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.

To its credit, The Grattan Institute recognises the probable damage to social capital in the short to medium term from greater ethnic diversity. But when it comes to policy, the Institute hasn’t got much to say. It simply says that our cities should “not have ‘ghettos’, not just because they are barriers to social mobility, but also because they are bad for the modern economy”. Just how ‘ghettos’ might be discouraged isn’t canvassed.

‘Ghetto’ is a pejorative term – one definition is a “poor, densely populated city district occupied by a minority group linked together by economic hardship and social restrictions”.

I don’t think the European migrants who concentrated in the inner cities of Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane after the war saw themselves as living in a ‘ghetto’ or as part of a ‘disadvantaged’ group. Nor do I think the large number of Asian-born residents living in (say) Box Hill in Melbourne see themselves as living in a ‘ghetto’.

Rather, I expect migrants see themselves as making a rational choice. There are considerable advantages for migrants in settling among people of their own ethnic background. It gives access to rich information networks about jobs, potential marriage partners, access to housing finance and the myriad other essentials for adapting to life in a new country.

The grown-up children of migrants tend to be more geographically mobile than their parents, but for the first wave of settlers the benefit of having family and a community close by who speak the same language, practise the same religion and live by familiar cultural norms must be immense. In short, areas of ethnic concentration are often rich in social capital and positive externalities.

For example, I’d hypothesise that the high proportion of Asian and subcontinent students at Victoria’s two major selective schools, Melbourne High and Mac.Robertson High, is due more to rich information networks within these communities than it is to the so-called ‘Tiger Mother’ effect.

I think we need to take a more nuanced view of how ethnic diversity works in spatial terms. For example, it might be that diversity is most important at the metropolitan scale and that the benefits of ethnic concentration at the suburban or sub regional level far outweigh any downsides. And the benefits of diversity for particular households probably vary over time and with succeeding generations.

That still leaves potential for tension between the long-established residents of a suburb and recent settlers from overseas. Some existing residents will welcome the change because of the increase in the number and variety of opportunities it brings, but some will resent it. If the newcomers are also of a different socioeconomic class, that resentment might be greater.

Now that we’ve abandoned building very large social housing estates, I doubt that increasing trust within an ethnically diverse suburb or neighbourhood has a lot to do with urban policy or planning. It’s not that simple. I think it’s got much more to do with actions to discourage discrimination and encourage tolerance. That’s much harder.

We need to think more deeply about what high level objectives we assume for our cities and, in particular, how they translate into policy and practice. We need to think about the implications, both positive and negative. 

6 Comments on “What’s good (and bad) about greater diversity?”

  1. Matthew says:

    I’m all for diversity, but not if it means living amongst bogans.

  2. Andrew says:

    Correlation does not mean causation. Does diversity decrease trust, or is it just that most migrants settle in poorer and built up areas where trust is lower

  3. Bruce Dickson says:

    An interesting consideration here is to compare the possibly different outcomes being achieved with migration and diversification in Australia and across the Pacific in America.

    Both countries now rightfully making the claim to be truly diverse ‘multi-cultural’ societies and both having encouraged literally millions of newcomers from all races and other nations to their shores.

    And any such comparison seems to be most interesting in relation to two key factors – a) the number of generations that have passed since the immigrants’ original arrivals, and b) the focus of the prevailing cultural messages and ‘learned/propagated’ perceptions surrounding such large scale injections of new arrivals.

    a) – Anecdotally, the key differences here (between the two nations’ experiences) strike me as being that the ‘ghetto’ syndrome does not appear to be quite as marked or as longer lasting in the US as in Australia. And even when living in the same neighbourhood, different migrant groupings and ethnicities appear to mix more widely and freely beyond that neighbourhood’s ‘boundaries’. And engage more with the wider life. This seems to be occurring even more so since the election of Obama as the first black American President.

    Some of this I would put down to the fact that America’s migrations and settlements are hundreds of years older than Australia’s and thus seemingly more ‘settled in’.

    But of possible greater significance is that most Americans deep down more than likely see themselves (Native Americans excepted) as all immigrants to some degree. Whereas historically in Australia the British colonialist descendants (often by simply ignoring or overlooking the Aboriginal people for decades upon decades) started to view themselves outright as the real Australians or ‘Aussies’. By starj contrast everyone that has followed since were officially designated ‘New Australians’ (that old term itself giving the game away and proving my point here).

    b) – The second key difference between Australia and the USA seems to be the genuine traditional emphasis and cultural framework propagated and applied (in practice) by Americans to the well entrenched idea that all migrants should be given their shot at the American Dream and more actively accepted and integrated into American society at large. Even if only ‘over time’.

    This process is strongly accompanied by an intense public stating and restating of what core American values stand for (whether true or not .. that issue being a separate topic for debate).

    And interestingly, in practice at least, this focus on ‘integration’ has not – de facto or otherwise – seemed to require a total rejection of their original culture or disconnection from it … even if the US naturalization wording and process might suggest otherwise.

    Turning now to the Australian experience, the relatively longstanding ‘official’ (and well intended) emphasis on ‘multiculturalism’ – including respectfully celebrating migrants’ cultures of origin – paradoxically and unfortunately seems to have left immigrants with nothing to overtly share and subscribe to in the way of a set of unifying ‘Australian’ values. (Unlike America, Australia’s Constitution and non-existent Bill of Rights do not in any useful or inspiring way help spell these out either!)

    So, a most likely unintendeded consequence for Australians seems to be that differences and diversity can be fully emphasised at the expense and risk of healthfully highlighting the common ground and what of deep significance it is that all of Australia’s peoples share with each other.

    (Note: None of the above analysis intentionally ignores the parallel understanding that more often than not immigrants anywhere – upon early arrival at least – may logically seek out compatriots in an effort to establish a firmer comfort zone and instant source of support when facing the normal culture shock of being residents in a new country. This occurs in both America and Australia, but the differences are defined by how quickly people can more fully integrate if they wish to.)

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