Authors’ Blog: “Us Up Here and Them Down There”: How Design, Management, and Neighborhood Facilities Shape Social Distance in a Mixed-Tenure Housing Development

This is an author-produced blog post to introduce upcoming Urban Affairs Review articles. This article is available in OnlineFirst.


“Us Up Here and Them Down There”: How Design, Management, and Neighborhood Facilities Shape Social Distance in a Mixed-Tenure Housing Development

Anouk Tersteeg
Fenne Pinkster

Despite the fact that social mix is an essential component of urban policies in Western Europe, it remains unclear at what spatial scale housing diversification programs may be most effective. When people with different backgrounds, household compositions, and lifestyles live in close proximity to one another, the emergence of close social ties is not always guaranteed. On the one hand, living in socially mixed environments may create bridges between residents of different social positions. On the other hand, it can lead to processes of social distancing and reproduce negative stereotypes. This article  explores how these diverging experiences of social closeness or distance may relate to place-specific factors that mediate everyday encounters and interactions such as housing design, management practices and the nature of local facilities and amenities.

What does the study examine?

The study examines to what degree residents in a fine-grained mixed-tenure housing development in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, experience social closeness and distance to one another. The research complements existing studies on social mix projects at higher spatial scales and brings together Bourdieu’s (1989) perspective on social boundary drawing with a design and institutional perspective. Tenure-mix has long been a key strategy in Dutch urban planning to create socially diverse neighborhoods, not only in area-based interventions in deprived neighborhoods but also in the construction of new neighborhoods. A qualitative case study was undertaken in the newly developed, middle class neighborhood of IJburg in Amsterdam, which was planned and designed to be a “neighborhood without borders”. Here, tenure-mix has been realized at very low spatial scales: in the apartment complex of this study, 40% of the units are owner occupied and the remainder is social rental, including a small share of apartments for assisted living. All apartments share an entrance and central courtyard and the different tenures are not visible from the outside. Moreover, because the social rental sector in the city of Amsterdam is considerable and also accessible to middle class households, it does not carry a strong stigma (Musterd 2014). The apartment complex is managed by a consortium of the housing association and the private owners.

What did we find?

Interviews with residents and neighborhoud proffesionals show that—regardless of policy intentions—the reality of living in IJburg is far removed from an idealized “neighborhood without borders” . Recurrent negative encounters between residents have contibuted to considerable social divides in the apartment complex, despite the uniform housing design and the fact that there are relatively small differences between residents in terms of educational training, occupational status and income. Boundaries are not simply drawn based on fixed categories of renter versus owners. Rather, tenure coincides with differences in ethnicity, household size, and location within the apartment complex, to create three distinctive groups: those who live “upstairs” (owners, native Dutch, small families, some with young children), “downstairs” (social renters, non-Western migrants, large families with somewhat older children), and “in the tower” (social renters, varied ethnic background, different household compositions, some with young children). There is considerable tension and negative steroryping between the upstairs and the downstairs neighbors in particular.

How do design, management and neighbourhood facilities shape these outcomes?

Several place-specific features were found to intensify these negative experiences. First, the design did little to safeguard residents’ need for privacy in a context of close proximity to people with very different ways of living (Stokoe 2006; Van Eijk 2011). In line with previous studies (Chaskin and Joseph 2010; Roberts 2007), differences in the use of private and shared spaces in the building were magnified by the distribution of apartments for different tenures – owners upstairs and renters downstairs and in the tower – and different household types – large families downstairs, small families upstairs and in the tower. A compact building design and the location of the shared entrance and courtyard created a sound box that made it difficult for residents to ignore each other.

Second, rather than reducing the resulting social tensions between the different resident groups, the management structure and everyday management practices were found to enhance them (August 2014; Chaskin, Sichling, and Joseph 2013). Most notably, an asymmetry in the decision-making power between owner-occupiers and social renters enabled the former to modify the rules and regulations of the building and the physical design of the shared spaces in a way that does not reflect the interests of the latter. Owners have, for instance, been able to introduce child-unfriendly plants and wooden logs in the shared yard to prevent ‘downstairs’ children from playing there and making noise. As a result, symbolic power differences between the upstairs owners and the downstairs renters have become inscribed in the physical layout of the apartment complex (Bourdieu 1989; Davidson 2010). Not surprisingly, social renters, particularly those in the ground floor apartments, feel marginalized within their own building.

Finally, this feeling is enhanced by the fact that also in the wider middle class neighborhood, social renters feel that their everyday needs have not been accommodated. Local facilities and amenities are perceived to largely reflect the interests and lifestyles of the owners. This has contributed to mostly segregated routines at the scale of the neighborhood, which are seen by all respondents as symbolic for the divisions within the apartment complex.

How to create neighborhoods without borders?

The study shows that creating a “neighborhood without borders” entails much more than mixing tenures within a coherent design. In the case of IJburg, other place-specific factors, at the scale of the apartment complex itself and at the scale of the neighborhood, could have been planned in a more inclusive way. Consequently, what could have been a “best practice” case seems to actually have become a worst case scenario: living with difference has resulted in substantial social tensions and even overt conflict in which social renters feel stigmatized and out of place in their own homes. In fact, in a recent meeting about IJburg with urban and housing professionals and active residents, it was cynically agreed upon that the original intention to design “exciting inner court yards in fine-grained mix projects has led to altogether too much excitement of the wrong kind.” Housing corporations have, therefore, apparently decided to avoid further fine-grained mix projects in new extensions of the neighborhood.

The question can be raised, however, whether this is ultimately the lesson that should be taken from the experiences in IJburg. This study suggests that the “blame” for the problems does not lie in design alone. Fine-grained mix also requires inclusive and proactive management and an inclusive facility structure at the scale of the neighborhood. The study, therefore, demonstrates the need for more integrated approaches in the planning for and management of mixed-tenure projects, which acknowledge the wider socioinstitutional residential context and facilitate more opportunities for positive encounters between different tenure groups.

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