The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Diversity is not enough: a historically-informed call for civic unity

Building on the themes of his previous call for urban reformers to learn from history, Daniel London discusses the settlement houses and social centres of the late 19th century, and how they sought to transform urban diversity into civic unity rather than allow cities to remain socially fragmented through a false discourse of plurality, building the coalitions needed for broad social reform.

Daniel London

Daniel London

Cities: New York-Newark, Rochester, Seattle

Topics: City politics, Participatory governance, Community organisation

Few of us live in a city today — that is, if you define a city as more than a place of streets, buildings and people mixed together. Economic, racial and religious divisions fragment our urban centres, and mobile technology separates us on a more individual level.

If we are to seize the potential of our municipal moment, if we are to take full advantage of urban density and diversity as sources of innovation and progressive social change, then we have to develop practices and institutions that can transcend our de facto pluralism and forge a more integrated public. It is important to recognise that the city is made up of diverse communities whose differences must be respected, but this recognition is not enough. A measure of civic unity, a condition where common challenges are discussed, common strategies are pursued, and common aims are broadly arrived at, is necessary if we are to fully address the challenges of urban living and realise urban democracy. But how?

In the decade surrounding the turn of the last century, social reformers in the North Atlantic were faced with a similar challenge. The impoverished 'other half', in the words of New York reformer Jacob Riis, seemed to exist in another universe to those of the middle and upper classes, who viewed their unfamiliar religions, ethnicities and backgrounds with a mixture of contempt and fear. Governing authorities were initially content to ignore these populations, preaching a laissez-faire discourse to the denizens of London's East End and New York's Lower East Side, which gave no hope of relief.

If we are to take full advantage of urban density and diversity as sources of innovation and progressive social change, then we have to develop practices and institutions that can transcend our de facto pluralism and forge a more integrated public.

By the 1890s, however, reformers began to seek ways of bridging the trenches that divided the North Atlantic's great urban centres. The profound social interdependence of urban life — the realisation that the lives of city-dwellers were shaped by the lives and decisions of others — was becoming more apparent with every crime wave, recession and streetcar strike. The fates of all citizens were tied up with each other, and only through extensive communication between urbanites and the discovery of hidden commonalities could the city be saved from permanent division. Two methods towards this end were pioneered during the 1890s and early 20th century — the settlement house and the social centre — and each of them holds lessons for us today.

The settlement house and the social centre

Settlement houses were local institutions staffed and inhabited largely by middle-class college graduates, established within the slums of industrial England and America out of the belief that the social and physical marginalisation of these neighbourhoods promoted misunderstanding and suspicion between their inhabitants and the rest of the city. By living within these neighbourhoods and communicating with — not lecturing to — their residents, settlement workers could arrive at a more accurate understanding of a community's needs and help the neighbourhood fight for them. After all, it was the student's neighbourhood too! It was hoped that by expanding these shared dialogues and campaigns to ever more neighbourhoods, a more unified city as a whole could be created.

In the uninhibited conversations which took place within its walls, a variety of individuals were encouraged to bring up any number of problems they had encountered in their daily lives — poor housing, bad sanitation, lack of playgrounds, harsh working conditions, political corruption — and create campaigns around them. By showing how they affected different members within a diverse and tight-knit community, these issues transcended the most immediate interest groups they were usually associated with (wage issues with working men, voting rights with women, playgrounds with families, etc.) and became community concerns to a wide range of social groups. This enabled the kind of broad coalition formations which made the settlement's subsequent political responses to these issues more effective. The role of settlements as 'spearheads of reform', in the words of historian Allen F. Davis, could not have taken place otherwise.

A lesser-known initiative, the social centre, was pioneered in Rochester, New York in 1907 and had spread to more than a hundred cities across the United States by 1912. Often located in the basement of a public school, the social centre was a space where citizens joined to exchange ideas, learn from each other, and act collectively on that basis. They were not debating societies — rather, different ideas and perspectives were synthesised in order to create a better-informed public opinion. Differences were meant to be respected, but ultimately transcended through deliberation and discussion over commonly-held problems and issues. In the words of its founder, Edward Ward, the centre was a place where 'people of all races, classes and parties shall find a common gathering place, a common means of acquaintance, and opportunity to learn to think in terms of the city as a whole.'

In contrast, reformers of today seem to operate on a basis which encourages fragmentation rather than unity.

Recreating a sense of coalition and unity

In contrast, reformers of today seem to operate on a basis which encourages fragmentation rather than unity. Occupy Wall street returned attention to the liberating possibilities of public space, but Zuccotti Park was ultimately more successful as a platform for disparate groups — anarchists, social democrats, libertarians, etc. — to separately vent their anger than as a site of synthesis between them.

Similarly, 'civic apps' — IOBY, SeeClickFix, etc. — seem more concerned with fixing problems on a block-by-block basis than about forging broader-based consensus among a city's inhabitants. It is telling that while the individual campaigns of these programs can be quite successful, their more general forums tend to be relatively inactive. IOBY might stand for in our back yard, but its priority remains just that — individual neighbourhood back yards, not the collective front yard of the city.

There are signs that we are becoming more impatient with these kind of piecemeal initatives, however. New York's Director of City Planning Amanda M. Burden states that while her agency plans on a 'Robert Moses scale', they judge themselves by 'Jane Jacobs standards' — a useful perspective for a top-down city bureaucrat, but one which can also be adopted by bottom-up reformers. The neighbourhood branches of Occupy Wall Street, such as the one in my neighbourhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, have been remarkably successful in creating shared dialogue and activity amongst diverse residents. Furthermore, Hurricane Sandy demonstrated that social media can be appropriated by urbanites to provide useful news, comfort and advice to thousands of fellow citizens. For a moment, snarkiness was replaced with sympathy. Nonetheless, collective tragedies have always demonstrated the realities of urban interdependence: ona day-to-day level, the civic capacity of social media remains largely untapped. We are all wired, but we are not all connected.

Though the 21st century might very well be the century of cities, it does not follow that it will be the century of citizens. Our cities might grow, but with it inequalities, segregation and alienation within them. Our ever-growing urban diversity is to be encouraged — but not division. Only by broadening the three C's of communication, commonalities and communities amongst urbanites can this be avoided. Every facet of city life — architecture, communication technology, reform efforts, our daily activities — should be judged by how well they are furthering this endeavour.

Progressive-era reformers provided us with a series of theories and practies that we can learn from, and they can be complemented with the resources of modern social science and the capabilities of modern technology. In the end, however, the goal must remain the same — in the words of English novelist E. M. Forster, to 'only connect'. The fate of our cities, and through it our planet, depends on this.

serves as research coordinator for Benjamin Barber's upcoming book If Mayors Ruled the World. He received his MA in History at the City University of New York, where he taught urban history and researched the role of public space in turn-of-the-century progressive politics. He has also contributed on a variety of public history projects, including curatorial assistance on exhibitions and books at the Museum of the City of New York. He may be reached via .

Next week, Jamaal Green reacts to this article, charging that it ignores an undercurrent of racism and assimiliationism present in the settlement house and social centre movements. Read Green's reaction here, and read London's response to those charges here.