Culture, Heritage and Diversity

 

Intercultural Spaces and Centres

What are they, what benefits do they bring, and how can they be encouraged as an essential part of the Intercultural Cities approach?

 

One of the cornerstone concepts of the Intercultural Cities approach is that intercultural relations and trust cannot be expected to occur by accident alone – there need to be tools, agents, spaces and places of interculturality and, if need be, these must be deliberately initiated by the local authorities or civil society. So far, however, there had been little clarity over what actually constitutes an intercultural space.

 

A meeting held in Botkyrka, Sweden, in November 2011 brought together representatives of such intercultural spaces from the cities members of the Intercultural cities programme. The exchanges revealed that there is no standard model of what an intercultural space should be, nor one pattern of how it might develop. The 13 centres represented ranged from the highly structured and amply resourced model of local government decree through to informal and very modestly-resourced organisations arising from civil society initiative.

 

An intercultural centre therefore is not defined by its legal or staffing structure, its physical presence or even by its range of activity. An intercultural centre is any space where there is an underlying philosophy that cultural mixing is more desirable than separation, and a deliberate and sustained practice designed to bring this about by various means, and a determination to make cultural mixing and co-operation a higher priority than the integration of the minority into the systems and norms of the majority.

 

Intercultural centres, like the society they operate within, are dynamic and fluid entities. Indeed several centres have changed their structure and legal basis as times have changed and new needs and opportunities emerged. The common factor, if anything, is flexibility. An intercultural space needs to be closely aware of and sensitive to the shifting demographics and relationships of their various constituencies, and to be prepared to adapt accordingly.

 

Intercultural centres are context-specific to their locality and national conditions. In cases where the national and local state apparatus provide an extensive integration state, or where the climate of public opinion towards diversity is relatively benign, the intercultural centre may have the freedom to explore innovative and creative ideas to build cross-cultural contact and collaboration.

 

However, if the public sector is too dominant and over-bearing there may be an inadequate recognition of the special contribution that civil society and bottom-up initiatives can make. If the state is weak or disinterested or if the climate of opinion is hostile, the intercultural centre may find itself having to play a more functional role concerned with the day-to-day needs and threats to migrant communities, which is hardly desirable but, nevertheless, necessary in the current climate. However, there must be constant vigilance to avoid the emergence of ‘intercultural ghettoes’. Whilst an intercultural centre may be a beacon and a centre of excellence within its respective city, it cannot be an island and must at all times seek to extend the intercultural ethos to other places and spaces within the city.

 

Read the full report of the meeting

by Jude Bloomfield and Phil Wood