Dr Yasminah Beebeejaun is a lecturer in spatial planning interested in urban planning and equality.
Cities are the most visible places of difference that we have. As the world’s population becomes increasingly urban we live alongside people of different nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities and socio-economic circumstances. While this diversity has the potential to heighten conflict, it is equally possible to imagine that cities can be places where difference is mediated and even enjoyed. Manchester, for instance, enjoys a far more positive and cosmopolitan reputation for ethnic relations than neighbouring towns, such as Oldham and Burnley.
However, what concerns me is not simply the existence of difference and diversity in cities, but the ways in which that difference is represented. Just because people of different cultures physically inhabit a space does not mean that it is automatically a place of toleration or freedom. As a planning academic, I know that both city marketing and official plans acknowledge difference; but they often do so in a way that venerates ethnicity, yet divorces it from other concerns.
Planners have a tendency to give a great deal of attention to participation: they worry about getting minorities to collaborate in policy-making, or about recognising physical manifestations of difference through spaces such as the ‘Curry Mile’ or ‘Chinatown’? Along with many great planning ideas, this approach is well intentioned but flawed. The problem is that it sees minorities through a prism that sets cultural diversity as the most important difference affecting them. While race and ethnicity are hugely important, they cannot be divorced from wider political claims about representation, power, and equality. In other words, cultural difference is important, but cannot be separated from pressing issues of social, economic and political exclusion.
The result is that our cities fetishise and commodify conceptions of ethnic identity, whilst downplaying the gaps in power and socio-economic status. Though urban policy in the sixties worked to ameliorate racial discrimination and related economic disadvantages suffered by minorities, today’s policies do not recognize the structural and institutionalized nature of racial discrimination, and therefore fail to engage with its economic and political consequences.
In Manchester, this blindness to the importance of institutional representation can be seen in the membership of the Local Economic Partnership. LEPs are new, important bodies, which will guide economic development, housing, employment and other key infrastructure decisions in the city-region. They consist of local authority spokespeople and businesspeople, but excludes representatives from the voluntary or community sector. The Fabian Society recently sounded an alarm, noting that LEPs seemed to have negligible numbers of ethnic minorities on board (Sloane, 2011). Manchester’s LEP is no exception: it would seem none of the current members are from an ethnic minority background. What is more, the LEP’s focus on an agenda dominated by fiscal cutbacks has allowed it to drop a commitment to equality from its agenda altogether. In a climate where only 10 of Manchester City Council’s 96 councilors are from a visible ethnic minority (Manchester City Council Website), we should worry about the impact of this lack of institutional presence at every level of decision making.
To make matters worse, the situation of disadvantaged, ethnic minority communities has deteriorated in recent months, due to the effects of reforms enacted by the Coalition Government. These threaten to exclude minority communities not only from membership of political and administrative institutions, but from having a say over their own communities. The Coalition’s sustained attack on the planning system has put the future of communities in the hands of local people with the potential for limited planning powers to be given to local areas. While this sounds democratic, in practice it will work to the advantage of wealthier communities who are capable of developing their own neighbourhood plans and accustomed to representing themselves in the public sphere. Poorer communities, and particularly those with a large proportion of people from ethnic minorities, will struggle as professional technical expertise and funding has to be provided from the community.
Since their inception, cities contain potential for realising human happiness; but equally for human misery. Valuing cultural difference will only be credible when explicitly related to ending discrimination and increasing the political voice and power of minorities. Manchester must cease to view ethnicity in isolation from economic and political issues, and instead put itself back at the forefront of a movement that is capable of mounting a coherent attack on economic disempowerment, racial discrimination, and political exclusion.
Manchester City Council, Councillors by Name, Available at [http://www.manchester.gov.uk/councillors/name] (Date accessed 3 June 2011)
Sloane, N (2011) ‘How the Tories are embedding inequality’ Fabian Review, pp.20.-21