Do we need to be the same to be civil?


The stalls in Queen’s Market in Newham, officially London’s most diverse borough, sell the same noisy toys from China and counterfeit ‘Calvin’ jock straps found in markets around the world. The area has been globalising for centuries. By 2005 almost 40 per cent were born outside the UK. They came from over 40 different countries. Social scientists label areas like Newham ‘super-diverse’.

 And it is presumably areas like Newham that fuel growing concerns about migration’s negative social impacts. Diversity on this scale makes civic life unsustainable because, to borrow from Robert Putnam, ethnic groups ‘hunker down’ – stick to themselves in search for safety and support. Isolation and disengagement from mainstream society makes them alienated and fuels resentment in established groups, particularly those who feel they are getting a raw deal.  Crime and ethnic conflict therefore become more likely.

 My trip to the market disappoints. People mix freely, shoppers queue patiently, families push their prams, girls giggle and grannies haggle. The local CSO informs me that shoplifting is infrequent – a lonely (broken) CCTV camera peers down from one end of the market. Newham also defies many political assumptions. Unlike the neighbouring borough of Barking and Daggenham, BNP appeal has been low (including among the White Working Classes) and until 2010 they had not contested a local seat. Contrary to popular belief, it seems that extremisms flourish in homogeneous areas, particularly those which lie on the fringes of diverse hubs like Newham.

 Part of the explanation for the market’s apparent harmony could lie in the old advertising adage that the ‘customer has no colour’. Stall holders have adapted with the times – it’s not unusual to meet Cockney salesmen who speak fluent Urdu for example. In their words: “We have to be polite because we are so different.” In other words, clashes and prejudices just don’t make business sense. Old-fashioned civility could also be a means of coping with the constant flux of modernity. Thick skin and sharp antennae for differences are critical to navigate areas like this.

 Above all, hope is the critical lubricant for harmonious human interaction in diverse places. Local population churn stands at 20 percent– people don’t stick around for long in other words. Residents in diverse places like Newham are driven by a hunger for success, what rapper Jay-Z calls that ‘great dream of mobility’. Many will have taken a step down the social ladder when leaving home, and they won’t want to stay there, wallowing in prejudice, for long.

 And although very diverse areas tend to be poor (Newham is the 6th most deprived borough in England), evidence shows that diversity is a significant driver for economic success. Diverse consumers demand a more mixed range of goods, acting as drivers for economic growth. Diverse teams also outperform homogeneous ones (in Silicon Valley, for example, 25 per cent of all start ups have at least one foreign-born owner and it was not unusual to see multi-racial stalls in Queen’s market).  Newham has also been buoyed by substantive public investment (which could add up to up to £15 billion). The Thames Gateway is England’s biggest regeneration project. Having the Olympic site on its doorstep (with 62,000 new jobs) of course helps.

Rather than harking back to a golden age of ethnic homogeneity, those who fear migration would do well to spend a day in Queen’s market, witnessing how people are adapting to each other, refining their behaviours in order to make the great diversity experiment in Newham work.


About Phoebe Griffith

My work is as a writer and policy advisor. My interests are in the dynamics that make our increasingly complex, fast-paced, diverse cities work - from the emergence of new codes of civility in an age of invasive technology to the future of the developing world's mega-cities. I grew up in Lima (Peru) and am now bringing up a family in the heart of West London (UK).
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