The Paradox of Diverse Communities

Richard Florida, The Atlantic Cities, November 19, 2013

Urbanists and planners like to imagine and design for a world of diversity. Diversity, we like to think, is both a social good and, as I’ve argued, a spur to innovation and economic growth.

But to what degree is this goal of diverse, cohesive community attainable, even in theory?

That’s the key question behind an intriguing new study, “The (In)compatibility of Diversity and Sense of Community,” published in the November edition of the American Journal of Community Psychology. The study, by sociologist Zachary Neal and psychologist Jennifer Watling Neal, both of Michigan State University (full disclosure: I was an external member of the former’s dissertation committee), develops a nifty agent-based computer model to test this question.

Their simulations of more than 20 million virtual “neighborhoods” demonstrate a troubling paradox: that community and diversity may be fundamentally incompatible goals. As the authors explain, integration “provides opportunities for intergroup contact that are necessary to promote respect for diversity, but may prevent the formation of dense interpersonal networks that are necessary to promote sense of community.”

Their models focus on the emergence of the “community-diversity dialectic” based on two simple principles: homophily–the tendency of people to bond with others like themselves–and proximity–the tendency of people to bond with those nearby. Their models look at how the strength of these basic tendencies affect the evolution of neighborhoods comprised of two distinct populations (say by race, class, ethnicity and so on). In these simulated neighborhoods, the possible levels of integration ranged from 0 percent (totally segregated) to 50 percent (totally integrated).

In the images below, the authors show three sample neighborhoods with low, medium, and high levels of integration. Notice how much denser the resulting social networks are (in the bottom row) in the highly segregated neighborhood at far left. (You can also play around with an interactive version of the model on Neal’s website, adjusting the levels of homophily, proximity, and integration yourself).


After 20 million-plus simulations, the authors found that the same basic answer kept coming back: The more diverse or integrated a neighborhood is, the less socially cohesive it becomes, while the more homogenous or segregated it is, the more socially cohesive. As they write, “The model suggests that when people form relationships with similar and nearby others, the contexts that offer opportunities to develop a respect for diversity are different from the contexts that foster a sense of community.”

The graph below, from the study, plots quite plainly the negative relationship between community cohesion and diversity.


These findings are sobering. Because homophily and proximity are so ingrained in the way humans interact, the models demonstrated that it was impossible to simultaneously foster diversity and cohesion “in all reasonably likely worlds.” In fact, the trends are so strong that no effective social policy could combat them, according to Neal. As he put it in a statement, “In essence, when it comes to neighborhood desegregation and social cohesion, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

But, of course, this is the result of computer simulations of reality, not reality itself. Our identities, social relationships and actual neighborhoods are far more complex than simulations can get at. {snip}

On a more positive note, it may be possible to have such sorting by neighborhoods and still have diverse cities. I asked Neal whether he thought that cities that were made up of a federation or mosaic of distinct neighborhoods were more likely to succeed than ones comprised of several more fully mixed neighborhoods. He told me that his model essentially predicted that, regardless of size, more segregated areas–be they neighborhoods or cities–will be more cohesive. He added in an email, “Or even, a more segregated earth will be more cohesive, and a less segregated earth will be less cohesive. Putting diversity and segregation together–you could have a metro that is cohesive and diverse, but it would also need to be highly segregated.”


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