Podium; Cherish the politics of diversity

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The Independent Culture
Hugo Hinsley

From a speech by the community architect

to the Architectural Association's conference in London

IN ANY culture the responses of citizens and immigrants to each other vary greatly, and neither category forms a coherent group. London, which has throughout its history been an extraordinarily cosmopolitan city, has seen many reactions to immigration both positive and negative.

In London today almost 200 languages are spoken, with 35 language groups of more then 10,000 people, and there is strong representation of all major world religions. There has always been a tension in Britain between a liberal tradition of openness and inclusion and the long, difficult record of discrimination, exploitation and racism.

As we consider the impact of the Stephen Lawrence report we should be able to be positive about the rich and diverse multiracial qualities of London while accepting the facts about racism and engaging deeply in the processes of change necessary to make London, and Britain, less discriminatory.

Racial minorities are perceived as marginal by many white citizens and they often have fragile means of survival on the margins of economic and social systems in Britain. Yet they are central - both physically, in being concentrated often in the centres of cities and, more importantly, in terms of being the place where we must show that our society can become more just.

Of course, not all immigrant or minority groups are the same. The largest survey of ethnic minorities in Britain, completed in 1997 by Madood and Berthoud for the Policy Studies Institute, found that differences between ethnic groups are now more marked than conventional "black and white" inequalities. It found, for example, that Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are the poorest groups, with 80 per cent living below the "poverty line", whereas African Asians and Chinese are more likely than whites to be earning over pounds 500 per week and that they have lower unemployment rates than whites.

As an architect who has worked on urban plans and building projects with many different minority groups in Britain and elsewhere, I find it is important not to assume that racial or cultural groups are homogenous or can be thought of as a "community".

In my experience one cannot assume a coherence in the wishes of a minority group - about integration or separate identity, or about any issues affecting their lives - any more than one can find coherence of groups in white society.

Many inner urban areas with ethnic minority populations experience the tension between urban regeneration and "gentrification". Trying to block all change in an area is ineffective; achieving real engagement in decisions about change is very difficult, particularly for people who have little power. The negotiation of a process of real and fair improvement needs an effective political process giving the existing population genuine representation and access to information and resources. The forces of exclusion can be strong and people from minorities may be hesitant to enter local politics or other forms of negotiation - but active democratic processes and local initiatives are vital.

We can aim for mutual respect and fairer access to resources. But I don't think we should seek a homogenous society and culture. Indeed this seems an impossible as well as an undesirable goal. London, of all cities, demonstrates the energy and creativity that comes from diversity and difference.

Rather than seeking a politics of inclusion, a universalising model of contentment, we should value adversarial exchange. In order to flourish such characteristics need a society with stronger mechanisms of social justice.

Architectural design can't produce this; economic or social policies - or any other policies alone - can't produce this. But we can learn from positive examples and develop better tools and ideas across professions and through engagement and exchange with locally based initiatives.

We have a long way to go in Britain to achieve this but, even with its many problems, multi-cultural London sometimes shows what a better spatial, cultural and political world we could make.

As a concrete contribution, a Stephen Lawrence Scholarship has been established at the Architectural Association. Stephen planned to study architecture. This is a full-fee award to enable a student of similar background to study at the Architectural Association on the Riba -recognised course in architecture. Details of the scholarship are available form the association, at 36 Bedford Square. I hope you will agree that it is a project worth supporting and worth applying for.