Ghettos. Barrios. Ethnic enclaves. These words, amongst other expressions, have been used to describe a self-segregated or forceful containment of communities. Each word is loaded with a specific meaning that brings forth certain imagery stemming from a history of inequality and injustice.
The word ghetto has its root in Hebrew, a word meaning ‘deed of separation’. The word itself conjures an image of poverty and degradation within a contained space. However, the origin of the word implies a tacit agreement between those who reside within and outside the ghetto. The subtleties of power are understated. Who is containing whom? And who has the power to label the population-cluster a ghetto?
Ghettos in Denmark
"It concerns me deeply that we might not be able to come together around Denmark. We should be able to recognise our country. There are places where I don't recognise what I'm seeing" Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen said to Politiken in March 2018.
Prime Minister Rasmussen’s plan to tackle segregation is titled One Denmark without Parallel Societies: No Ghettos in 2030. The plan has been met with varied responses by varied factions of the Danish society. The Prime Minister explained to Politiken that the plan is to tackle the non-contribution of Danish residents from non-Western backgrounds, which the government is no longer willing to accept.
The plan includes a reduction in social security benefits and unemployment state income for those who reside in the ghettos or move there. There will be greater policing and heavier punishments for crimes committed in the ghettos, as well as stricter interventions for domestic violence.
Punishments for parents
One prevalent behaviour seen in these areas is when children are sent to the country their parents have emigrated from, apparently often against the will of the child, for extended periods of time. The meaning of these trips is said to be for the children to strengthen their cultural identity, learn the language, or to build up family relations, even smooth over a conflict. The Danish Prime Minister's plan will criminalise these journeys, with parents facing up to four years in prison if caught sending their children away.
The plan also proposes punishments for parents who do not adequately provide for their children. There will be obligatory daycare for children, greater emphasis and testing on learning Danish, as well as redistribution of students to schools in non-ghetto areas. Furthermore, municipalities will be rewarded with greater financial benefits for achieving the targeted results.
List of ghetto areas
The Ministry of Transport and Housing has drafted a list of ghetto areas in Denmark. The criterion for inclusion in the list is a 50% or greater population from a non-Western or immigrant background. 55% of the population earns less than the average gross income, and there are higher levels of unemployment and low education. Lastly, inhabitants aged over 18 that are convicted of a violation of penal, weapon or drug law is higher than 2.7%.
Of the 22 ghettos in Denmark, four are in Copenhagen. One of these areas is Tingbjerg, designed in 1950 by Steen Eiler Rasmussen as the modernist yellow city in the green landscape. The suburb was completed in 1972, with middle-income families in mind.
Flaws in Urban Planning
Tingbjerg suffers from a lack of connectivity. The plan for a train to link Tingbjerg to the city centre was never completed, neither was the thoroughfare that was to connect it to the adjacent neighbourhoods and the local community. Tingbjerg was too far from the city and civilization, it was and still is too compartmentalised in terms of its functions for it to be a success. All the after-work functions were in the vicinity, which meant that people did not have to leave the area, and nobody else had any real reason to come in. A lack of integration has ensued.
Moreover, the structure and the function of the neighbourhood also changed. From the 1970s its population demographic changed from growing middle class to migrant workers and families on welfare. The family structure was paramount to the design, but this has changed somewhat since the 1970s. Instead of a traditional nuclear family, the woman of the house is no longer a housewife, rather she is an active member of the labour market.
While both parents were away at work, the daytime amenities of Tingbjerg failed to cultivate the ambience and social life envisioned for the public spaces. With the passage of time, the housing stock has degraded, lowering the rents and the quality of living.
A failed urban project
Many feel that Tingbjerg failed as an urban project and that, as a result, the mould of the ghetto was ready. As the middle-classes moved out, low-waged minorities moved in. For most of them, the decision of where to live was made for them, based on their socio-economic status. What arose was an insular community based on cultural norms and undiluted by other cultures. Henceforth, a ghetto was born.
Designs for improvement
The City of Copenhagen has devised many plans for social integration, such as upgrades to public housing, and assistance with education and employment in the hope of fixing the social problems. There were also plans for better connectivity but these have never been implemented.
One of the more prominent projects is the new Culture House. Still under construction, it is designed by COBE Architects. It is meant to be a uniting place for all of the residents, with a range of activities for all the members of the community. In addition, there have been several social projects. One is TARD, which stands for Tingbjerg - Art Research Dialogue. The projects involve the issues of social action, user-driven innovation and urban planning. There has also been the Visit Tingbjerg 2012 project, where 21 artists from Denmark and abroad started an artistic dialogue on the streets, empty shop premises and green spaces in Tingbjerg. These programs went some way towards helping integration, but the composition of the population remained unchanged.
As per the Danish Prime Minister's plan, private investors have been hired to demolish the housing bit by bit, in order to build new private housing and attract a new demographic of residents. According to the new government strategy, the construction tax has been waived for the private investors as a way to incentivise their investment and construction in Tingbjerg.
The new housing is designed by JJW Arkitekter, another award-winning architect. The new image of the private housing is meant to encourage the more affluent to move in. On the other hand, it decreases the housing options available for those who will no longer be able to afford to live there, leading to their exit. There is no plan for where these people will relocate.
The problem with a label
When labels such as ghetto emerge from the Danish government, it frames the existing situation as a problem. This choice of words risks ends the discussion for change before it has even begun. It can place a stereotype into the mindset of those that have not had the chance to form their own opinion yet. An opinion that is better based on facts and objective analysis.
Research carried out by AFFORD has shown that the students at Tingbjerg School face low expectations and negative perception, based solely on where they live. Teachers at the school refute the dominant perception that the students are criminals, saying that they show an active presence and participation at school. Further research could help contribute to a positive narrative for Tingbjerg.
Describing an area as a ghetto creates a deterrent for others who might have considered moving into the area, which would help with the process of integration. The label creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where once condemned as such, the area will struggle to shake the label off.
It creates a reality which becomes entrenched in the minds of the people, dividing them into the insiders and the outsiders, and reinforcing the negative imagery of the ghetto.
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