Clustering different demographics to promote social cohesion
One of the recurring themes from our study abroad program was the benefits of density in cities. Every city that we visited during the program was designed to use space as efficiently as possible. From a logistical standpoint, this makes it much easier to walk and bike from place to place, and makes it easier to implement public transit. In addition, apartments use less energy than detached, single family houses, and dense development opens the door for infrastructure such as a district heating system. The other benefit of density is that it can make it easier for diverse groups of people to interact on a day to day basis, and as we learned, these interactions promote social cohesion, and make it easier for people such as immigrants to integrate into society.
Before discussing the European method for promoting diversity, I’d like to look at the current situation in America. For example, I grew up in a suburban neighborhood in North Raleigh, and it was anything but diverse. My entire neighborhood is detached, single family houses that sit on about 1 acre of land each, and are marketed towards middle and upper-middle class (white) families. The closest hint of racial or economic diversity was the people living in the apartment complexes that are about a mile away from my house. Because of this, school was the only place that I interacted with anyone who was not exactly the same demographic as me, and I was really not aware of the problems facing minorities or low-income people. But this is not unusual for Raleigh; it is actually quite typical of American cities. It is a result of our zoning policies and the way that cities are developed. We wind up with clear divides between the middle class neighborhoods, the upper class neighborhoods, and the lower class neighborhoods; and with the economic divides come racial divides as well.
In the European cities that we visited, there was a much more conscious effort to put housing for everyone in each part of the city. The first place we saw it was in Freiburg, where the city planners intentionally built social housing close to middle class housing, and we saw this kind of planning again in The Netherlands. This helps to promote not only economic diversity in districts, but racial and ethnic diversity as well. When people live close together like that, it promotes social interaction, and exchange of ideas and information. In theory, this results in citizens having a greater understanding of the problems that low income people and minorities face, and this seeps its way into local and national policy-making. People are more likely to vote for a policy that helps the poor if they actually interact with and get to know low-income people.
Areas like the Triangle are experiencing rapid growth, and there is somewhat of a movement towards more dense mixed-use development, but the emphasis does not seem to be on diverse density. North Hills is a mixed-use development in Raleigh, and it is outstandingly popular, but also very expensive, so only upper class people can live there. In downtown, a government subsidized apartment building was just sold to an out of state developer, and the people there have only nine months to move out. It will then be converted into apartments for middle and upper class people. This is a serious mistake by the government, because it will not preserve the diversity in the downtown area, and will not promote the inclusive environment that the city seeks to have. When developing new parts of the city, or when re-developing old parts, city planners should make it so that people of all backgrounds can afford to live there, and find the environment open and inclusive, because it will promote social cohesion and make life better for everyone in the city.