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Flawed ghetto policy focuses on areas rather than people

When politicians and city planners propose solutions to the challenges in the deprived neighbourhoods, they often draw on good experiences from other countries. But this can be problematic if you are unaware of differences between the countries, shows new research from Roskilde University.
Troels Schultz Larsen
Troels Schultz Larsen in the so-called ghetto area in Copehagen 'Mjølnerparken'. Photo: Jón Bjarni.

Tear it down. These were the words of Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen in his New Year speech on 1 January. Ever since, there has been heated debate about the ghettos in Denmark in the wake of the government's ghetto list and subsequent ghetto proposals, which they presented in March. 

However, the entire basis for the government's ghetto proposal is problematic, according to housing researcher and associate professor at Roskilde University, Troels Schultz Larsen: 

"The fundamental problem with the ghetto list is that it does not solve the problem, because it focuses on neighbourhoods rather than people. It does not tackle the structural problems that exist in relation to the labour market, the housing market and poverty. Instead, the list produces stigmatization, makes people feel unsafe and is directly counter-productive, because it changes both the residents’ and everyone else's perception of the area and those who live there" says Troels Schultz Larsen, associate professor at the Department of Social Sciences and Business.

Inspiration from other countries

Troels Schultz Larsen says that when politicians, urban planners and even other researchers are required to come up with solutions to the problems in the neglected housing estates, it is common to seek inspiration in other countries. Study trips are taken to Paris. They look at what has been done in Holland. This often occurs without taking account of the major differences that can exist between countries.

In a new scientific article published in Urban Geography, Troels Schultz Larsen systematically reviews the pitfalls that exist when trying to compare neglected housing estates in France and Denmark and transfer experiences directly from one country to the other. Among other things, the buildings in France's ghettos are generally in much poorer condition than in Denmark. The labour market and the housing market are also different, and social housing efforts are much more centralised in France.

"It makes good sense to learn from the experiences of France, the United States or Holland. But the demolition proposal, for example, is largely based on foreign experience, and there could be more nuances here. My mission is that we should not rely on foreign experience that does not make sense in Denmark. There are also a number of different factors that must be taken into account” explains Troels Schultz.

"There is a tendency to assume that because the symptoms are largely the same, the disease is also the same. But we have to be careful about transferring the diagnosis from one community to another” says Troels Schultz Larsen.

Problems with demolition and rehousing

Troels Schultz Larsen consistently refers to what the government calls 'ghettos' as ‘neglected housing estates’. He believes that the word ghetto is problematic in a Danish context, because we simply do not have ghettos in Denmark. He points out, however, that this is not the same as saying that we do not have social problems and housing problems.

"We do not have ghettos in Denmark"

The research-based definition of ghettos used by Troels Schultz Larsen is developed by Professor Loïc Wacquant, UC Berkely/Paris:

  1. One homogeneous, stigmatized population group (e.g. Jews and blacks).
  2. Physical demarcation. In other words, physically and/or socially separated from the rest of the surrounding community with a clear demarcation of inside/outside.
  3. Economic constraints. Direct and indirect discrimination, for example in the labour market, based on characteristics of the area in which one lives. 
  4. Institutional demarcation. The ghettos are largely cut off from the community's public institutions and they therefore develop their own institutions.
  5. Territorial stigmatization characterized by a shaming of certain places.

According to Troels Schultz Larsen, it is an absurdity to talk about ghettos or parallel societies in Denmark. For example, this does not concern a homogeneous population group, and several areas have residents from up to 60 different countries. Similarly, the high relocation rates show that there are no fixed boundaries between these areas and the surrounding community. In Denmark, the public sector is also intensely present in the neglected housing estates with day-care centres, public schools, out-reach and community

Troels Schultz Larsen
"My mission is to ensure that we do not rely on foreign experience that does not make sense in Denmark" says Troels Schultz Larsen. Photo: Jón Bjarni.