The challenge of superdiversity for urban planning

by Simon Pemberton (UPWEB, Keele University)

Given my eclectic background as a practising urban planner, research institute director (on social inclusion) and (more lately) human geographer, I have become increasingly interested in the implications of increasing super-diversity for urban planning, as well as the equality of outcomes of planning practices.

To this end, I have spent the last year or so reflecting on my experiences in Liverpool (UK) between 2004 and 2011 and the way in which planners in the city attempted to respond to migration-related super-diversity. The fruits of such endeavours will hopefully be published later this year but in the meantime I wish to raise couple of important points for consideration.

First, it is clear that relatively little work that has been conducted on the role of urban planning in responding to migration related super-diversity. Whilst previous research has been undertaken on urban planning and the multicultural city, as well as planning and diversity in the city (for example, see Ruth Fincher et al.’s work; as well as that of Louis Sandercock), little attention to date has focused on the challenges of increasing super-diversity for urban planning.

Second, in relation to super-diversity, urban planners need to think even more about how to balance competing interests, how to recognise and address specific needs, and how to respond to people in increasingly diversified (or diversifying) settings (for example, see Fincher and Iveson, 2008). However, activities that have traditionally been based around addressing the needs of a dominant ethnic or national identity within particular neighbourhoods in a city may no longer be applicable.

Hence in Liverpool, two particular issues stood out. First, the recency and dynamic nature of super-diversity in the city. It was clear that the population of the city was becoming increasingly differentiated, but with some individuals being ‘hyper-mobile’, whilst others were relatively fixed. In turn, this meant that different types of ‘activity spaces’ were important for some – such as the neighbourhood – but not for others. Urban planners – and indeed urban planning frameworks (such as the Local Plan) therefore need to be flexible enough to recognize (in the words of Kevin Cox, 1998) individuals ‘spaces of dependence’ and ‘spaces of engagement’, and how this impacts on the demand for different services across the city. Furthermore, urban planning needs to acknowledge how increasing population complexity may be reflected vertically (within property) as well as across the neighbourhood / city. At a more local level, Neighbourhood Development Plans in many English cities will also be important in responding to the changing needs and requirements of all local residents in super-diverse neighbourhoods, and in assigning usage (and flexibility of usage) to different tracts of land.

Nevertheless, what came out strongly from Liverpool was the importance of class-based differences in informing socio-economic diversity and how such issues may be of particular relevance in cities and neighbourhoods of emerging super-diversity. This is especially the case where deprivation is prevalent (as is the case of Liverpool). Thus – and crucially – attempts by urban planners to redistribute resources therefore need to be more heavily focused around recognition of the differences and interconnections between different aspects of super-diversity on which inequalities are based (for example, ethnicity, culture, nationality and gender). As such, there is a need to move beyond acting in the ‘public good’ for a single dominant ethnic group in the city – the reality is that there are multiple ‘public interests’ that need to be addressed through ‘parity of participation’ in planning processes.

A second issue that also stood out in Liverpool related to legal status and access to services and facilities in super-diverse neighbourhoods. In this respect it was apparent that urban planners were not always entirely clear as to how their efforts to respond to increasing super-diversity should be targeted. Moreover, for those more ‘visible’, urban planners need to recognize the importance of super-diverse neighbourhoods in providing an environment where those visibly different can avoid discrimination that may be more evident elsewhere in the city. But at the same time, such environments need to facilitate integration for all and not selectively focus on particular groups or individuals. For those less visible, urban planners need to consider alternative ways of engaging and identifying such groups. For example, a greater focus on ‘linguistic landscapes’ (Blommaert, 2015) and signage may help to ascertain where new groups may be concentrated or residing, and could be picked up in the Statement of Community Involvement.

Thus to conclude, in areas of deprivation and emerging super-diversity (such as Liverpool), a focus by urban planners on class-based differences – over and above ethnic and cultural differences per se – may be of relevance in terms of attempts to address social and economic inequalities. But at the same time this may increase the risk of urban planning equivalising differences between residents and concealing issues of racism and discrimination. Hence context – as ever – continues to be all-important in shaping the nature of urban planning responses to super-diversity, and attempts to secure fair and equitable outcomes.

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