In a mixed neighbourhood: Theory, please meet Reality

In one of my last posts, A white resident’s dilemma, I suggested that mixed neighbourhoods were good solutions to the tidal wave of gentrification in many cities. In riposte, Kevin Harris, the U.K. blogger for Neighbourhoods, quoted some residents with whom he has worked and who weren’t convinced by the real world validity of the ‘mixed neighbourhoods’ concept:

‘You had neighbours who you wouldn’t mix with if you were dying. It was theory-led, they had this theory that everyone had to mix together and it wasn’t going to work.’

This resident’s comment, a good reality test, is a challenge to the gnarly problem of how we live together, in community.  Personality differences, alone, can challenge the possibility of this theoretical neighbourhood. (I remember one of my own neighbours once explaining to me about a woman at his church, “People say she is hard to get along with, but I know what to do and I’ll tell you what you do. You’ve got to ask her about her dog. We get along just fine.”)

Yes, indeed, living in community is difficult. At a minimum, this resident’s comments speak to the need for common civility. Still, I can present my own similar example of theory clashing with reality.

Last fall, one of my other neighbours remarked to me how well we all got along on the street. “I think,” he said, “it’s because we are all so much alike, at the same stage of life.” It threw me back. Here I was, presenting later that week at the Ontario Non Profit Housing Association conference on the topic of strong neighbourhoods, and he was describing a good neighbourhood as one that was not inclusive.

So obviously my theory, seemingly naive and well-principled, needed more work. It prompted me to turn to some of the academics who have looked at this issue.

My instincts about the stages of gentrification and its homogenizing effects are borne out by studies such as Alan Walks and Richard Maaranen, who looked at gentrification in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal between 1961 and 2001. Within Toronto, they found that more than a third of neighbourhoods were gentrifying, mainly around the downtown core.

So I wasn’t imagining it, but how about this idealistic answer I had proposed?

U of T’s Centre for Urban and Community Studies/Cities Centre also held a symposium last year which did an international comparison of the patterns of gentrification in the western world. They made the important point there that “mixed neighbourhoods can be defined in many ways, through class, race, ethnicity, language, lifestyle, generation, household type.”

I felt like I was getting closer.

What Kevin Harris’ resident was complaining about, and my neighbour was commenting on, was the reality that co-location does not work. In fact, it often aggravates.

It is common sense that many residents do better when located close to others at a similar life stage. If we want to swap cigarettes or baby-sitting or garden tools, it’s easier usually with someone in the same life stage or age grouping. Noise complaints are often an example of clashing lifestyles/stages: someone’s up too late partying, or someone is up too early mowing. Zoning laws mediate these very things.

If, the differences we are talking about, however, are based in class and/or race, then even more so, a structural answer is needed, a need to create and strengthen the social and institutional bridges between us. These are the places where community can be created (and much of what this blog is about).

In all of these examples of division, the answer lies in strengthening the social fabric of the neighbourhood in explicit, yay planned, ways.

Community walkability is important. Our children need to go to the same schools. Housing forms should be similar. Economic opportunities must be shared. The issue also underscores the important functions of civility and shared identities.

Mixed neighbourhoods have to be about more than living alongside each other, but are really about living with each other. Still this seems too idealistic because frictions arise, if our communities are zero-sum games, where if one wins, the other loses.

Neighbourhoods are situated in a larger context, so mixed neighbourhoods about more than civility and good zoning; they have to address and mitigate social and economic injustices.

Otherwise, Kevin Harris’ residents is right: they won’t work.

One Comment to “In a mixed neighbourhood: Theory, please meet Reality”

  1. hi Diane, thanks for getting to grips with this topic so thoughtfully. I hope you didn’t think my post was really a riposte, it was just a way of non-judgmentally laying out some contrasting issues while lazily not giving them the kind of thought you did.

    I should say that Milton Keynes, where the quoted resident lives, is not just any new town. It’s one which has suffered various accusations of flawed social engineering, with many employees being moved out from London by their employers in the 1970s and taking their families with them into a social desert. If you know Lyn Richards’s outstanding Oz study Nobody’s home (1990) that will give you a feel for some of the stories.

    Anyway your considered personal approach to the questions about mixed neighbourhoods reminded me that in fact I did once take the trouble to write some stuff down about the topic of mixed neighbourhoods (mainly on age mix). If you felt able to let me have an email address I could send you a few paras that might be of interest.




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