Dr. Kirsten Visser, Utrecht University, explores if there are generational differences in the perceptions of neighbourhood diversity
Since the mid-1990s, several studies have examined people’s experiences with living in diverse neighbourhoods. While in the recent years some attention has been paid to young people’s experiences and use of neighbourhood spaces (Harris, 2009; Hopkins, 2013), we know little about how adults and young people living in the same neighbourhood differ in perceptions and practices of diversity. The literature on attitudes towards difference shows that values and attitudes become more conservative as people age (life course effects) and that societal attitudes towards diversity in people’s youth influence attitudes towards diversity later in life (generational effects) (Cornelis et al. 2009).
A recent study by Visser and Tersteeg (2019), however, shows that perceptions are also shaped by the different ways in which adults and young people use neighbourhood spaces. They base these findings on in-depth interviews with adults (aged 35 to 65 years) and young people (aged 12 to19 years) in the highly diverse, low-income neighbourhood Feijenoord in Rotterdam.
Differences in perceptions of neighbourhood diversity
The study showed that both adults and young people generally appreciated diversity in the neighbourhood but that there were also important differences. Adults primarily defined diversity based on ethnicity, followed by gender, household type and age. They generally appreciated the diversity in their neighbourhood because of the lively residential atmosphere and culturally rich variety of shops and other facilities. Many long-term residents – both with and without a migration background – however, felt less ‘in place’ due to the increasing flow of minority ethnic groups to the area and expressed a feeling of nostalgia for the area’s more homogenous past.
Whereas most adults tended to construct social boundaries based on ethnicity, young people saw diversity as an ordinary part of their everyday lives. Different groups in the neighbourhood were often defined based on different kinds of subcultures (dancers, soccer players, basketball players), the school young people went to, or the sub-neighbourhood they were from, rather than on ethnic background. The young people were aware of the negative aspects of their neighbourhood but rarely referred to ethnic diversity in this context. They felt that discrimination and stigmatization was an important threat to cohesion within their community, while they themselves did not see ethnicity as a significant dividing factor.
Differences in encounters with diversity
Several studies show that perceptions of diversity can be influenced by encounters with difference in both public and semi-public spaces. Public space can offer a realm for one-time brief encounters with difference such as sharing space with strangers on the street, in local shops or in public transport. Semi-public spaces offer opportunities for prolonged and repetitive interaction between groups, often along shared interests. Therefore, they are considered the ideal sites for influencing perceptions of diversity. Adults and young people differ in the way they use neighbourhood public and semi-public spaces, and as such might have different encounters with diversity.
Meeting diverse other in public spaces
Local public spaces were used in a different way by adults and young people. Adults used public spaces mostly as a passageway: social relations had rarely started off in spaces such as parks, plazas and streets. Young people, on the other hand, used a wider variety of public spaces and hung out there for longer periods of time. These spaces formed important locations to meet and get to know others. Public spaces thus formed a place for sustained contact with diverse others for young people, whereas for adults it was mainly a space for fleeting encounters. As such, diversity in neighbourhood public space is likely to contribute more to young people’s perceptions of diversity compared to adults’.
Meeting diverse others in semi-public spaces
The shared use of semi-public spaces was a catalyser for the development of diverse ties for both adults and young people. Both groups discussed receiving companionship and practical support from people they met in semi-public spaces. However, also here some important differences between adults and young people can be pointed out. For adults, the semi-public spaces that were frequented were limited to community centres or sports clubs. Moreover, the potential of encounters across difference in these spaces was restricted by the fact that only a limited group of residents made use of these facilities, usually only those with a low socio-economic position.
Those with a higher socio-economic position tended to spend their leisure time outside the neighbourhood. Adults, furthermore, appeared to bond most easily with people with a similar ethnocultural background. Relations formed with people of other ethnic and religious backgrounds were seldom translated into the private sphere. Networks of family and friends thus remained relatively homogeneous in terms of ethnicity and class.
For young people, a wider range of semi-public spaces such as community centres, youth and sports clubs and particularly schools acted as meeting spaces for peers of different subcultures, ages, religions, and ethnocultural backgrounds. Whereas some of the adults visited semi-public spaces outside the neighbourhood, for the majority of the young people the semi-public spaces they used were neighbourhood based.
Young people spent more time in these spaces than adults, encountering diverse others daily. This made diversity more ‘commonplace’ and perhaps therefore positive for young people than for adults.
Conclusion: Are there generational differences?
Adults and young people living in the same neighbourhood might experience diversity in different ways: most adults constructed social boundaries based on ethnicity whereas for young people diversity formed an ordinary part of their everyday lives. Differences in the use of neighbourhood spaces and hence encounters with a difference can be an important exploratory factor. This confirms generational approaches, rather than life course approaches, on changes in attitudes towards diversity.
The young people are growing up in a neighbourhood where diversity is a normal part of their lives. They have encountered differences since they were young: in public spaces, youth clubs and schools. The adults, on the other hand, generally grew up in environments that were less diverse and also the spaces they visit as an adult do not contribute to their perceptions towards diversity to the extent it is the case among young people.
This article is based on: Visser, K. and A.K. Tersteeg (2019) Young People are the Future? Comparing Adults’ and Young People’s Perception and Practices of Diversity in a Highly Diverse Neighbourhood, Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie. DOI:10.1111/tesg.12348.
Cornelis, I., A. van Hiel, A. Roets and M. Kossowska (2009). Age
differences in conservatism: Evidence on the mediating effects of personality and cognitive style. Journal of Personality, 77 (1), pp. 51-88.
Harris, A. (2009). Shifting the boundaries of cultural spaces: young people and everyday multiculturalism. Social Identities, 15(2),
Hopkins, P. E. (2013). Young people, place and identity. New York: Routledge.
Dr. Kirsten Visser
Assistant Professor Urban Geography
Department of Human Geography and
Spatial Planning, Utrecht University
Tel: +31 30 253 1370
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