Cities of (in)Difference?

Cities of difference (Fincher and Jacobs 1998) are places where we are “in the presence of otherness” (Sennett 1990 p123) — namely, our increasingly different, diverse, and culturally heterogeneous urban areas.  Yet as I travel around the world I see token, or very little recognition, understanding of, and engagement with this difference, diversity, and cultural heterogeneity in creative and productive ways. Moreover, I’ve seen no examples which could be said to be capable of fundamentally transforming civic institutions, the public realm, its discourses and city management practices.

What I do see though are cities like my own, Boston, now a majority minority city where in 2010 53% identified themselves as “a race/ethnicity other than non-Hispanic White.” Boston tolerates and struggles to manage difference and diversity, while simultaneously wringing its hands over increasing inequity and division (State of Equity in Metro Boston 2011), seemingly oblivious to the fact that this is a result of the failure to recognize, understand and engage with difference, diversity, and cultural heterogeneity. Cities like Boston lack the political vision, will and courage to leverage diversity and difference.

Difference in my opinion is a more expansive and useful concept than diversity which has become virtually synonymous in the U.S. at least, with race/ethnicity and/or gender. Sandercock (2000 p15) notes that difference…takes many forms. It acknowledges that population groups, differentiated by criteria of age, gender, class, dis/ability, ethnicity, sexual preference, culture and religion, have different claims on the city for a full life and, in particular, on the built environment.”  Wood and Landry (2008 p63) authors of the excellent The Intercultural City: Planning for Diversity Advantage put it simply: “At what point do cities start to see diversity as less a cost, a drag on scarce resources and a mind-numbing complexity and start to see it as a force, a resource and an opportunity?”

During the last decade, a collective of urban geography and planning scholars (including Ash Amin, Peter Hall, and Leonie Sandercock) and practitioners (including Charles Landry, Phil Wood, Richard Brecknock, and G. Pascal Zachary) have been researching and promoting interculturalism. The group noted that approaches rooted in the multiculturalism frame have been effective for cultural preservation, celebration (jokingly steel drums, saris and samosas) and tolerance yet have not fundamentally transformed civic institutions, the public realm, its discourses and entrenched city management practices. This certainly seemed to be the case in Canada where official state policy is, and has been since the Trudeau government of the 1970s, one of multiculturalism.

In my blog Grow Canada? Multiculturalism, Environmental Policy and Planning), I note that:

“Many provinces and municipalities have introduced legislation and established programs and agencies in support of their multicultural objectives. Are they reflected in environmental and sustainability policies and plans in substantive ways? At the provincial level, in this case in Ontario, a study on ethnocultural diversity and planning by Wallace and Milroy, 2001, found that that province’s Planning Act and municipal plans did not have a significant focus on, or little to say about culture.

Consider however, the visionary and transformative potential in the following two paeans to interculturalism.  First, Bloomfield and Bianchini (2002 p6):

“The interculturalism approach goes beyond opportunities and respect for existing cultural differences, to the pluralist transformation of public space, civic culture and institutions. So it does not recognise cultural boundaries as fixed but as in a state of flux and remaking. An interculturalist approach aims to facilitate dialogue, exchange and reciprocal understanding between people of different cultural backgrounds. Cities need to develop policies which prioritise funding for projects where different cultures intersect, “contaminate” each other and hybridize… In other words, city governments should promote cross-fertilisation across all cultural boundaries, between “majority” and “minorities”, “dominant” and “sub” cultures, localities, classes, faiths, disciplines and genres, as the source of cultural, social, political and economic innovation.”

Second, Sandercock (2003 p207-208):

“I dream of a city of bread and festivals, where those who don’t have the bread aren’t excluded from the carnival. I dream of a city in which action grows out of knowledge and understanding; where you haven’t got it made until you can help others to get where you are or beyond; where social justice is more prized than a balanced budget; where I have a right to my surroundings, and so do all my fellow citizens; where we don’t exist for the city but are seduced by it; where only after consultation with local folks could decisions be made about our neighbourhoods; where scarcity does not build a barb-wire fence around carefully guarded inequalities; where no one flaunts their authority and no one is without authority; where I don’t have to translate my ‘expertise’ into jargon to impress officials and confuse citizens.”

Imagine the mayor or leadership group who had the courage to move in these directions; to contaminate and hybridize across cultures; to feel seduced by the city; a mayor or leadership group that refused to go with the status quo, with what is probable, but instead focused on vision, on what is possible. The transformation of Broadway, and the High Line in NYC under Mayor Bloomberg are small but highly significant examples of possibility, as was the more ambitious development and implementation of  London’s Congestion Charge under Mayor Livingstone.

However, the only city wide, culture shifting example that even comes close to Bloomfield and Bianchini, and Sandercock’s moving paeans, is the double act of  Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa who literally performed (in the case of Mockus: Academic turns city into social experiment) the most celebrated of urban transformations, in Bogotá, Colombia. The city underwent a cultural and place-making revolution in the late 1990’s when first Mockus, then Peñalosa, then Mockus again became mayor. By reclaiming public space (creating 1,200 new parks), improving public transport (TransMilenio), promoting non-motorized transport (Ciclovía), and implementing measures for auto-restriction (Pico y placa: peak and [license] plate), the city became a model of just sustainabilities in action. In a matter of just a few years, the city largely transformed itself from a typically gridlocked and crime-ridden Third-World city to a magnet for civic leaders and planners from across the world seeking examples of successful urban renewal and revitalization.

How do we encourage more of this kind vision and bravery? How do we shift it from the low(er) hanging fruit of fixed assets like Broadway’s transformation, the High Line and the Congestion Charge, to more challenging and fluid assets like interculturalism?

Wood and Landry (2008) offer us Five Principles of an Intercultural City:

The Leader: S/he is a person with an intercultural perspective; a person who has made the intellectual transition from diversity-as-deficit, to diversity-as-advantage; a person who can develop a new narrative of the city, re/telling the city’s story in a compelling intercultural way.

City Making: The wider leadership group uses an intercultural lens in city planning, (culturally competent) consultation, school curricula (remember the Inner London Education Authority?), housing and economic incentives.

City Management: This is where ideas are transferred to actions, but city rules, codes and most services were never developed for intercultural delivery, they were focused around health, safety, traffic flow, waste management etc. The challenge is how to break down silos and introduce interdisciplinary, joined-up thinking which marries effective, efficient service delivery in an intercultural and culturally competent manner.

Some services, such as social work in the U.S. already incorporate cultural competency practice objectives in their code of ethics. In relation to demonstrable racial and ethnic disparities in U.S. health and health care, Betancourt et al. (2003 p299) note: “Given the strong evidence for socio-cultural barriers to care at multiple levels of the health care system, culturally competent care is a key cornerstone in efforts to eliminate racial/ethnic disparities in health and health care.” While the planning profession in the U.S. is beginning to engage with intercultural and cultural competency issues (e.g. Agyeman and Erickson 2012, Vazquez’s Principles of Culturally Competent Planning and Placemaking), the U.K. is further down the line (e.g. Comedia’s Planning and Engaging with Intercultural Communities: Building the Knowledge and Skills Base)

Citizenship: Cities should be the sites of new forms of citizenship where as Sandercock (2003 p207-208) says “I have a right to my surroundings, and so do all my fellow citizens,” in effect, a Right to the City.

Bridgers and Mixers: These are the old-style activists, the social entrepreneurs, the fire souls, the younger social media nerds and crowdsourcers who make things happen. They are us.

Let’s start from a position of humility. We don’t have all the answers in how to do this so let’s begin the journey by asking the right questions. First and foremost, do we want to live in a world where we tolerate the tedium and misery of cities of indifference, or do we want to live in one where we recognize, understand and engage with difference, diversity, and cultural heterogeneity in creative and productive ways, and in ways which could begin to transform civic institutions, the public realm, its discourses and city management practices. As Wood and Landry (2008 p320) argue: “If we want the intercultural city, we cannot leave it to chance.”


Agyeman, Julian and Jennifer Sien Erickson. 2012 “Culture, Recognition and the Negotiation of Difference: Some thoughts on Cultural Competency in Planning Education.” Journal of Planning Education and Research published online 10 April 2012 DOI: 10.1177/0739456X12441213

Betancourt, Joseph, Alexander Green, Emilio Carrillo and Owusu Ananeh-Firempong. 2003. “Defining Cultural Competence: A Practical Framework for Addressing Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Health and Health Care.” Public Health Reports 118 (4): 293-302.

Bloomfield, Jude and Franco Bianchini, F. 2002. Planning for the Cosmopolitan City: A Research Report for Birmingham City Council. Leicester: Comedia, International Cultural Planning and Policy Unit.

Jacobs, Jane and Ruth Fincher. 1998. Cities of Difference. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Sandercock, Leonie. 2000. When Strangers Become Neighbours: Managing Cities of Difference. Journal of Planning Theory and Practice 1 (1): 13–20.

Sandercock, Leonie. 2003. Cosmopolis II: Mongrel Cities of the 21st Century. Continuum.

Sennett, Richard. 1990. The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities. New York: Knopf.

Wallace, Marcia and Beth Moore Milroy. 2001 Ethno-racial diversity and planning practices in the Greater Toronto area. Plan Canada,  41 (3): 31-33.

Wood, Phil and Charles Landry. 2008. The Inter-cultural City: Planning for Diversity Advantage. London: Earthscan.



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