From Contact Theory to Coexisting

Finding Common Ground in a ‘City of Difference’

Britain’s recent vote to leave the European Union took me by surprise. While the polls were close, I thought formal connections to the Continent’s many countries, cultures and economies would outweigh current grievances.

At the same time, I was less surprised to see that the majority of Londoners, residents of Britain’s largest city, voted to remain. In some London boroughs, 94% of residents voted to stay in the EU, a sharp contrast to many of England’s smaller towns where up to 70% of residents voted to leave.  

Why might city dwellers vote so differently? London is a ‘city of difference’, as defined by Julian Agyeman, a Professor at Tufts University, during his Act Urban session in Philadelphia. Statistically, London is a diverse city with 40% of the population identifying as an ethnicity other than white. But a ‘city of difference’ is not just about ethnic diversity. It’s about a ‘place where people can negotiate difference on their own terms’, as Julian described it.

This doesn’t mean prejudice is absent – it isn’t. But as a foreigner who lived in London for two years I felt that the city prides itself as global. Global not just due to its powerful international banking industry, but because its residents value being in a place where people from different countries, backgrounds and experiences live side by side, where you can eat any cuisine you want, and buy newspapers in multiple languages.

Did London vote the way it did because it facilitates ‘contact theory’ and is a place where people become more tolerant of those different from themselves as they’re exposed to one another, such as in the city’s public spaces?  In Britain, nor elsewhere, ‘contact theory’ alone cannot explain how people voted. As we’ve heard a lot about in the media, income, education and age were important indicators too. While those are telling factors, they are also easier to quantify and compare on a national scale than acceptance of difference or tolerance. Knowledge about financial well-being and economic opportunity are vital to interpreting national trends and voting patterns, but exposure to difference – while potentially more challenging to quantify on the same scale – may also help to analyze political outcomes.

How might we begin to value and measure exposure to difference in the same way we do income, age and educational attainment? How might we measure if the design and activity in our cities and neighborhoods creates opportunities for difference to coexist and for people to be comfortable living with those of different ethnicities? 

Through a two year grant from the Knight Foundation we are, in collaboration with several organizations, working to develop a research framework that allows us to evaluate these things. We’ll be testing new metrics at a series of urban interventions this summer and refining the framework based on what we learn. Our goal is to generate new information that helps those shaping cities and urban policies to discuss the value of cities of difference.