A homogenous city does not exist

“Cities are not homogenous places, they are characterized by heterogeneity, that is the co-existence of people of different walks of life”, according to Maria Schiller, VCC theme lead Inclusive Cities and Diversity. “Inclusivity in cities refers to the ambition and goal to create more equal life chances for everyone living in a city.” In this interview, she tells us how we can understand and capture the dynamics of migration and diversity in Europe. 

How did you become interested in diversity and inclusivity?  

I think it goes back a long way, to being confronted with this strong narrative on a homogenous society disturbed by difference or interrupted by immigrants arriving. And I was always very struck by this narrative: how strong it is and how convinced people can be about it. I was and still am fascinated by the question if, when and how people and institutions change this narrative. 

In my research I am particularly interested in policy responses to urban diversity and how state and non-state actors together work towards creating more inclusive cities. Perhaps the most cherished part of my work is when I can dedicate my time to observing everyday practices through which such a narrative becomes questioned and eventually changed. 

What are your goals as a theme lead within Vital Cities and Citizens? 

One goal is to foster interdisciplinary but also interschool collaboration. Within Erasmus University, we have so many interesting scholars working on urban issues, but we sometimes don't get to talk to each other in our everyday work. And VCC provides us with the opportunity to think together about how we can address issues surrounding smart, resilient, sustainable, diverse and inclusive cities. 

A second goal is societal impact. In VCC we launch activities and projects for making our research meaningful for cities and collaborate with different urban actors. 

Is there a discipline you would like to know more about or engage with more? 

One discipline I always find fascinating to learn from about migration and integration is history. Historians can offer a fascinating perspective to contemporary responses to migration and diversity by correcting our perception of the newness of these issues and offering insights into how migration and diversity have been dealt with in the past. 

I am really grateful for the opportunity to exchange across disciplines with my fellow theme lead Isabel Awad Cherit, who has a background in media and communication but with whom I share a passion to work on the theme of diversity and inclusion in the city where we both are locals, Rotterdam! 

How are you making an impact at this moment?  

Together with Isabel and with the help of research assistants, we have initiated a project called 'Remapping Rotterdam', which literally seeks to “map” actors and understand their networks in the field of inclusion and diversity. We want to use these insights for bringing actors together and create opportunities for them to exchange and collaborate.

Recently we also joined forces with other researchers at the EUR together with the City of Rotterdam and RADAR on inclusivity in Rotterdam. As part of this project an inclusivity dashboard will be created and qualitative research will be carried out to assess existing urban practices for addressing discrimination and exclusion.

Next to that, I recently finished an exploratory research, querying the differential support offer to highly skilled immigrants and refugees in the city. In order to bring our insights to the attention to relevant stakeholders, Leonieke van Dordrecht and I published  a blog post and I gave a keynote lecture at the final conference of the URBACT city network “Welcoming international talent”, discussing our findings with expat centres from across Europe.

You told us about your current research projects in Rotterdam. Is your research also relevant for other cities? 

In my past projects, I’ve often worked with local officials from different European countries and my experience is that there is much to be learned from comparing different cities’ experiences and approaches with each other. At the moment, I really enjoy doing research in Rotterdam because this is where I live, but I definitely hope there will be further opportunities for comparing our insights from Rotterdam with those from other cities.

And how would you like to connect your educational activities with practice?  

As coordinator of the LDE master program Governance of Migration and Diversity (GMD), I am responsible for a programme that each year welcomes a large of group international and Dutch students who seek to become experts on migration and diversity. The students are very passionate and interested in learning from research. 

One way we can connect education is to bring our ongoing research into our programme, talk about it in our classes and engage students through small assignments. Another possibility is to involve our students in the research itself. This year we created two master thesis projects, in which students are involved in ongoing research for which we collaborate with the municipality of The Hague and the municipality of Rotterdam. They write their master thesis in relation of that. If the pilot proves successful, we will aim to replicate and expand it in coming years.

Finally, what is a vital city according to you? 

I would say a vital city is a city in progress. It is a city that is unfinished and where different people live next to each other and with each other. It is also a city where it is also okay to live alongside each other. It is a city with opportunities to be exposed to and meet one another. 

Another important aspect of vitality for me is that there needs to be a constant effort to address exclusion and fight against discrimination. So, I think a vital city is one where state and non-state actors have the vision to make the city into a place where everyone gets a fair chance. It is a city where there is a critical mass of people that is committed and dedicated   to continuously defend and work towards that vision. 


More information

Vital Cities and Citizens

With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens, Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes:

•    Inclusive Cities and Diversity
•    Resilient Cities and People
•    Smart Cities and Communities 
•    Sustainable and Just Cities 

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

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