Richard Florida: Dr. Vibrant Notices Diversity v. Community Trade-Off
November 19, 2013, 11:25 PM
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At the Atlantic, fashionable geographer Richard Florida (or, as I call him to minimize confusion with the state of Florida, "Dr. Vibrant") finally stops being oblivious to the obvious:

The Paradox of Diverse Communities

RICHARD FLORIDA7:00 AM ET80 COMMENTS

Urbanists and planners like to imagine and design for a world of diversity. Diversity, we like to think, is both a social good and, as I’ve argued, a spur to innovation and economic growth. 

But to what degree is this goal of diverse, cohesive community attainable, even in theory? 

That’s the key question behind an intriguing new study, “The (In)compatibility of Diversity and Sense of Community,” published in the November edition of the American Journal of Community Psychology. The study, by sociologist Zachary Neal and psychologist Jennifer Watling Neal, both of Michigan State University (full disclosure: I was an external member of the former’s dissertation committee), develops a nifty agent-based computer model to test this question.

Their simulations of more than 20 million virtual “neighborhoods” demonstrate a troubling paradox: that community and diversity may be fundamentally incompatible goals. As the authors explain, integration “provides opportunities for intergroup contact that are necessary to promote respect for diversity, but may prevent the formation of dense interpersonal networks that are necessary to promote sense of community.” 

Their models focus on the emergence of the “community-diversity dialectic” based on two simple principles: homophily – the tendency of people to bond with others like themselves – and proximity – the tendency of people to bond with those nearby. Their models look at how the strength of these basic tendencies affect the evolution of neighborhoods comprised of two distinct populations (say by race, class, ethnicity and so on). In these simulated neighborhoods, the possible levels of integration ranged from 0 percent (totally segregated) to 50 percent (totally integrated). 

In the images below, the authors show three sample neighborhoods with low, medium, and high levels of integration. Notice how much denser the resulting social networks are (in the bottom row) in the highly segregated neighborhood at far left. (You can also play around with an interactive version of the model on Neal’s website, adjusting the levels of homophily, proximity, and integration yourself). 

... The graph below, from the study, plots quite plainly the negative relationship between community cohesion and diversity. 

These findings are sobering. Because homophily and proximity are so ingrained in the way humans interact, the models demonstrated that it was impossible to simultaneously foster diversity and cohesion “in all reasonably likely worlds.” In fact, the trends are so strong that no effective social policy could combat them, according to Neal. As he put it in a statement, “In essence, when it comes to neighborhood desegregation and social cohesion, you can't have your cake and eat it too.” 

... Jane Jacobs liked to say that great cities are federations of neighborhoods. It’s exactly what I see in vibrant cities like New York or Toronto. When I asked Neal about this, he sounded a more optimistic note: “Their patchwork of segregated communities allows for both diversity and cohesion. We usually view segregation as problematic, but when it comes in the form of a patchwork of neighborhoods and enclaves that each have their own character, it may actually ‘work.’” 

For this reason, urbanists and local policy makers might be better off refocusing their efforts away from the unachievable ideal of diverse and cohesive neighborhoods and toward creating cohesion across the various neighborhoods that make up a city. 

In his watershed book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam distinguished between two types of social capital: “bonding,” which occurs within like-minded groups, and “bridging,” which occurs between them. If, as the Neals’ study shows, we can’t make our neighborhoods more diverse and cohesive at the same time, perhaps the primary, over-arching, and achievable objective is to reinforce the bridging ties between them. Given the growing economic, cultural, and political divides within our cities and across the nation as a whole, working to strengthen the “bridges” between communities may be a far more realistic approach than attempting the impossible task of trying to make everywhere more diverse.

I wrote about Putnam's research six years ago here.