Here is some background on my Ph.D


Working title

'Out-of-Placeness': Mediating Intercultural Encounter through Urban Design

Main research question

How, and to what degree, does urban design enable and constrain, ethnic cultural difference in the public realm of Western cities?


The problem that this research will therefore address is that as cities become increasingly urbanised through global migration, and the densities of difference in these cities grow, the pressure on the public realm to support difference will intensify. What is most at stake here, is how urban design can support this density of difference. Moreover, what role urban design can play in shaping encounter in the multicultural city?

This is a problem because, although today more than half of the world’s population live in cities, and by 2050 the UN predicts this will rise to 70%. This urbanisation is being driven by a global migration of people, particularly to Western cities. Vertovec (2011, p.3) notes that “everywhere, migrants with complex ‘new diversity’ traits dwell in cities alongside people from previous, ‘old diversity’ waves”, creating what he has termed “super diversity”. Nowhere is this density of difference experienced more intensely than in urban public spaces (see Low, 2009; Toscani, 2014), particularly in the inner-city (Dirksmeier et al, 2014). However, the design of Western cities are embodied with Western values and beliefs (Sandercock, 2000, 2004; Lofland, 1998), and despite many Western countries claiming to support multicultural ideals, many still demand new immigrants to assimilate rather than retain their own culture. This is problematic because different cultures interpret and use urban public space in very different ways (Hall, 1966; Sandercock, 2003; Low, 2009).

Hall (1966), drawing on communication theory, posited a cultural framework for broadly defining cultural differences. This framework proposed placing different cultures into one of two broad categories: ‘polychronic’ and ‘monochronic’. He defined polychronic cultures, such as Asia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and South America, as ‘high-context’, meaning they place greater emphasis on their environment when interacting with others. In other words, how they behaved in a situation was negotiated rather than directed. In contrast, monochronic cultures, which are mainly Western countries, place greater emphasis on rules and regulations, where behavioural expectations are generally explicit, imposed top-down. In reality, one would expect to find different cultures sitting on a spectrum of monochronism to polychronism, rather than neatly into one of two categories. However, Hall’s framework is useful in helping to illustrate the potential for intercultural misunderstanding or worse, conflict. Furthermore, it is not difficult to see how Hall’s findings would apply in the context of the public realm of a multicultural city. Hall’s findings have been affirmed by several others (see Edensor, 1998; Mazumdar, 2002; Mehta, 2009), who have also constrasted cultural differences in public spaces, particularly in relation to the East and the West.

When people from Western cultures encounter people from other non-Western cultures, in the public realm of their cities, it is reasonable that the non-Westerners, lacking a “feel for the game” (Bourdieu, 1977), will not meet all of the behavioural expectations held by the dominant majority. Their behaviour could be viewed as noncompliant or transgressive, and looked upon negatively. For the most part, such transgressions appear innocuous. They occur in what Sandercock (2003, p.89) refers to as the “daily habits of perhaps quite banal intercultural interaction”. However, the cumulative impact of these innocuous transgressions could have far reaching consequences for how people experience the public realm of cities (Lofland, 1998). Assimilation to the Western city will require new immigrants to learn the local ‘habitus’, to develop a feel for the game, for how to behave in public spaces. However, a habitus is not acquired easily nor quickly, rather it is internalised over a long period of time starting in childhood (Bourdieu, 2008). Given the rate of global migration and the increasing diversity of people in Western cities, assimilation will entail a period of destablilisation, which poses the likelihood of ongoing intercultural conflict.

How sustainable this process is must be of concern to those who design and manage cities. This problem is worth researching because these issues can have both short-term and longer-term consequences for our cities. They raise a number of very important questions about the future of our cities. Are we providing the conditions that support a denser and more diverse city? Are our public spaces able to support a cosmopolitan and intercultural city? Do we continue to design cities monoculturally or is polycultural urban design possible? What conditions support cooperation and coexistence among the different users of our public space?


University of Melbourne

Department of Architecture, Building and Planning, Melbourne School of Design


Prof. Kim Dovey