Interview with Professor Ronald van Kempen
Principal Investigator, DIVERCITIES
You’ve been researching urban spatial segregation, urban governance and minority ethnic groups for most of your career. How did you first become interested in these themes?
When I was in high school, I thought I should do something to improve the world. I was looking at social studies, sociology, child psychology. I even thought about veterinary science. Initially, I started with development studies specialising in the global south at the University of Amsterdam. But gradually, I became interested in urban geography in Western Europe, and specifically in the Netherlands because there were a lot of questions about big cities at that time; especially in terms of spatial segregation, low income housing, the disadvantaged positions of certain groups – especially migrant and ethnic groups. I did my PhD at Utrecht University where I researched urban spatial segregation and low income housing in the Dutch cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Gradually, my area of interest expanded to include international comparative research, governance, policy and social exclusion.
What is the DIVERCITIES project about? What do you mean by “urban diversity”?
The principal idea behind the DIVERCITIES project is to acknowledge that cities are very diverse. We even call cities “hyper-diversified” which is a term we will use quite often in the project. Cities are not only diversified in terms of demographics, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, but within specific groups there is also a lot of diversification. Within one particular ethnic group for example, there is diversity with respect to age, education, income, but also (very importantly) with respect to attitudes, values and activities. You can have two men of Indian background, both 24 years of age, both with the same education and income, but they can lead completely different lives. That’s why we believe that urban society is much more diversified than we might actually acknowledge. And we want to have this as the starting point of our project – what we refer to as “hyper-diversity”. People might appear to be the same, but they have very different ideas, values and norms. Which makes it very challenging for policymakers to target their policies…
Can the effects of diversity be influenced?
In many cities, there are all kinds of policies and activities, or what we call governance arrangements, that try to do something with diversity and see it as an important aspect of a city or neighbourhood. So yes, the effects of diversity can be influenced and we want to find out how. That is one of the principal aims of the project, how to deal with diversity, how we can steer it in a positive direction.
Are there specific areas in terms of policy or governance that DIVERCITIES will focus on?
One of the first things we will examine is the present discourse on diversity in local, national and European policies. How do policymakers view diversity? Is it viewed negatively or feared? If we find that the negative discourse is more prominent than the positive discourse, then we would like to change that. To say to policymakers and all others involved with making a city more liveable – look at diversity from the positive side. At the end of our project, we will produce a handbook that includes proposals which we think will be helpful for cities in mediating the effects of diversity in a more positive way.
When we look at governance arrangements, I think there is also room for improvement. These are bottom-up initiatives, which we believe are very important in making a city or neighbourhood more liveable. We want to find out why some arrangements work, and others not. And if some arrangements do work, then what the “success factors” are. And even within successful arrangements, there will be some elements that don’t work so well, the “fail factors”. So we want to understand the threats to success, but also how we can improve governance arrangements so they are better than they are now.
Can you give an example of a “successful” governance arrangement that has improved communication between different groups, contributing to a more cohesive society?
In Utrecht, there is a shop in a deprived area called Overvecht. Residents can go to this shop and ask for help with certain things such as fixing their computer, painting the outside of their flat, making a small garden in a public space. The shop then goes to the nearby school and the pupils learn the skills to carry out these tasks. So for example, a boy of Moroccan descent from the school might fix the computer of an old Dutch lady. It’s something positive for the Moroccan boy because he gets to learn and practice his new skills and may consider working with computers as a potential career. It’s a seed for social mobility. For social cohesion, it might be important because the Moroccan boy and the old Dutch woman have learned to know each other, which may lead to more positive attitudes towards each other’s group. I hope to find many examples like this in Rotterdam and the other cities where we will conduct our research.
What makes DIVERCITIES distinctive from other projects about multiculturalism or interculturalism, etc.?
When you talk about terms like multiculturalism and interculturalism, it indicates a less diversified society than societies actually are. Policies and arrangements might look different in a hyper-diversified society vs. a less diversified society. So we think our project has big implications in terms of policymaking.
Also, we want to end up with concrete ideas. Not every project on multiculturalism etc. is geared towards concrete ideas for policymaking. Sometimes it’s a scientific discourse about the use of multiculturalism, the advantages and disadvantages of the term, etc. We have these discussions too, but our end product will be concrete recommendations backed up by comprehensive research results. Thereby, a strengthening of the link between scientific research and policymakers that I hope will endure beyond the life of this project.