Cultural Diversity and Collaboration in Dandenong, Melbourne.

GIF RGB 150 Pixels with BorderHelen Sullivan, Hayley Henderson and Brendan Gleeson report on findings from a second round of research in Melbourne carried out as part of our collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network.

Our selection of Dandenong as the site of our Melbourne case study reflects our concern with the long term impacts of economic restructuring on a locality reliant on manufacturing and with significant levels of disadvantage amongst its communities. The ‘Revitalising Central Dandenong’ program was a state led attempt to intervene in this process, through physical, economic and social development.  Our research undertaken more than a decade on from this program, examines how Dandenong is faring post the 2008 financial crisis and its likely resilience to further economic instability and welfare reform. We have examined the ways in which social forces are configured in the locality and with what effect. In particular, our focus has been on the different forms of collaboration that exist in relation to the revitalisation process.

Our study of how different actors have become involved and interrelated in Dandenong’s urban revitalisation process led us to uncover many details about the evolving landscape of collaboration in urban governance. We discovered how changes to government administrations affected the resilience of collaborative structures through shifts in funding but also, and more importantly, through political and policy repriotisation. We gained greater insight into how different levels and areas of government interact and we observed how collaboration between tiers of government and across sectors relies heavily on informal and personal interactions. Some of these findings may have been expected by those familiar with governance practices locally, and they are certainly in keeping with the relevant literature.

What we didn’t know at the outset but which has stood out stubbornly throughout the study is the way that cultural diversity acts as a centrepiece for collaboration and revitalisation and plays a major role in the configuration and mobilisation of resources and actors: Dandenong is a community defined by its capacity to absorb, accept and integrate different waves of migrants, and this strength has been capitalised on in local practices of urban governance. Cultural diversity may be typical of many Australian cities since World War Two, where scholarship has long noted the dynamism, fluidity and positivity of new cultural inflows within expansive urbanisation. There is, of course, no reason to suppose that such relations hold true forever, and we are mindful that in recent years news urban cultural tensions have emerged around Islam and asylum seeking communities.

But, in what ways is cultural diversity supported and perceived to succeed in the Dandenong case?

And how is this made use of in collaborative modes of governance for urban revitalisation?

Some observations from our empirical work. The main pillar that supports cultural diversity and what in turn enables it to be used as a backbone for collaboration in urban revitalisation is widespread validation of multiculturalism in the community, by businesses and government. Both State and local government policies embrace cultural diversity. As explained by a local government representative, “diversity is not seen as a threat; it’s a great thing and we want to praise it and celebrate it and remove any stigma of it: it is a very clear message.” This validation of cultural diversity is translated into action through government-funded services that support integration, for example from settlement services, English language classes, libraries with specific programs, services and resources, police training (i.e. through multicultural liaison officers), targeted anti-racism or domestic violence campaigns and programs, a general public education and health services. The business community sees cultural diversity as important in offering and sustaining a diverse and resilient retail market. The community sector values cultural diversity in Dandenong as an element of community building. For example, a representative from the local interfaith network described Dandenong as a place where there is “freedom to go wherever you want” and you will find “diversity and cohesion” with “no fear,” only an “openness, trust and invitation” to interact. People are very proud of the diversity and want to preserve it. They see it as healthy.” We encountered these sentiments repeatedly.

Before the revitalisation process began in 2005, Dandenong already had a culturally diverse community. As a local government representative explained, “…diversity is not something that exists in pockets (in Dandenong). It is a piece of margarine that’s spread across the entire geographic area of the municipality.” The scholar Michele Lobo commented from her own work in 2010 that this ‘everyday multiculturalism’ in Dandenong “provides the potential to blur fixed ethnic boundaries and contribute to interethnic understanding and a sense of belonging”. For many people we interviewed, the existing geographic mixing in neighbourhoods of cultural groups provided a basis for mutual understanding and acceptance of difference. As related to us by representatives from the State government’s lead renewal agency, the urban revitalisation process “built off the success of the cultural diversity” (local government representative) to change perceptions about Dandenong from a place suffering economic decline to be seen as “a multicultural mecca”. A State planning manager explained:

… I think it comes back to that point of understanding what the essence of the place is…you could see 27 cultures that worked together regularly and respect one another. It’s the cultures and the background that those communities bring that makes it a unique place. And that’s what actually creates the outcomes.

It is from this basis that the strategy for revitalisation and ‘place-making’ drew on cultural diversity as a theme, according to a representative from the renewal agency, to “give people a voice, engender pride in place and enable businesses to succeed.”

Food emerged as a central theme for understanding how cultural diversity was used as a basis for collaboration and also for revitalisation during the period of our observation. First, it is used by government as a medium to bring people of different cultures together, support interaction and build understanding. “If you make some flat bread, you all get sit around and talk. And so, we’ve used it as a mechanism of engagement. In other words, food is recognised as a…social unifier to bring together” (local government representative). Next, it is also used as a way to respond to social needs in diverse communities and provide a link between government, non-government organisations and people in the community, for example through organised food alliances. Lastly, food has been used in place ‘marketing’ and in creating and growing a local tourism industry through collaboration between the local, State Governments and different cultural groups, creating places that offer specific cultural precincts or activities, such as the Afghan Bazaar or Little India. These public realm assets act both as familiar sites for gathering by cultural groups and draw in other members of the public:

“…not only are they fantastic from a social cohesion point of view, they’re also destination drivers to Dandenong…to celebrate the diversity of the place, the diversity of the food offering” (past Place Manager, State Government renewal agency).

In turn, the success experienced by migrants in business, from food, retail and commercial activities such as land development, contributes to local economic prosperity and community cohesion in Dandenong. From this basis of strong integration, cultural groups are increasingly well organised and able to influence urban policy through political means. For example, specific traders or community groups have flourished and are able to influence local policy through “advocacy, lobby and engagement” (local government representative). “They’ve grouped up and they have a strength that was unimagined in the 1980s when the Indo-Chinese groups came. By grouping up, they have developed a voice in the community” (local Federal Member of Parliament). Another feature of government that reflects the success of multiculturalism locally is the diversity in local political representation. For example, at the local level “Dandenong has had in the last five years a Buddhist mayor, a Muslim mayor, a Jewish mayor, a Christian mayor, and an atheist mayor.” A notable theme emerging from the Dandenong case study is of multi-cultural fluidity and peaceful co-existence. Whilst the degree of inter-community integration, however, remains an open question, it does appear that public programs and civic structures have allowed for and encouraged socio-spatial co-existence and formal dialogue. We note, however, new strains in social discourse, in Dandenong and more widely in urban Australia, around Islam and asylum seekers.

Overall, a recipe for different modes of collaboration between actors has emerged in Dandenong that rests on the particular value of cultural diversity. Beginning from a position of widespread support for multiculturalism and mutual understanding in the community linked to the distinctive morphology and socio-ethnic functioning of the city, multiple forms of engagement and collaboration between actors is an important part of the revitalisation effort in Dandenong. These have included collaboration between government and non-government actors in the design of cultural precincts, as well as in the evolution of political action led by cultural groups to influence the trajectory of urban policy. Our research suggests that not only has cultural diversity been a useful theme for collaborative efforts in urban revitalisation, but that the recognition of cultural diversity and the different forms of collaboration that exist have supported an inclusive and culturally responsive form of urban revitalisation.

Helen Sullivan is Professor and Director of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.

Hayley Henderson is a PhD candidate in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne.

Brendan Gleeson is Professor of Urban Policy Studies and Director of the Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne.

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