Should We Want It? Can We Plan For It?

(abstract of the SUSAN S. FAINSTEINs article Cities and diversity)

battery-park-city-New York

Nowdays Diversity represents the new guiding principle for city planners. As such, it is the opposite  to previous (modernists) urban design methods, in which segregation of homogeneous districts was the leading principle, which is now known to have produced dullness and discrimination against “the other.”

In relation to urban policy— stimulating growth and achieving equity—it is now claimed that ensuring diversity is the key.

According to this view, diversity attracts human capital, encourages innovation, and ensures fairness and equal access to a variety of groups. Indeed, by this logic, the competitive advantage of cities, and thus the most promising approach to attaining economic success, lies in enhancing diversity within the society, economic base, and built environment.


The term DIVERSITY has a variety of meanings in urban literature. Among urban designers it refers to mixing building types; among planners it may mean mixed uses or class and racial-ethnic heterogeneity; for sociologists and cultural analysts it primarily takes on the latter meaning.

 Writers from different intellectual backgrounds have, since the 1960s, made eloquent pleas for a strategy of urban redevelopment that stimulates physical and social heterogeneity.

– Most influential within the discipline of planning was Jane Jacobs’s call for a cityscape based on multiple uses, which she argues would promote economic and social diversity:

 » One principle emerges . . . ubiquitously, and in so many and such complex different forms [that] . . . it becomes the heart of my argument. This ubiquitous principle is the need of cities for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially. The components of this diversity can differ enormously, but they must supplement each other in certain concrete ways. » (Jacobs 1961, p. 14)

– The philosopher Iris Marion Young, in her defense of “the politics of difference,” looks to the city as the venue in which such difference can flourish. Young is less concerned with issues of economic growth than Jacobs and more focused on the achievement of social justice.

 » In the ideal of city life freedom leads to group differentiation, to the formation of affinity groups, but this social and spatial differentiation of groups is without exclusion. . . . The interfusion of groups in the city occurs partly because of the multiuse differentiation of social space. What makes urban spaces interesting, draws people out in public to them, gives people pleasure and excitement, is the diversity of activities they support. » (Young 1990, pp. 238–39)

– The planning theorist Leonie Sandercock (1997) terms her ideal city Cosmopolis. Like Young she regards urban diversity as the basis for a just city. She describes a metropolis that allows people from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds equal rights to city space, calls for a multiplicity of people that allows “the pleasures of anonymity,” which she claims is closely related to sexual desire and fantasy, and considers that the function of city planning should be to create urbanity. Going beyond the goals of efficiency and equity, she wishes the development of a city that provides joy:

 » Rational planners have been obsessed with controlling how and when and which people use public as well as private space. Meanwhile, ordinary people continue to find creative ways of appropriating spaces and creating places, in spite of planning, to fulfil their desires as well as their needs, to tend the spirit as well as take care of the rent. »  (Sandercock 2003, p. 406)

Still, despite the seeming consensus of urban theorists on the merits of diversity, they differ substantially concerning the kinds of environments planners should aim to produce—and how and whether conscious planning can create them. Planned communities designed with the goal of diversity, whether within inner cities or in new-urbanist developments, seem inevitably to attract accusations of inauthenticity, of being an image rather than the real thing. Thus, planners appear caught in an dilemma—either leave the market to take its course or set diverse order.

Overall the claims for diversity are important. Diversity underlies the appeal of the urban, it fosters creativity, it can encourage tolerance, and it leads city officials to see the value in previously underappreciated lifestyles.

At the same time, however, the argument for diversity can be carried too far, and it tends to lose sight of the continued importance of economic structure and the relations of production. First, the relationship between diversity and tolerance is not clear. Sometimes exposure to “the other” evokes greater understanding, but if lifestyles are too incompatible, it only heightens prejudice. The simple case is that of noise or cigarette smoking. Here we can fairly easily say that when one’s habits cause discomfort to one’s neighbors, they should be suppressed, or else one should exercise them in places where other members of the public do not have to deal with them. John Stuart Mill’s contention in On Liberty concerning people’s freedom to do as they please as long as they do not injure others applies when the injury is obvious and the activity is not essential to an individual’s identity. The issue, however, becomes much more difficult when we are discussing the veiling of women OR the application of religious law.

The newurbanist approach of intermixing a variety of building types and levels of affordability, along with its support for transportoriented development. If, however, it becomes the template for in-fill development, it can provide a physical framework for a city that offers a higher quality of life to residents and visitors. Developing an appropriate physical setting for a heterogeneous urbanity, however, can go only so far in the generation of a just city. Most crucial is a political consciousness that supports progressive moves at national and local levels toward respectfulness of others and greater equality.

Aurore Guiset, Pablo Salinas, Nika Urbic


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