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Ethnographic understandings of ethnically diverse neighbourhoods to inform urban design practice


Ethnographic scholarship can be used to improve cultural literacy and support social justice in urban design practice

The aim of this synthesis of recent literature was to explore the existing ethnographic scholarship of ethnically diverse neighborhoods as a means of informing urban design practice. The term “ethnography,” as used in this paper, refers to research using qualitative and situated methodologies to gain an in-depth understanding of cultures and values informing human behavior. The human behavior of concern for this research relates to intercultural dynamics of public life and patterns of use within public spaces.

Twenty-four studies met the three inclusion criteria for this review: (a) situated in an urban or town context in the United Kingdom (UK), with some reference to public outdoor environments; (b) addressed aspects of ethnic diversity and social relations; and (c) published in a peer-reviewed journal from 2006-2016. The research projects included in this review were unevenly distributed across the UK, with over half located in London, and most of the others in large cities. Approximately half of the projects addressed issues of interactions between groups of different ethnic backgrounds and ages. The others focused on certain characteristics of group and individual identity (such as ethnicity). Most of the projects studied a geographically defined area (such as a borough or neighborhood); some studied particular types of urban places (including the commercial street, markets, parks, and even a road junction). Parks were the predominant type of outdoor recreational places.

Four themes, proposed as generalizable themes, emerged from an analysis of locations in the public realm that appear to be socially important in ethnically diverse contexts: (1) spaces of shared activity (such as markets and local festivals); (2) leisure in parks; (3) passing-by; and (4) nearby quietness. Findings regarding the use of public space indicate that both conviviality and racism play a role in users’ experience. Based on these findings, four priorities for practice are discussed: maximizing straightforward participation, legitimizing diversity of activity, designing in micro-retreats of nearby quietness, and addressing structural inequalities of open space provision. Actualizing these priorities could have significant benefits for people living in ethnically diverse urban neighborhoods, including a sense of belonging.

The authors conclude by highlighting the role ethnographic research can play in improving cultural literacy and supporting social justice in urban design practice.


Rishbeth, C., Ganji, F., Vodicka, G., (2018). Ethnographic understandings of ethnically diverse neighbourhoods to inform urban design practice. Local Environment, 23(1), 36-53.


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