Designing for Diversity: the Multicultural City

Councillor Henry Tsang OAM

Deputy Lord Mayor, City of Sydney, Australia

The success of cultural diversity depends on the spirit of sharing. When we won the Olympic 2000 bid, Sydney was presented to the world as a young, energetic and harmonious city, a successful city with a great spirit. In our theme song for the Olympic bid, we asked the rest of the world to share with us our spirit "... come share our hopes; share our dreams; share our spirit...". This spirit is the essence of designing for cultural diversity. We have to ensure that we make it possible for all citizens, regardless of their cultural or ethnic backgrounds, to share in the great benefits that come from living in Sydney.

Ethnic and racial tensions are aggravated by social inequities. What we need to maintain is a spirit of tolerance, a spirit of fairness, in fact, a spirit of sharing. We need to take concrete measures to ensure everyone in this city has the chance to share our community's resources fairly.

It is not easy to achieve a tolerant and sharing society. In 1992 I was invited to chair the opening session of the United Nations World Urban Forum in Curitiba. I was also the Australian local government representative at the UN Earth Summit held in Rio. My involvement in those conferences, and later conferences in Manchester and Cairo, confirmed for me that all the major cities of the world have problems. And those problems are directly connected with the way we share resources.

It doesn't matter whether a city is western or eastern, in the northern hemisphere or the southern, all have disparities between the "haves" and the "have nots". All cities have groups who are homeless, poor, ill-educated or discriminated against. These problems are to do with sharing. They are inter-twined with the way we share our global resources, and they are inter-twined with the way we share resources within cities.

Sydney is one of the most multicultural cities in the world. We have people from about 140 different ethnic groups living cheek by jowl in this city. Various scholars over the years have predicted disaster for Australia, and for Sydney, if we continued along the multicultural path.

A decade ago, the eminent Professor Geoffrey Blainey said that multiculturalism would create a nation of warring tribes, a nation scarred by bigotry and hatred, a nation divided not only along class lines but also into hierarchies of race.

That's a rather gloomy prediction. So far it hasn't come to pass, and we don't want it to. We don't want a society where people of certain ethnic backgrounds are automatically excluded from sharing in the benefits of our community. It won't happen if we remain true to the spirit of sharing. That spirit is embodied in our national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, which says:

"for those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share; with courage let us all combine to advance Australia fair..."

We have to make sure Australia continues to advance. It will only do that if we allow all our citizens to contribute to our community and if we allow all our citizens a fair share of our community and our resources.

Australia's population is only growing through migration. With a rapidly ageing population, increases through migration are essential.

When migrants come here, they don't choose to settle in country areas. They want to settle where they can find work, where they can find support services, where they can find other people who speak the same languages and share the same experiences.

Most migrants and refugees choose to live in the large cities. Forty-five per cent of all migrants to Australia settle in New South Wales. Most of those come to Sydney. In some areas of this city, more than 500f people over the age of five speak a language other than English at home, and in some schools, e.g. Campsie High School, up to 950f students are of non-English speaking background. This puts more demand on Sydney's transport systems, hospitals, schools and basic services. In turn, this makes it essential that we ensure everyone has equal access to these services.

Last year, I represented Australia at the UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. In preparation for the conference, I sat on a committee along with representatives of academia, community groups, employer groups, unions, environmentalists, the whole gamut of Australian society. The range of opinions expressed on that committee were just as wide-ranging but, on one issue everyone was agreed, that Australia's population should only grow as far as it is environmentally sustainable.

To put it another way, we should only allow our cities to expand if we can adequately continue to support the people who live in them. There are two main ways of designing to cope with cultural diversity: designing the physical form of the city, and designing the social environment.

The Federal Government recognises this and assumes responsibility for providing
post-migration social services which will help newcomers to become integrated into mainstream Australian life and, for the major cities that have increasing populations, investing in their infrastructure, the transport system, education, housing, and so on.

The Building Better Cities program is a good example of the Federal Government's exercise of its responsibilities. Local government, the sphere of government closest to the people on a day-to-day level, also supports this notion. We are directly involved in both providing services as well as influencing the built environment. At the local level, there are people in councils representing the interests of ethnic communities. They are taking action to try to make sure everyone gets a fair go.

Waverley Council recently introduced a scheme of "leave without pay" for staff of non-English speaking background who want to celebrate non-Christian events such as Ramadan, Pasach or the Asian New Year.

Wollongong City Council makes good use of ethnic media and local organisations to get information out about, for example, the Council's child immunization program, pollution control, and recycling services.

Canterbury City Council has set up a very successful program to improve relations between their 10,000 Muslims and other Australians living in that area. The problem in Canterbury is not so much racial discrimination as religious discrimination.

Sydney City Council library specialises in Asian languages, particularly Chinese. With 22,000 volumes, we have the largest collection of Chinese books in this state.

In some areas, local councillors have been able to drive through a Local Ethnic Affairs Policy Statement, or "LEAPS" as it is known. LEAPS was aimed at improving access and equity to local government services for people of ethnic origin. But it didn't last. It was a pilot program which has been replaced by the broader access and equity project for local government.

LEAPS was replaced because it was considered by some as not being very successful. This was because it didn't cover the whole community. It was aimed only at people of non-English speaking background. On that basis, it didn't go far enough to reduce tensions in our community and create a fairer, more tolerant society. It was said that LEAPS marginalised citizens on the basis of ethnic background.

On the other hand, the access and equity project which replaces LEAPS is regarded as being more appropriate because it is about sharing services with the entire community. Access and equity focuses on customer service and it is meant to be a priority throughout all sections of councils. It doesn't just look at ethnic differences, but also gender, sexuality, disabilities and other factors which might prevent someone from getting equal access to a council's services.

Access and equity sounds good. But is it just a bunch of fancy words? Are we being hoodwinked into giving up specific services for people of ethnic background?

I'm told that many councils are hanging on to the old LEAPS project. They are frightened if they let it go, nothing will be done for their ethnic communities. Perhaps that is a fair assumption?

Could it be that the access and equity project is just an excuse to cut and "streamline" services?

Our council was a participant in the pilot LEAPS project, but we didn't get far with it. It was given a very low priority and was neglected in difficult financial times. Who is to say that the access and equity project won't go the same way? Is it so widely drawn that it will end up a nice motherhood statement with little actual effect? Personally, I think access and equity is a good idea, but we need to ensure it succeeds.

The State Government requires all councils "to exercise their functions with due regard for the cultural and linguistic diversity of their communities".

I believe the access and equity project should be compulsory for all councils. If the aim of the project is to include the whole of the community, then we should make sure the whole of the community participates in it. I also believe that in every case, the access and equity project should be based on an in-depth study to identify community needs. How can you ensure access and equity if you don't know who you are dealing with? How can you ensure access and equity if you don't know what the people in your area really need?

The compulsory studies should then be regularly included in each council's annual report. The Local Government Act 1993 already requires that all councils give details of programs they have undertaken during the year "to promote services, and access to services, for people with diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds". A thorough study of a council's population should be a prerequisite to the provision of services.

At Sydney City Council, we are planning to collect data on our local community. And soon we will appoint a consultant to work with a staff committee to develop our access and equity policy. We don't want the access and equity program to go the way of LEAPS. But we will have to be vigilant if we want this policy to be a success.

Designing for diversity in the built environment also requires a spirit of tolerance and sharing. The biggest problem facing our modern cities is urban sprawl.

As the cities grow, more and more people are moving away from the city centres. The urban sprawl is costing our environment dearly. It also means high infrastructure costs as new suburbs are created on the fringes.

In the past, State and Federal Government policies have been based on decentralisation. But the result is cities with empty hearts, and new suburbs on the fringes where the locals live without public transport, theatres, schools, sporting facilities and other basics of a comfortable life.

State Governments particularly have a responsibility to work with local governments to bring about a reversal in the urban sprawl. The services people need are already in the centres of cities.

Sydney City Council is actively wooing residents and workers back to the city centre. By creating a "living city", where more people have access to the city's theatres, galleries, sporting facilities, parks and transport, the council is helping to foster tolerance and create a fairer society.

Bringing people back into the hearts of cities encourages greater parity within the community. It reduces the difference between the "haves" and the "have nots", while also minimising the strain on our environment and our resources.

These days in Australia, particularly since the Bicentenary, we are realising the importance of our heritage and of our built environment. For a long time we indiscriminately destroyed heritage buildings, not really understanding what was worth saving and what wasn't .

Even today, heritage and architectural issues foster lively debates in Sydney. Because of that, newer built forms are always controversial. The arches in Chinatown and Cabramatta caused debate because not everyone understood their importance to the local Asian communities.

But the architectural refurbishments of Chinatown and Cabramatta have been hugely successful. Both areas have been revamped from run-down dilapidated suburbs. They are now bustling, exciting areas of which the locals are very proud. These areas have become the cultural, and even spiritual, centres for the Asian communities they serve. They continue to provide opportunities for investment and development. And Chinatown and Cabramatta both continue to attract tourists and local visitors drawn to the colour and vibrancy of these ethnic centres.

In other areas, the building of mosques and temples has been extremely controversial. Local communities have been afraid that their suburbs would be divided by the new places of worship. Or they have been concerned that the traditional, ethnic architecture would clash with the surrounding suburb.

The Ethnic Affairs Commission has been successfully working with local councils, ethnic groups and communities to smooth the way for these new places of worship, which usually end up being built outside residential areas.

Despite the fears of locals, the mosques and temples are actually proving valuable additions to many areas, both culturally and financially. For example, a large Buddhist temple has been built on the suburban fringe of Wollongong which has become an education and convention centre, not only for locals but also for Buddhists overseas. The temple has helped raise the profile of Wollongong in the international arena.

Cultural tensions flared up during the Gulf War but Australia's Muslim community worked hard at increasing the level of tolerance in the local communities. As far as I am aware, nothing worse happened than some heated media debates. The presence of mosques, and their religious leaders, helped during that time.

A new mosque is planned on an industrial site near Homebush. It is widely felt the new building will improve the ambience of the area and bring other activities with it.

In conclusion, I would like to summarise my proposals for achieving a more sharing and tolerant society. Firstly, that the Federal Government must be committed to environmentally sustainable population growth. Because it has the money through taxation, it holds the main responsibility for ensuring the infrastructure of our cities can cope with population increases.

The State Government must ensure all local governments not only prepare access and equity policies, but that the policies are based on sound surveys of the needs of their communities. Local councils should prepare concrete plans outlining the ways they are going to use their resources to ensure their local citizens really do get access and equity.

Planning instruments must recognise the physical and social heritage of ethnic communities. They must also encourage community tolerance through sensitive streetscaping, appropriate religious buildings and the avoidance of social tensions through the fair allocation of built services.

Finally, the State and Federal Governments need to work with local governments to find solutions to homelessness, unemployment and the other ills of modern urban society. Too often when governments try to save money, the real needs of people are not taken care of. The cost is social tension and division within the community. When there is inequity in the community, and tensions arise, the newest arrivals tend to be scapegoated.

Unfortunately, the principles of "user pays" and "economic rationalisation" are often used to abandon the traditional responsibilities of governments. If we can work together to provide real access and equity for our citizens, then the chances of conflict in our community will be reduced.

Designing for cultural diversity is not easy. But the rewards if we get it right are plentiful. A culturally diverse society is a richer, fairer and more exciting society. That is a goal well worth striving for.

Let us again share the spirit of our hopes, the spirit of our dreams, the spirit of striving for a more tolerant world. Let's work together for a better, more sharing, society.

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