Recent migration surges and rapid urbanisation have increased human diversity in population-dense locations, particularly in urban apartment buildings.1,2, 3 Although research on everyday multiculturalism shows that local neighbourhoods are important sites for tackling racism and fostering understanding,4, 5 little work has examined the role of apartment buildings in shaping intercultural interactions, whether positive or negative.6 Throughout May 2019, we facilitated a forum of these concurrent changes, with questions about the extent of resident mixing and segregation in high-density settings; the factors that enable or constrain cross-cultural interactions, interventions and support; and most importantly, what outcomes such interactions may generate, in terms of individual wellbeing, sense of community and neighbourliness, and urban governance.
Literature on cross-cultural engagements tends to focus on larger-scale spaces, from local neighbourhoods and workplaces to institutions like schools and clubs.1, 7, 8, 9 Likewise, programs and public policies developed explicitly to encourage civic participation among socio-culturally diverse groups have traditionally overlooked the role of apartment buildings. This oversight is particularly notable as apartment buildings constitute a new arena of urban governance: their management operates like an additional tier of government which collects taxes (levies), sets rules governing behaviour (by-laws), and elects representatives (committees).11
Moreover, as crucibles of formal and informal interactions, apartment buildings have the potential both to cause and to prevent conflict and isolation. Proponents of contact theory, including scholars of ‘everyday multiculturalism,’ argue that increased intercultural contact improves cross-cultural relations. Others believe that increased cultural diversity can negatively affect social cohesion, neighbourly exchange, and tolerance of ethnic others, as people of different cultures, languages, and beliefs may withdraw socially or ‘hunker.’12, 13, 14 Still others contend that peaceful cohabitation can be grounded in a mutual respect for others’ right to be present,7, 8, 15 which sometimes entails maintaining respectful distance, i.e. living ‘side-by-side rather than face-to-face.’16 We have much to learn about which effect is more likely and which trajectories lead to which outcomes.
The discussions focussed on three main areas: spaces for community interaction, the governance of apartment buildings, and implications for social cohesion.
- Spaces for community interaction: Many contributors spoke about the need for spaces—both physical and digital/virtual—that enable and facilitate interactions. They especially highlighted the importance of quality common spaces and their role in facilitating encounters and, at times, even genuine friendships and community. As higher-density/apartment living is still a relatively new form of dwelling for many around the world, we have much to learn about the different ways people choose to interact (and not interact) and how these interactions are influenced by the spaces that they are afforded. There is certainly much work still to be done on how cultural diversity might be accommodated and the ways in which higher-density living spaces could and should be designed to facilitate improved interactions. However, we must also consider questions of access and equality. For instance, the better-off, upper-market buildings are often the buildings that provide and maintain ‘quality’ common facilities. How do we ensure people of different socioeconomic backgrounds can also afford and access such common spaces? Are these solely the responsibility of the building’s owners’ corporations, or should this be a wider consideration of urban designers?
- Governance of apartment buildings: Forum contributors raised a series of questions about the governance of apartment buildings, including the governance and maintenance of common spaces. Forum contributors pointed to examples in public housing, from top-down policies like Singapore’s Ethnic Integration Policy, which dictates the mix of each residential building, to softer approaches of social engineering and management through eligibility criteria.17 In private multi-owned buildings without a common landlord and/or management, what lessons can we learn from the ways that social relations and encounters are managed in the context of social housing? Should there be a similar role of an estate manager in private developments?
- Implications for social cohesion: Reflecting the published literature on everyday multiculturalism and its potential positive and negative impacts, the jury is also still out on whether intercultural mixing at the apartment-building level is good, or not. Discussants brought up professional and personal examples of how some buildings actively pursue homogeneity under the impression that this maintains property values; others discussed the relationship between homogeneity and ease of management. There were likewise examples of ‘super mixes,’ wherein superdiversity in ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and tenure mix—created in part through public policies like Right to Buy18, 19 and other similar public housing sell-off schemes—indirectly created a rich mix of residents and provided remedies to urban loneliness.
Many contributors spoke from their own lived experiences, relaying passionate and often personal stories of their own buildings. This underscores how important diversity in density is in apartment living. Yet, the relatively few examples of active approaches suggest that perhaps stakeholders rarely take active roles in fostering positive intercultural and socioeconomically diverse relationships in private apartment buildings. Nonetheless, the forum participants contributed many ideas for positive actions and approaches to more harmonious apartment living. These ranged from design interventions that encourage interaction and avoid tensions through thoughtful uses of space, to management interventions such as regularly changing strata committee (board) leadership and recruiting diverse committee members.
The impact of better addressing and supporting diversity in density is immense. The forum demonstrated the potential of supporting social cohesion at the building scale for helping residents feel at home in their apartments, improving the management (and hence quality) of buildings, and elevating the overall wellbeing of the wider community. Diversity in density is clearly a fruitful area for future cross-disciplinary enquiry, something that we hope to extend in similar future forums and collaborative research.