Dutch dilemma[]

Sitting in Amsterdam’s Debalie art’s centre Jeroen de Lange has a headache. The strategy adviser to the chief of staff of Amsterdam’s city government is devising a “vision” for the city’s future. What is creating de Lange’s headache is the very openness to diversity that should make Amsterdam so creative. About 43% of the Amsterdam population is of ethnic minority descent – from Indonesia and Morocco, Ghana and Nigeria. More than 60% of people under the age of 21 are from ethnic minority backgrounds. Within ten years they will make up a majority of Amsterdam’s population of about 700,000. Many of these young people from migrant backgrounds feel disconnected from the place where they live, its institutions and traditions. De Lange estimates that within five years about 10,000 late adolescents, mainly boys, will have dropped out of school and will be supported by welfare. Mostly they live in large housing estates on the periphery of the city centre, where life obeys different rules and rituals. On “African” estates, in one of Europe’s most mature democracies’, leadership is exercised by tribal chieftains. In one block De Lange found forty illegal nurseries, run from apartments, catering for the children of parents who had risen at 4am to travel in buses to chicken processing plants 60 miles away.

The sense of dispossession on estates like these in cities across Europe feeds tension, especially among young men. Tales of violence, sexual harassment, robbery and rape swirl around feeding the possibility of a white backlash to reclaim Dutch society for the white Dutch. De Lange spent eight years as a diplomat in Rwanda. He returned to Holland to put something back into his country, only to find he was dealing with many of the issues he confronted in Africa: “I’ve thought about the sources of mass violence a lot. The Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda lived with one another for 800 years before 1.5m were slaughtered in a few days. I am not saying there will be racial violence in Amsterdam but all the elements which promote violence – lack of a sense of justice, dehumanising images of minority groups, lack of emotional connections between social groups – all these are present in this city.”

Most cities, like Amsterdam, thrive on their openness, their ability to attract people from diverse backgrounds. Yet how do they hold together, retain a sense of coherence, if many of the new people don’t believe in the institutions and symbols of the old? If order was imposed in a heavy-handed way it would provoke a backlash. If the city were closed off to incomers – even assuming this could be done – it would lose its vitality. De Lange scratches his curly locks: “We have to find some common symbols, visions, goals, around which such a diverse population can come together, to see their common interests.” Open, complex, mass system of innovation – in this case a city – will only cohere around simple shared goals and values. That requires inspiring, authentic local leadership, which connects with people. It also means investing to give new entrants hope: social mobility is essential to social stability and creativity.

Creative cities have to flow, not just physically and but socially as well. Curitiba is so successful largely because its cheap public transport system keeps the city moving. It also means that recently arrived migrants, living in new settlements on the city’s edge, can easily get to jobs in the city’s centre. That helps social mobility, which is critical to creativity. As Peter Hall’s sweeping history Cities and Civilisation makes clear creativity is often driven by recently arrived immigrants who have to find new routes of advancement by challenging the status quo. The social mix of cities propels creativity only when emerging social groups – traders, artists, politicians, entrepreneurs, students, yuppies – can try out different lifestyles and ways of working. Cities dominated by an establishment will not be creative for long if they lock other people out of power and opportunity. A city that has a lot of people in it from different backgrounds and cultures will not be creative unless it is socially open in the more fundamental sense of offering opportunities for mobility.

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Cities are centres for mass, participatory innovation. They provide a potent mixture of density and diversity: lots of people with different backgrounds and cultures in close proximity, their ideas jostling, mingling and competing with one another. Cities provide markets for the adoption of new products. They tend to attract experimenters. Creative cities work with the grain of mass innovation.

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