Next Generation Diversity

Our cities are changing, and the discussion of diversity must now change to keep pace with their evolution. Civic and community leaders must begin teaching citizens how to communicate and understand each other across neighborhood boundaries, shifting the focus from physical diversity to philosophical.

After his controversial study last October revealed that ethnic diversity significantly lowers the level of trust in a given community, Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam, was quick to point out that his report was not meant to be read as a warning that different people shouldn't live near each other. "What we shouldn’t do," Putnam told the Financial Times, "is to say that they [immigrants] should be more like us. We should construct a new us." But uniting people from different communities and walks of life has proven a very difficult challenge thus far (see: gentrification). Ethnic and racial diversity are stated goals in many revitalization efforts. The fact that these efforts often fall short of expectations not only undermines the efforts of anyone trying to change their community for the better, it undermines the case for diverse cities, period.

Another study of diversity, this one from the University of Michigan's Scott Page, offers some insight into how this "new us" might be constructed. Diversity, Page asserts, greatly improves productivity in organizations "because diverse groups of people bring to organizations more and different ways of seeing a problem and, thus, faster/better ways of solving it...If we’re in an organization where everyone thinks in the same way, everyone will get stuck in the same place."

For cities, this idea is a more academic expression of the Jane Jacobs quote that Richard Florida so often cites: "When a place gets boring, even the rich people leave." When there are too many people who all think in similar ways living in the same area, "sense of place" tends to suffer. Meanwhile, enclave-type neighborhoods often draw their distinct character from their demographic solidarity; think of Harlem in New York, Calle Ocho in Miami, Boystown in Chicago, or Chinatown...just about anywhere. These are strong, proud communities that are relatively happy with where they live and who they live near -- namely, people who look and act similarly.

That doesn't have to be a negative thing. When considering diversity and vibrancy, remember that Manhattan has always been rather famously segregated, but the different ethnic neighborhoods gained strength from compactness and proximity. Unfortunately, white flight turned this into a negative, and gentrification is the same process moving in the opposite direction. But as young people start to move back to cities, they are understanding those cities in a way that the previous generation did not: they are recognizing that cities aren't contained within municipal boundary lines. When considering urban problems, the next generation will have to look at entire metropolitan areas for solutions. The "new us" is regional.

(Photo from Flickr user Donna *deestea*. The original full-color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)

Study paints bleak picture of ethnic diversity (Financial Times)

In Professor’s Model, Diversity = Productivity (NY Times)


Anonymous said...

This is interesting to me for many reasons. Madison has just implemented an organization called Thrive which thinks regionally, for one, and for another, Madison is consistently rated among the top cities and doesn't have much ethnic diversity. It bothers the heck out of me. I feel like in order for Madison to continue to rank well, we need to increase our diversity, and quickly.

Brendan Crain said...

But what, exactly, is going to change that will suddenly require Madison to be more ethnically diverse in order to remain competitive? It's a university town with an excellent international reputation. Ethnic diversity is not required to keep a city like Madison in the upper tier, but diversity of ideas most certainly is. Ethnic diversity isn't a bad thing at all (and can be a very good thing) but it's not necessarily an economic factor.