How can public spaces ease intercultural tensions?

“Ooooh sushi, konnichinwa, sushi”, one of the men shouted repeatedly while circling around me, trying to get some sort of reaction. The group had been waiting at the bus stop for about 5 minutes, when two men came right up to my face hoping to get attention and perhaps entertainment. They had clearly been drinking, evidenced by the empty cans of beer scattered across the footpath.

I said nothing. But I didn’t walk away either. I looked at them in the eye and quietly pulled my phone up to take a video of their actions and words. The camera seemed to effectively turn their voices down until the bus arrived and we all got on. We shared the same, uncomfortable space while avoiding direct eye contact. The public transport, full of people that I believed would support me, was the pacifier of our conflict, as was my camera: under the watchful eyes of others, the men adjusted their behaviours to the expectation of the society.

How does it feel when something like that happens, my friends ask. My heart breaks, really. I have lived in the west for more than 20 years, and this kind of incident is not uncommon. You hear about them from your friends and family, you see them on Youtube and you read about them on the paper. I spoke with 6 ethnic minorities living in Sydney to get their views.

  • Taiwanese-American female late 20s
  • Chinese-Vanuatu-Australian female mid 30s
  • Vietnamese-Australian female early 30s
  • Sri Lankan-Australian female late 20s
  • Indian-Kenyan-Australian male late 30s
  • Vietnamese-Australian male late 30s

5 out of 6 were subjected to verbal racial assault at some point of their lives, ranging from “go home, Indian” and “what are you doing in this country” to “Parki (Parkistan)” and “ching chung”. When asked if they felt unsafe in a particular public space because of their ethnicity, they said Sydney was a relatively safe place and it was fine as long as they used common sense e.g. don’t walk around a train station after 11pm alone. A hijab-wearing colleague had a slightly different perception saying that she has felt unsafe in a number of places.

Looking at the subject from the other end, many communities that I have worked with all over Australia feel uneasy about the rapidly changing demographics: suddenly there are too many people out and about in their own ethnic groups, doing their shopping in their specialist stores. The shops look dark inside, with unfamiliar products tucked away, adding to the fear of the unknown. Established Australians often don’t feel invited to get to know new ethnic groups that start to form dominant cultural enclaves. And they are not quite sure how to bridge the gap.

One could contribute this ongoing feeling of ‘otherness’ on the relatively short migration history of Australia. But cultural integration is a complex issue in older countries in Europe and North America too – time by itself clearly does not resolve tension. Will we ever stop perceiving certain ethnicity as a threat or a target of bullying? Can we better design our public spaces to promote intercultural understanding and build relationships?

Oscar Newman’s defensible space theory in the 1970s established the link between community ownership of the space, crime rate and economy. In his book, Creating Defensible Spaces, he cites three case studies in the U.S., scrutinising each neighbourhood’s demographic groups, and the impact the physical environment has on their behaviours. Although the focus is on crime reduction around housing projects, the theory remains relevant today with regards to providing passive surveillance, promoting place attachment and building social trust.

Karin Peters, author of Living Together in Multi-Ethnic Neighbourhoods (2011), specifically explored public spaces and social integration in the Dutch context. She argues that “casual intercultural interaction can be facilitated by the availability of facilities that give purpose to a space and enhance its social vitality”. In the case of Kanaalstraat – a multicultural shopping street in Lombok that includes a number of Turkish, Indian, Surinamese businesses – the shop owners contribute to facilitation of such interaction; in the case of Goffertpark, the park’s openness, accessibility and diversity of users invite informal interaction.

To consider the state of ethnic integration in the Australian context, I spent some time in Auburn last Saturday. Auburn LGA is one of the most diverse council areas in Australia, with only 39% born in Australia (2011 Census). The Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Indian and Turkish influences are visible on the shop signage and unique products on display; and so is the segregation of the ethnic groups, with each clan visiting specific shops.

Infamous for its high crime rates, including domestic violence and car theft, Auburn hasn’t had much positive media lately. Their 2014 Community Safety Survey shows more than 96% of the survey participants believe that crime in the Auburn Local Government Area has either increased or stayed the same in the last 12 months, in contrast to the actual statistics. 63% of the participants stated there are places in the LGA where they feel unsafe. (Note: In Auburn LGA, 20.5% of people only speak English at home according to the Census 2011, compared to 62% of the survey participants that speak English either only or with another language. Culurally and Linguistically Diverse groups may have been underrepresented in this survey.) A high number of refugees, new migrants and low employment rates are often blamed for such social issues in the media.

Leaving the Auburn train station, I am pleasantly surprised by the hustle and bustle on the street. The public domain is certainly outdated – smelly and lacking greenery in general – but its authenticity lies in the vibrant, fine-grain shops along S. Parade that sell everything from fresh fruit and bread to seafood and meat. Footpaths are packed by 11am with families with shopping carts and trolley bags, picking up the week’s worth of groceries. The shops open wide to the street, allowing people to see what’s going on inside. I stick my head into a bakery with arabic signage, hoping to discover some authentic, magical piece of deliciousness that I would instantly Instragram.

Vibrant S. Parade lined with fine-grain shops that open wide to the public.
Vibrant S. Parade lined with fine-grain shops that open wide to the public.
Public seating along S.Parade is well used by shoppers reading cultural papers.
Public seating along S.Parade is well-used by shoppers reading cultural papers.

The colourful and diverse life on S. Parade forms a stark contrast with Queen Street that parallels it. Franchise shops including Oliver Brown and Gloria Jeans line up the northern side of Queen Street leading to the shopping centre entry. The southern side is a blank wall, providing an entry to a car park. The footpath widens just past Harrow Road to become a larger pocket of space that lies bare. Little time is spent lingering in the open space: it is not sheltered, has no greenery, there is nothing to do and nothing to see. Three benches along the edge are well occupied by those taking a break from their shopping, reading newspaper. The recently upgraded Auburn Road remains empty too, despite the more attractive and green streetscape. Very few dine outside.

Large open space at the end of Queen Street remains empty in stark contrast to the shopping centre and S. Parade.
Large open space at the end of Queen Street remains empty in stark contrast to the shopping centre and S. Parade.
Auburn Road offers a wide footpath, outdoor dining and children's play area.
Auburn Road offers a wide footpath, outdoor dining and children’s play area.

Inside the shopping centre – people are busy doing their shopping as quickly as possible at Big W, Woolworths and the butcher’s, and getting quick meals in between. It is built for the sole purpose of grocery shopping, nothing else.

Shopping centre is packed with shoppers, but there is nothing else to do.
Shopping centre is packed with shoppers, but there is nothing else to do.

In Auburn, grocery shopping for large families is the key reason to go out and spend time in the public space, yet the main shopping area does not offer many things to do. It is disconnected physically from the rest of the centre: the newly built Auburn Memorial Park, which draws many families and children; public seating areas on top of the pedestrianised Queen Street steps; and the community centre.

Diversity is definitely there in Auburn and many other neighbourhoods in Australia. But social trust is not about putting people in the same room hoping they will start ‘integrating’. We have to offer an invitation for them to start a conversation, in a place where everyone feels safe. Engaging migrant communities in a meaningful way will take more than focus groups, workshops and surveys; many come from cultures where civic participation and ‘having a say’ leads to persecution or where decision makers are people of higher socio-economic status. In those suburbs, what William H. Whyte called ‘triangulation’ – a process in which “some external stimulus provides a social bond between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not” (Whyte, W. H.,1980) – takes on another layer of complexity, that is multiculturalism. The usual conversation starters such as the presence of dogs, children, balls and events would be still effective. But in addition, the designer must remember that the same features in the space may offer different meanings to different user groups, encourage them to negotiate their space with others, and help them feel safe about expressing their identities.

The Auburn Memorial Park has already begun to bring people together in its playground. Conversation starters don’t have to cost a lot, and visual interaction is a step forward. Small dog parks, interactive artwork, chess/majong boards, Instagram moments that are connected to its shopping hub can be tested for local appetite. And from there, perhaps a shy hello will grow into curiosity of ‘otherness’ and even a celebration of multiculturalism.

A diversity of people watch their children play at the Auburn Memorial Park.
A diversity of people watch their children play at the Auburn Memorial Park.
A woman meditates under a tree at the Auburn Memorial Park.
A woman meditates under a tree at the Auburn Memorial Park.

Follow Julia on Twitter @JuliaSuhCom