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“Social mixing is not a one-size-fits-all solution to urban problems”

An interview with Professor Maarten Van Ham

Brussels, 16 June 2015 | Published in Social, Research
Professor Dr. Maarten Van Ham - Copyright: TU Delft, Photo: Job Jansweijer
Professor Dr. Maarten Van Ham - Copyright: TU Delft, Photo: Job Jansweijer

An introduction to the work and the views of the esteemed Professor, Maarten Van Ham, one of the keynote speakers at the Housing Europe General Assembly thematic discussions in Lisbon.

There aren’t many researchers in Europe dealing with urban issues who have received a 2 million € grant for their work. In 2014 the European Research Council acknowledged the added value of DEPRIVEDHOODS in examining socio-spatial inequality, deprived neighbourhoods, and neighbourhood effects and supported the 5-year research project that has already been launched last August. Professor Maarten Van Ham is leading a team of 10 researchers in four countries- Estonia, Sweden, The Netherlands and United Kingdom.

A population geographer with a background in economic and urban geography, Maarten Van Ham is Professor of Urban Renewal and head of the Neighbourhood Change and Housing research group at the Department OTB - Research for the Built Environment of the esteemed Delft University of Technology & the University of St Andrews. With a special interest in the causes and consequences of both residential mobility and migration (why do people move residence and what are the consequences of moving for the housing, household and labour career?), Professor Van Ham will be addressing the Housing Europe members at one of the General Assembly 2015 thematic discussions that will focus on “Social Mix and Sustainable Communities”. 

Just a few weeks before listening to him in Lisbon, we have contacted him and asked him to share with us more information about his latest research projects as well as his views on social mix and the role of housing providers. Are cities really focusing today on people to quote the key question of the ENHR Conference? Professor Van Ham responds…

You are leading a big international project that examines the socio-spatial inequality and the role of neighbourhoods. How would you illustrate the link between inequality, neighbourhoods and affordable housing? Are there any preliminary findings you can share with Housing Europe?

The links between socio-spatial inequality (segregation) and affordable housing are both simple and very complicated. The simple version is that there will be concentrations of poverty in cities in those places where there is affordable (social) housing. So socio-spatial segregation is partly a result of urban planning and strongly path dependent. However, cities are not static and the urban mosaic of neighbourhoods changes over time, and some neighbourhoods are more vulnerable than others. Especially in times of crisis.

The complication version of the answer relates to questions on the importance of neighbourhood effects. Do deprived neighbourhoods have an additional and independent negative effect on the wellbeing of their residents. This is a (methodologically) complicated question to answer, but a very important question with regard to urban policy, especially social mix policies. Research up to now shows that neighbourhood effects are of limited importance, but that is not a reason not to invest in neighbourhoods.

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During Housing Europe's thematic session on July 2nd you'll address an audience of practitioners from the social, cooperative and public housing sector around the theme ‘Social mix and sustainable communities’. Social mix keeps coming up lately as one of the key challenges of the urban agenda of the future. Housing providers are asked more and more to contribute to sustainable communities by providing much more than housing. This may include for instance the provision of care and support services, creating training and job opportunities, or fostering social enterprises.

What do you think should be the focus points of this expanded mission of housing providers?

First of all I am not in favour of social mixing as a one-size-fits-all solution to many urban problems. Off course mixing can improve neighbourhoods when part of the population is replaced by more affluent middle class households, but there is no solid evidence that mixing actually benefits the original population of deprived neighbourhoods. I believe that cities need to offer a variety of living environments and I do not see a problem in some level of specialisation of neighbourhoods.

Of course one needs to be careful not to generate no-go-areas, but on the other hand one should also be careful not to generate cities with only average neighbourhood. Such cities will not be attractive to live in for many groups who are vital for the urban economy. I feel social housing providers should be very careful in following the doctrine of social mix as often it is more productive to invest in people than to invest in buildings and the neighbourhood environment. But I am very much in favour of investing in people and in activating citizens. The role of social housing providers in this is partly a political decision (see trends in the Netherlands).

The theme of this year's ENHR conference is 'Housing and cities in a time of change: are we focusing on people?'. Based on the experiences you’ve come across in your research (in Europe and worldwide), can you give us an example of a city/neighbourhood that you think is on the right track and may pave the way for others?

The disappointing answer for you is no. I cannot. The reason is simply that I do not have a good overview of what is going on all over Europe. I know a few case studies from my own research, but I do not have a good overview. Having said that, I am very interested in discussions at a very large Social Housing Provider Woonstad Rotterdam where they are thinking about a housing strategy for the next decades which moves somewhat away from the doctrine of social mix.

Instead they are thinking about a strategy in which different neighbourhoods have different functions within the city, for different types of households. Much more thinking in terms of creating attractive sustainable neighbourhoods which have different functions depending on the phase of the life course of households. This as an alternative to a city of average neighbourhoods, which is not very attractive.