What’s good (and bad) about greater diversity?

High-level city objectives in The Grattan Institute's 'The cities we need'

A standard objective these days in high-level city strategic plans is greater diversity. It’s mentioned, for example, in Melbourne 2030, in the Committee for Melbourne’s Beyond 5 Million and in The Grattan Institute’s The Cities We Need (see graphic).

The Grattan Institute says diversity is important because “many economists think that mixing of ethnicity, age, culture and education is important for a modern knowledge economy, in order to stimulate and disperse ideas”.

But according to Dr Andrew Leigh, it’s not necessarily all mother’s milk, at least in relation to ethnic diversity (which is what most discussion of diversity in Australia is about). In his new book on social capital, Disconnected (which I’ve discussed before), he points out that there is a negative correlation between trust and ethnic diversity:

Residents of multi-racial neighbourhoods are more likely to agree that ‘you can’t be too careful in dealing with most Australians’. In particular, neighbourhoods where many languages are spoken tend have lower levels of trust…

This accords with the findings of a succession of studies of ethnic diversity in the US and other countries. We will have to work harder, Dr Leigh suggests, if we are to make Australia both diverse and high trust.

Let me emphasise that Dr Leigh, who is the new ALP member for Fraser in the ACT and until the last election was a Professor of economics at ANU, is a supporter of immigration:

A spate of studies suggest that continued high levels of immigration will most likely bring a raft of economic and social benefits to Australia. But we should not gild the lily. Most likely, higher diversity will lead to lower levels of interpersonal trust…..the challenge for policymakers is how to maintain the current levels of  immigration while mitigating the impact on our social and political fabric.

But how do you mitigate that impact? Most city policy documents don’t even acknowledge that there might be potential downsides to ethnic diversity. Nor do they usually specify what the spatial dimension is, much less what specific policies ought to be pursued. Read the rest of this entry »