World Cities Day

Better City, Better Life

Urban Diversification

Steven Vertovec, Co-Series Editor of Global Diversities, discusses urban diversification and the growth of super-diversity in our cities

Today’s migration has made cities more diverse than ever – in multiple ways. Indeed, diversification is one of the key social processes that defines our times. Over the past few decades, multiple causes and categories of migration – combined with migrants’ new and varying origins – have been transforming urban populations in complex ways, worldwide.

Whether rural-to-urban or international, the increasing movement of people to cities manifests in the spatial concentration of people from ever more diverse backgrounds. Everywhere, more people with more varied cultural, religious and linguistic traits are coming into regular contact with one another in today’s growing cities. Migration-driven population diversification and urban expansion are two linked processes that serve to define our times. Multiple causes, categories and channels of migration, combined with the migrants’ shifting cultural and geographical origins, account for complex transformations in urban population characteristics worldwide. Changing patterns of migration to cities have created new configurations of nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, age, gender, legal status, class and human capital. Together, these processes of diversification have led to the growth of ‘super-diversity’ (Vertovec 2007). This concept highlights the fact that current diversity patterns significantly supersede earlier ones. The recent growth of studies in the emerging field of super-diversity demonstrates the need for conceptual models that can account for these new multi-layered diversities within our cities.

A key feature of super-diversity is that new migrants tend to inhabit those urban spaces that still host migrants from previous waves and generations. This is described, for instance, by recent research in Singapore (where neighbourhoods of Indian, Malay and Chinese residents now host migrants from all over Asia), Johannesburg (where previously all-White areas, subsequently home to Black South Africans, now include migrants from all over Africa) and New York (where neighbourhoods once dominated by one or two ethnic minorities have recently come to include people from all over the world)(Vertovec 2015). New migrants often present social traits and cultural forms that are being ‘layered’ on top of earlier constellations of diversity. Members of both ‘old’ and ‘new’ diversities comprised of migrants and minorities often must contend with modes of discrimination by a presumed cultural majority or ‘mainstream’. Levels and types of infrastructure play important roles in channelling super-diversity outcomes too, since ‘urban diversities will unfold differently in cities where the welfare state is absent and where there is a lack of formal employment, decent housing or social protection which affects both migrants and local residents alike’ (IOM 2015: 58). These developments manifest in differential socio-economic positions and geographical concentrations of specific groups, social policies and modes of daily interaction.

In cities across the globe, new processes of diversification and the growth of super-diversity have sometimes wrought new modes of prejudice, segregation, discord and conflict; sometimes, as well, these processes have fostered new practices of cooperation, civility and conviviality (Vertovec 2015). In many places characterised by new dynamics of urban super-diversity, such as those mentioned above, there is evidence of emerging cosmopolitan cultural practices, complex social identities, shared social spaces, innovative entrepreneurial activity and inclusive social movements.

Therefore, super-diversification does not inherently present a threat to social cohesion. A range of research shows that people are creating and practicing new, crosscutting contacts and relationships in diversifying cities every day. However, super-diversification does present analysts, policymakers and the public with challenges to understand the complex ways that urban societies are changing.

We still have much to learn about how, where, when and why positive or negative social patterns and new cultural practices arise or transform within super-diverse urban contexts. Scientists, planners, politicians and civil society organizations should seek to understand better how current processes of migration and population diversification are linked to shifting inequalities and possible unrest, as well as to inventive and resourceful ways that people are learning to live together.

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IOM, International Organization for Migration (2015) World Migration Report 2015. Migrants and Cities: New Partnerships to Manage Mobility, Geneva: International Organization for Migration

Vertovec, S. (2007) ‘Super-diversity and its implications,’ Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(6), 1024-154

Vertovec, S. (Ed.)(2015) Diversities Old and New: Migration and Socio-spatial Patterns in New York, Singapore and Johannesburg, London: Palgrave

About the author

Steven Vertovec is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, and Honorary Joint Professor of Sociology and Ethnology, University of Göttingen, Germany.