradictory relationships between existing and proposed diversity (diversification of local population and economy, social mix, mixed-use, mixed tenure).

In this context the case-studies aimed to:
a) Examine the narratives of diversity mobilised by spatial policy agendas, looking at local action plans for already super-diverse neighbourhoods, as well as at a number of related social mixing developments that were highly contested at the local level;
b) Analyse the local communities’ resistance to these projects, exploring if people group to oppose to new developments along ethnic lines and/or along other type of common interest/identity/way of life. At the same time, the conceptions of diversity mobilised by these groups were explored, underlining similarities and contrasts with policy-makers’ ones.
Developing these points has been helpful also with reference to the projects’ objective (2).

Regarding point (a) the research was helpful to understand that diversity is used in spatial policy agendas in an increasingly ambiguous way, not disentangling issues of existing social and cultural diversity, and proposed diversification of local built environment (mixed-use), economies and populations. This ambiguity leaves too much space to mobilise a rhetoric of diversity that is functional to narratives of change where aspects of social and spatial justice are reformulated to serve the goals of neoliberal “growth dependent” policies (Rydin, 2013) and public-led gentrification (Bridge et al, 2012). In the name of diversity, these initiatives are producing residential and commercial spaces that are mainly functional to the middle and upper classes tastes and demands. Especially in a global city such as London, the growth-dependent model is never questioned, and alliances between local authorities and developers involved in urban transformation are very powerful in the face of local resistance. Beyond widespread rhetoric, this work has highlighted the limitations in such work and their failure to produce places for redistribution, recognition and encounter – the social norms identified by Fincher and Iveson (2008) that should guide planning to cater a more just city with a particular attention to the low-income and disadvantaged groups’ needs. At the same time, these initiatives may damage community relationships and break up established assets and territorialities that should be considered, and often are not, a resource in a diverse society.

Regarding point (b) the research has identified very complex and diversified networks of resistance to contemporary urban development projects. Counter-projects and counter-narratives are produced by cross-cultural alliances that are not based on ethnic or class lines. These groups represent sites of recognition and encounter where a common goal of fighting for redistribution – more really affordable housing is a core point in the campaigns – may be recognised. Local groups’ resistance is often labelled by metropolitan and local authorities as a form resistance to any kind of change or NIMBYsm (Davison et al, 2012). On the contrary, the work carried out through this project argues and tries to demonstrate that these groups are expressing the need for a more articulated way of thinking at development, less based on standardisation, more sensitive to local sense of place and site-specific resources, including “existing” diversity and forms of “everyday lived experiences and local negotiations of difference” (Amin, 2002) that might be (and often are not) considered as a resource in contemporary societies

Regarding objective (4) the following policy recommendations that will be of value to urban policy across the EU are suggested:
- mixing initiatives still constitute a mainstream approach to deprived neighbourhoods across the EU, including places where the immigrants’ share is significant and visible. This research clearly demonstrates that ethnic concentration does not seem to be a good category to describe mixed neighbourhoods in European cities. The research has shown how much benefit might come from further investigation on spatial, economic and social dynamics of “already mixed” neighbourhoods, as well as on the everyday lived experiences and local negotiations of difference occurring in these places;
- these everyday lived experiences and local negotiations of difference should be seen as site-specific resources of places. So, dealing with diversity, is becoming more and more important understanding how these resources may be identified and mobilised by public policy. This research has set out a road-map for future research in this direction;
- Given the shrinking capacity of intervention of the welfare systems, as well as persistent economic crisis, all these findings demonstrate that planning agendas should beyond “growth-dependent” models and establish broader and more inclusive forms of outcome and participation also in already diversified communities.