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Social Mix and the City: Challenging the Mixed Communities Consensus in Housing and Urban Planning Policies

Book review of: Arthurson K. 2012. Social Mix and the City: Challenging the Mixed Communities Consensus in Housing and Urban Planning Policies. Collingwood, CSIRO Publishing.
Alan Walks
Bibliographical reference

Arthurson K. 2012. Social Mix and the City: Challenging the Mixed Communities Consensus in Housing and Urban Planning Policies. Collingwood, CSIRO Publishing.

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1In the fields of housing, urban planning, and in particular the redevelopment of social housing, no idea would seem to receive more attention than that of ‘social mix’. Seen as both an objective of ‘good planning’ as well as a precise solution to the ‘problem’ of aging social housing estates, social mix aims to include a mix of incomes in the same neighbourhood, to have high-income and middle-income households share the same residential space as well as low-income households. This is often accomplished in recent years through the building of owner-occupied housing in neighbourhoods that once predominantly held social housing tenants, thus using a mixing of tenures to accomplish such a mixing of classes. While, as Arthurson shows in chapter two of her book, this approach is not new (it has been invoked as far back as mid-19th century Britain), the way it is being implemented in the redevelopment of aging post-war social housing estates is new – it has become a component of contemporary neoliberal urbanism.

2While often couched in terms of enhancing social inclusion or reducing social stigma for social housing tenants, the impetus to ‘enhance’ social mix through the incorporation of owner-occupied housing into social housing communities has typically been driven by cost considerations. Under neoliberal orthodoxy, governments and housing agencies must become entrepreneurial in raising funds and taking advantage of the talents of the private sector. The idea is then that social housing communities can better ‘pay for themselves’ rather than rely on the old welfare-state model of income redistribution to build houses for the poor. So, when the infrastructure and buildings in a social housing community reaches the end of their life span, the redevelopment plan now invariably involves bringing in private-sector developers to re-build the community, typically with the most desirable lands given to them for building owner-occupied housing (which is then sold, allowing the developers to realize a profit).

3Kathy Arthurson is a one of Australia’s key scholars of social housing and social mix, having published numerous journal articles on the subject. This book represents an easy-to-understand summation of the main issues and debates regarding the origins of the social mix idea, their contemporary employment in the redevelopment of social housing communities, and the research regarding the benefits and drawbacks of social mixing in such communities. For the latter, she draws on both the established literature from Australia and other Anglo nations (mostly the United Kingdom), as well as her own research, in particular interviews conducted in three redeveloped social housing communities in the Adelaide metropolitan area in South Australia. The latter three case studies work very well, and they show how the idea of social mix can be implemented in quite different ways, even within the same jurisdictional, urban, economic, and cultural context.

4Arthurson’s analysis and conclusions are thoughtful and nuanced. Those who know the scholarly literature in the field, including Arthurson’s rigourous work, will not be surprised that she finds that many of the assumptions practitioners have of the social mix ideal do not pan out on the ground. For instance, the assumptions that home-owners and social housing tenants will socialize together; that physical proximity will automatically produce respect, understanding, and community cohesion; that the kids of home-owners will attend and in turn enhance local public schools; or that having higher-income home-owning households living nearby will somehow raise the living standards of the poor or act as ‘role models’, are all found wanting. Instead, in some places community conflict increased, there remained limited social interaction between different classes, and many wealthier kids went to private schools, post redevelopment. However, Arthurson also finds that the ways that both social housing tenants and new home-owners see their redeveloped communities, and the levels of forms of social mix produced within them, are not set in stone and vary with circumstance.

5Arthurson categorizes the responses of the people interviewed in such communities in terms of two competing discourses. The first is an “integration” discourse characterized by a willingness to include the other, to share the neighbourhood, and to see poverty and the social problems that beset the poor as a structural issue often beyond the control of social housing tenants. The second is a “segregation” discourse that seeks to blame social housing tenants for any problems that beset the local community, and which seeks to establish social and spatial distance between the classes. Interestingly, none of the different classes living in the communities examined in the book were immune from this latter segregation discourse, although Arthurson found that middle-income home-owners were more susceptible.

6One interesting finding from Arthurson’s work concerns the effects of redevelopment on social stigma. Importantly, if social housing tenants are physically segregated from home-owners in the redeveloped communities, in different neighbourhoods or on different streets, this aggravates the stigma felt by, and placed on, social housing tenants. Yet when social housing tenants are interspersed among middle- and upper-income households, such that no one can tell by looking at the unit whether a social housing tenant or home-owner lives in it (most of these communities are low-rise with detached or semi-detached units), she found that tenants report they feel much less stigma and are much happier with the outcome. This, I think, is a key finding of the book, and one that could have been made much more of in light of the many plans for redevelopment that have emerged all over the world.

7In the region where I live (Toronto), social housing tenants and home-owners have been kept physically segregated in the recent redesigns of the communities, either in separate buildings in the case of Regent Park (Kelly 2013, James 2014), or on completely different streets as in the case of Don Mount Court/Rivertowne (August, 2014a). Furthermore, many of the conflicts that have arisen would seem precisely related to how such forms of segregation relate to processes of stigmatization and attempts to exert class dominance (to protect property values, control deviance, etc) within social space (August 2014a,b). Arthurson’s research provides further evidence that such an approach, which is also typical of social housing redevelopments under the Hope IV program in the United States, involves a wrong-headed and problematic implementation of social mix.

8On the whole, this is a welcome and recommended contribution to the literature. It is easy to read, not long or dense, and thus is well suited to undergraduates, practicing planners, and policy makers. The analysis is sober, honest and helpful, and hopefully its lessons will be heeded. The book is largely oriented to the Australian context, and it thus particularly well-suited to commenting on the policy directions being pursued in Australian cities.

9While the book is solid, it could have been longer and more in-depth. Coming from an international perspective, I would have liked to see more comparative analysis across national contexts, to help identify the lessons of the Australian case studies for social housing redevelopments in other countries and cities (like those in Toronto I cite above). The policy and economic context of social housing redevelopment in places like Canada and the US are often different from that in Australia, as are the social compositions and urban forms of the communities affected. Will socially-mixed redevelopment work the same way in those places, as in Australian estates? This remains unclear.

10I also wonder if all the discourses employed by residents in the affected communities can be slotted into only two primary ones (integration vs segregation). Might there be other discourses at work? While the book does a good job focusing on how social mix policies interact with class differences, and to some extent gender differences, the issues of ethnicity, racialization, immigration and aboriginal status receive much less attention. How do changing social housing policies and community relations relate to Australia’s history of colonization? Do residents employ any racial or nativist discourses in their opposition or support of particular housing policies or outcomes? These are the questions that went through my mind while reading the book, and they are questions for which I don’t have the answers. Saying this, the book does very well what it sets out to do, which is to examine and test the origin, theory and assumptions behind mainstream social mix policies as applied in contemporary social housing redevelopments. It deserves to be read widely by those involved in the housing field.

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August M. 2014a. Negotiating social mix in Toronto’s first public housing redevelopment: Power, space, and social control in Don Mount Court. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38(4): 1160-1180.

August M. 2014b. Challenging the rhetoric of stigmatization: The benefits of concentrated poverty in Toronto’s Regent Park. Environment and Planning A 46(6): 1317-1333.

James R. 2014. From ‘slum clearance’ to ‘revitalization’: Planning, expertise, and moral regulation in Toronto’s Regent Park. Planning Perspectives 25 (1): 69-86.

Kelly S. 2013. The new normal: The figure of the condo owner in Toronto’s Regent Park. City and Society 25(2): 173-194.

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Electronic reference

Alan Walks, « Social Mix and the City: Challenging the Mixed Communities Consensus in Housing and Urban Planning Policies », Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, 2015, Online since 02 October 2015, connection on 21 January 2018. URL :

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About the author

Alan Walks

Alan Walks is an urban geographer with expertise in quantitative and qualitative analysis of urban processes, problems and behaviours. His research is mostly concerned with the social, economic and political causes and consequences of urban inequality, including the role played by (auto)mobility. He has published in a number of the top journals in the field. Email:

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