In January 2012, statistics from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research showed that Chicago is the most segregated city in America.
But why are people flocking to those like them? Aside from a bevy of psychological and political reasons, Phillip Nyden, professor of sociology and director of the Center for Urban Research and Learning (CURL), points out people believe “there is this false “common-sensical” notion that diverse communities are changing communities,” in other words: not good places to live. Some believe diversity means gentrification. Others believe it means a community is unstable. However, Nyden has found the opposite.
“Our research is pointing out that this is not true, this is not a law of social behavior, that these communities are inherently unstable,” he says.
Nyden’s research, originally started in 1998 and funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has shown that certain neighborhoods in Chicago including Rogers Park, Edgewater, and Uptown, have managed to remain diverse, as well as stable. This fundamental research has paved the way for housing policies and further studies on diverse neighborhoods, and now is being highlighted by HUD for its ability to productively work within financial confines that are facing federal government today.
The research, which was prominently featured in HUD’s journal Cityscape, looked at diverse communities throughout the entire United States. Nyden says in the research two types of diverse communities emerged: diverse by design and diverse by circumstance. Diverse by design, Nyden points out, include cities like Philadelphia, which became diverse through actions brought on by the civil rights movement. Other communities, such as the neighborhoods in Chicago, are diverse by circumstance. This means the neighborhoods have natural characteristics that make them attractive to all types of people. In Rogers Park, this means good access to public transportation, good aesthetics (access to Lake Michigan and lakefront parks), and affordable housing. In addition, Rogers Park has become a port of entry for new immigrants, making it the norm to see people from all cultural backgrounds. Nyden adds that one key feature is that diverse stable communities often have “social seams” which weave different parts of the community together, offering opportunities to residents to discuss problems and differences.
The research has been ongoing since 1998, and Nyden points out this research has been used by organizations as a “guidebook” to how stable diverse communities function, and how more communities like these can be created. He says that one Chicago organization used the research to persuade for more fair housing.
“At the time and for a number of years later, the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities — one of the largest fair housing organizations in the nation — used this not only to guide its own work in Chicago, but made sure that other similar organizations around the country were aware of the research and the results,” says Nyden.
In addition, Nyden says he has given presentations on the research throughout the country, builders and urban planners have consulted the work as an example for designing successful communities, and even internationally, delegates from Britain and Australia have come to CURL to be briefed on the research.
CURL’s work is being highlighted by HUD as a forerunner on research on diverse communities. Assistant Secretary of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) for HUD Raphael Bostic recently wrote about the importance of partners that do research on housing and community development. CURL’s 1998, and now ongoing, research was cited by Bostic as a prime example of how this research can provide valuable policy-research, as well as a gateway to further studies.
“These examples show how cooperative agreements can be a powerful vehicle for advancing policy-relevant research. These agreements allow HUD to leverage its limited resources in the pursuit of important studies that require significantly more support,” he writes in his report. “In some cases, the resources can be a supplement to increase the scale or scope of the research. In others, the leveraging effect might be essential for the research happening at all.”
Nyden says he is proud of how CURL was able to stretch the limited funds that HUD made available, saying they were given only about $80,000 from HUD, but produced about $150,000 worth of research.
Research like this becomes increasingly important, Nyden points out, as America becomes increasingly diverse. Recent U.S. Census Bureau data shows that for the first time more minority babies were born in the United States than caucasian babies, proving that the United States is becoming increasingly diverse. Nyden says this means it is time for people to start looking at the strength of diverse communities.
“Our question is, given this, are we going to continue to be a group of segregated communities? Or are we going to become more diverse communities?” he asks.