Stories, the lived experiences that people choose to share about their own understandings of the world, are of increasing importance in decision-making processes and are instrumental to creating new ideas, ways of doing things and ultimately bringing about social change. Working with diverse communities in Germany, Hungary, Italy and the United Kingdom, the VOICITYS project trained residents in specific neighbourhoods as Community Reporters who have used these skills to tell, understand and share their own stories on topics and issues pertinent to diversity where they live. This report provides a set of pan-European reflections on emergent trends across the stories gathered as part of the project. 

Across the stories gathered in Berlin, Budapest, Salford and Sassari a number of perceptions of diversity have emerged. On a surface level when discussing the concept of diversity, people generally spoke about ethnicity. For example, when talking about diversity and changes in Józsefváros, Budapest one resident stated that “Arabic, Turkish and other Asian people have moved here, it wasn’t like this before. It was much better, for the shop and everything. Mostly musician Roma lived here.”Where this perhaps was slightly different, was in the stories from Wedding, Berlin in which people spoke about other aspects of diversity such as religion and sexuality. 

The Wedding stories valued difference and saw it as a strength. As one resident outlines, “people here behave peacefully and with no violence because they all got the idea since they came that our diversity builds a stronger community”. In the Old Town of Sassari, people too generally saw diversity as a good thing – “diversity is an opportunity”and through it you can grow and “enrich oneself”one resident explains.Yet within these stories, there seemed to be a discourse that denied (whether intentionally or not) the differences that diversity presents. This could be problematic in diverse neighbourhoods if integration becomes too close to assimilation. Essentially, the recognition of difference should not be seen as a negative.

When people spoke about their lives in the neighbourhoods, people’s perceptions of diversity were more varied than when they were not talking about it directly. For example, when just talking about their experiences the residents of CHALK, Salford acknowledged other parts of the diversity beyond ethnicity. From such discussions understandings of health issues emerged, particularly in terms of mental health. As one resident states, “I built a wall around me for five years, not speaking to anyone, so then trying to talk to someone was very hard”. More so, societal issues that transcend ethnicity were addressed such as poverty and unemployment. Such understandings demonstrate the importance of the adoption of the concept of ‘hyper-diversity’ within this project. Through approaching diversity through a multifaceted lens, we aimed not to reduce discussions around ethnicity but seek more interconnected and nuanced understandings of the lives of people living in diverse neighbourhoods. 

Overarching challenges

Within the stories a number of challenges to the neighbourhoods and the people who live there have emerged. Some of these issues were related directly or indirectly to notions of diversity, and others not seemingly so. What perhaps could be said based on the stories gathered, is that diverse neighbourhoods experience quite high levels of change across a range of areas and seem to be home to some of the more marginalised groups within society. This in turn could make them more susceptible to arising social issues. 

Looking across the individual summative reports, three overarching challenges to the neighbourhoods can be identified. They are:

  • Demographic shifts: The neighbourhoods’ stories all referenced changes in the demographics evident in the population of the area. In the case of Józsefváros and Wedding, the threat of gentrification may displace current inhabitants. In the case of CHALK and the historic centre of Sassari, newcomers from outside of the country who have moved into these areas are often greeted by poor quality built environments or housing conditions. Neither of which are supportive of making a new setting a home. 
  • Fear of newcomers: With population changes has come a fear of the people who are new to the area – essentially a fear of ‘otherness’. This is evident in statements like the Sassari business man’s description of the historic area as a “ghetto” and in the lack of trust for Eastern European people spoken about in a story from Salford. Such fears contribute to the breaking down of a sense of community and disable the cultivation of strong social ties across groups. 
  • Wider contexts: The neighbourhoods also do not exist in a vacuum from the wider world and inevitably external factors also influence them. For example, stories from CHALK and the old town of Sassari highlight how changing social attitudes have led to people becoming less connected. More so, in Wedding, although the neighbourhood is seen as being a good example of a diverse community, people in it are still impacted on by systemic issues such as institutionalised racism within the police service. It is hard for individual neighbourhoods to be resilient to or have the capacity to combat such issues. 

Going Beyond

What has become apparent from the stories gathered is that in order for the diverse neighbourhoods we have worked in to address the challenges that they face, ‘beyond’ thinking and approaches are needed. Beyond thinking and approaches go further than seeking to solve the symptom of an issue and delve into looking at more multifaceted, complex solutions to an issue’s root cause. This is not to say that some manifestations of more linear and symptom addressing approaches are not needed, but rather to state that in order to fully tackle a social issue then new ways of thinking and doing things must be cultivated. In turn, this can lead to real change, or growth, that goes beyond surface-level interventions. Looking across the stories, three distinct notions of beyond thinking and approaches have emerged, as detailed below.

1. Beyond physical regeneration and into creating environments of interactions

There are many examples within the stories about different types of physical regeneration that has occurred in the neighbourhoods this study has looked look at. These include new bars opening in the squares of Sassari Old Town, facades of buildings being renovated in Józsefvárosand the legacy of the NDC Regeneration Scheme in CHALK embodied in community centres. Yet what seems to be valued about such spaces is not just the visual-appeal of buildings but in the ways in which the spaces allow for interactions between people. As one person details in regards to Wedding, “there is one or several spaces where people with different origins can meet”. When such spaces are no longer there, such as the closed pubs in Salford, it is not only the service they offered the community that disappears but also the opportunity for people to socialise. More so, when certain spaces are renovated it can also lead to the exclusion of people, as is the case with the gatekeeping of the regenerated parks in the 8thdistrict of Budapest. Therefore, when creating or renovating physical spaces it is important to think about how they can help facilitate social interactions, in particularly for those in the community who may be the most excluded. 

2. Beyond services and into creating meaningful connections

Whilst many of the stories highlight how services and formal support provision have helped people in their neighbourhood it is important to remember that services alone are not the answer. In Józsefváros, for example, people outlined how they didn’t feel that the people who really needed the new services that have emerged were accessing them and in CHALK, people spoke about difficulty navigating services and finding out information. Furthermore, in the stories from Wedding it is highlighted that although there is a system in place to support newcomers to settle into Germany, the bureaucracy of the system presents a barrier to people in it. In the examples where services are working for the people who need them, it is when people have either been signposted by other local people to them or when the services enable them to connect on a human level with other people. As the carer who attends a Zumba class in CHALK states, the group helps her “live a life as well as caring for [her] husband”. What we can learn from stories like this, is that connecting local knowledge regarding services and connecting people at services to one another, are key contributors to services reaching their intended recipients.  

3. Beyond top-down strategic interventions and into bottom-up action 

The stories and their contexts demonstrate that top-down strategic interventions should be combined with real engagement of local people. In Wedding, they are using the Social City programme to include local people in decision-making processes and thus attempting to bridge this divide. In CHALK, despite some of the divides between newcomers to the area and people who have lived there for generations, both sets of people work together at the local food bank to help address the bigger issue of poverty in the area. In essence, people who the stories suggest might otherwise not interact with one another, have connected due to a common purpose and need. This demonstrates the power of people taking responsibility for creating the neighbourhood that they want to live in. As one resident in Józsefváros states, in the future they hope that people go beyond looking to local government for the answers and realise that“we are all responsible for the environment we live in”. 

Whilst some of the wider societal issues and systemic problems are difficult to overcome, particularly in these diverse neighbourhoods that are the recipients of change more than other areas are, what is evident is that by strengthening connections within communities, people can overcome the challenges they face. These connections are social (i.e. between people and people), environmental (i.e. between people and the place they live) and internal (i.e. between people and their sense of social responsibility). Through activating these connections, diverse communities are better placed to build (both physically and metaphysically) the neighbourhoods and lives they would like to have.

To draw your own conclusions from these stories, you can view all the stories gathered as part of this process here, watch short edited videos from each of the neighbourhoods below, or download the full report.

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