How Cultural Diversity Makes a City a Better Place to Live, Work and Play

As Jane Jacobs said, “cities are, by their definition, full of strangers”. That’s actually one of the attributes that makes them so attractive to many of us. But it’s also a topic that we rarely talk about yet alone have strategies to pursue.

image from Gerd Altman at pixabay

My point around this is quite simple: diversity makes cities better. There’s a ton of evidence to support why all of us city-builders, economic developers and community leaders should be working to make our cities more welcoming of people from diverse backgrounds.

Here are three specific areas that show how increased diversity will benefit your city:

Benefits to the economy

Diverse cities are more innovative and productive

Dr. Richard Florida, in his book The Rise the Creative Class, introduced three ingredients for vibrant city economies in the 21st century: Technology, Talent and Tolerance. The first two are obvious. Cities that are attractive places to live attract talented people, who in turn drive innovation and productivity, not to mention contribute to other creative and social sectors. What occupations do talented people gravitate toward in the 21st century economy? The answer: clean, high-paying jobs like those found in the innovation-intensive technology sectors. Basically, talented people want to get paid well, but also want to work for companies that make positive environmental and social impacts. Pretty solid formula. But where does ‘tolerance’ come in?

Though I’m not a fan of the word ‘tolerance’ (because it implies that the majority population of a city will ‘put up with’ minorities rather than embrace and learn from them), I think Florida simply wanted a word that started with “T” for the purpose of simplification. At any rate, Florida’s thesis is that city-regions with more diverse populations have higher rates of economic productivity. Let’s review some findings:

  • A study of over 2000 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK concluded that firms with a greater share of migrant owners or partners are more likely to introduce new products and processes. In other words, they are more innovative.
  • A McKinsey study across 15 countries showed that companies with greater racial and gender diversity in their management teams and boards are more likely to outperform and out-profit their peers.
  • Foreign-born immigrants account for only 13% of US population, but have nearly a third of all patents granted and are 25% of all US Nobel laureates.
  • A study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that 55%, or 50 out of 91, of America’s $1 billion start-up companies had at least one immigrant founder. These are companies like Stripe, Moderna and Slack. They also determined that nearly one-quarter (21 out of 91) of the $1 billion start-up companies had a founder who first came to America as an international student, and three of them were founded by people who came to the USA as refugees.
  • The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) identified an immigrant founder in 25% of venture-backed companies that became publicly traded between 1990 and 2005, while a 2013 NVCA study found immigrants started 33% of U.S. venture-backed companies that became publicly traded between 2006 and 2012.
  • Companies with diverse teams can attract talent better. A survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of job site Glassdoor found that 76% of job seekers consider diversity an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers.

With all this evidence, it’s difficult to understand why people of all political stripes aren’t unified around immigration goals.

Benefits to City Culture

Diversity makes cities more interesting

Some social scientists, like Dr. Robert Putnam, have noted that diversity causes people in these diverse neighbourhoods to hunker down, creating mistrust in communities. This can be observed in the UK with Brexit; in the USA with surging white nationalism and hate-crimes; and in many other countries around the world.

But there is overwhelming evidence to support the positive impacts of diversity on city culture. Putnam even suggests that the current effects of multiculturalism are only short-term, “in the long run…successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross‐cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities.”

Let’s explore some of the reasons why diverse cities are more interesting, and more vibrant.

The city experience

There’s a reason why people who travel a lot are more interesting. Being exposed to diverse experiences or ideas (ones that push us outside the realm of normality) helps us develop what neuroscientists call “cognitive flexibility”. It shouldn’t be a surprise then to know that the most renowned scientists and thinkers also have diverse interests (a study of Nobel laureates in the sciences found that they were more involved in the arts than non-laureates).

For example, did you know that Einstein was an accomplished violinist? Or that Freud was fascinated with archeology and also collected over 3000 pieces of art over his lifetime? Even Galileo was able to discern the moons of Jupiter partly because of this training as an artist (by identifying very subtle shading from the moon’s shadow).

Think about this in the context of a great city or neighbourhood. When diverse types of food, art, music and event options are plentiful, the place comes alive for the better. If these are things we value in our neighbourhoods, then it makes sense that we embrace people who are different than the dominant population.

One way to do this is we have to look past our misplaced fears about density. This means being open to new housing models and more mixed-use buildings. New forms of housing will attract different types of people and help create more diverse neighbourhoods. Why live in a homogenous neighbourhood where everything (and everyone) looks the same?

“What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people.”

— William H. Whyte, “The Social Life of Small Urban Places” (1980)

Though I focus here on diversity from a ‘newcomer’ perspective, there are many kinds of diversity that we should embrace. For example, Dr. Florida and collaborators developed the Gay Index as a proxy for tolerance. He also proved that neighbourhoods with more gay people had stronger and more resilient property values. Who knew?

“It’s amazing how consistently people have misconstrued what my colleagues and I have had to say about the connection between gays and economic growth. They miss the point. A strong and vibrant gay community is a solid leading indicator of a place that is open to many different kinds of people.”

— Dr. Richard Florida, economic geographer, University of Toronto

Florida also developed the Bohemian Index to measure the concentration of “supercreatives” or bohemian diversity (artists, musicians, poets, designers, architects, etc.) in cities. Can you imagine what your city would be like without those types of people? Yeah, pretty boring.

Learning and cross-pollination

When I first moved to the Victoria, Canada over 10 years ago with my family, I discovered a unique culture within the family housing complexes at the University of Victoria. My son Noah quickly made friends from several different countries — from Eastern Europe to South America. Our community potlucks were enriching experiences that involved unique food, exposure to different languages, and stories of travel, hardship and resilience from all over the world. International students contribute much more to a city than just their dollars (and their dollars add up to a lot!).

Believe it or not, cities with higher density of people in close proximity have higher economic outputs (per capita) than suburbs, rural areas or regions with lower populations. The top 40 mega-cities in the world produce 85% of global innovation. It is believed that this is because knowledge transfer between/among institutions, industries and people can occur more readily and frequently. This ‘cross-pollination’ (ideas between people with different backgrounds colliding) is easier in dense cities and thus innovation is accelerated. Historical records show that periods of sustained economic output are associated with diversity (a study of 500 years of Japanese history found that their best economic periods were associated with relaxed immigration policy; the Aristotle era of ancient Athens was notably welcoming of newcomers; even Silicon Valley — the world’s most innovative region — started as an open culture that welcomed diverse people from anywhere on earth. More on this last one later!).

Benefits to our Health

Why a welcoming culture is key to our older populations

It sounds surprising, but diversity is even essential to our health — especially in developed countries like the US and Canada.

It all comes down to demographics.

According to the Urban Institute, by 2040 Americans over the age of 85 will more than quadruple from 2000 levels to 80 million people. Adults over 85 are people most often in need of help with basic personal care, yet alone more acute healthcare needs.

But cities across Canada and US are facing acute shortages in doctors, nurses and other healthcare and service workers. The Association of American Medical Colleges says that the US alone will need up to 139,000 new doctors by 2033 and the equivalent association for nurses states the US will need another 220,000 Registered Nurses (RNs) by 2029.

If we are all in dyer need of these essential workers, the competition goes up drastically.

Attracting more immigrant healthcare workers is not only our best option, it is our only option. A diverse, welcoming city is the way to go — even if you disagree, think about grandma and her health!

Taking Action

Ensuring newcomers and people across all backgrounds are welcomed and have a seat at the table

In early 2021, Brookings released a detailed analysis showing the need to address racial equity in our cities and the role that business leaders can play. The report offers three key actions that business leaders can take to make city economies more equitable and inclusive:

  • Adopt internal changes within individual companies to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Act collectively with other CEOs to make regionwide progress on racial equity and equitable growth, including improving key regional performance indicators
  • Encourage business-led civic organizations (like Chambers of Commerce or Industry Associations) and economic development agencies to adopt their own changes toward equity and inclusive economic growth

On this note, you might have questioned my above mention of Silicon Valley’s positive welcoming culture. While is was arguably true of San Francisco’s historical culture going back to the 1960s, much has been written (including this peice in the New York Times and this one in Wired magazine) on how the Bay Area is becoming more of a mono-culture (one full of likeminded, similarly educated — and mostly white male — tech workers). As these pieces point out, this is actually a huge problem that Silicon Valley needs to address if it wants to remain the epicenter of innovation.

While I don’t claim to be an expert in creating open, welcoming cultures. The point here is to find people who are and get their advice. A recent example came from researchers at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business (in partnership with YWCA) to produce this report on feminist economic recovery. This was in response to the impacts that COVID-19 has had on women, but this is the sort of thought-leadership that places like Silicon Valley — and yes, your city too — will need in order to build inclusive cultures where people are welcomed and diverse ideas are nurtured.

Conclusion

There’s no denying that the backlash to cultural diversity remains a major issue. The COVID-19 pandemic brought sharp increases in anti-asian sentiments and even increased hate-crimes. In the western world, right-wing politicians are increasingly more careful to condemn white nationalism, as they see this angst as beneficial to gaining power. Facebook, and other algorithm-driven media platforms, are dividing us further and further apart all in the name of ad revenues.

But there is a strong case to fight against this divisiveness by embracing diversity and building welcoming cultures in our cities.

Diversity is simply better for the economy, better for businesses, better for our city culture and even essential to our health.

Write about how to make metropolitan-level economies more sustainable, inclusive, diverse and prosperous in the 21st century. Based in Victoria, Canada.

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