How Diverse Places Build Trust and Support Democracy

Five Questions with Professor Ryan Muldoon


“Go Mt. Airy Supper Sessions” in Philadelphia’s Mt. Airy neighborhood bring together people over food at communal tables in the center of the commercial district. Image credit: Albert Yee.

Ryan Muldoon is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo who focuses on how society can “turn the challenge of increasing diversity into a resource to be tapped for our mutual benefit.” He is also the author of a white paper published with Knight Foundation called “Diversity Isn’t What Divides Us, Division is What Divides Us,” examining the value of diversity of opinion and disagreement in liberal democracies. He spoke to Reimagining the Civic Commons about how public space can play a role in fostering civil society.

Q: Your white paper points out that growing diversity in our population produces more diverse opinions and even disagreements about policy solutions, but that these disagreements can help a liberal democracy. Can you explain?

Ryan Muldoon [RM]: The big idea here is that the social and political problems that we commonly face are complex, because there are many different dimensions and those dimensions interact with each other. So it is likely that for any given approach or ideological purview that you take to a problem, you as an individual or a group of like-minded individuals only see one piece of a fairly large puzzle.

Disagreement and debate — in which we are having a kind of democratic back and forth with people who think differently — helps us get a better idea of what the problems actually are in our society. It also helps us see whether we identify as having the same problems and then, what solutions to problems might look like.

It’s common to think simply about disagreement and democracy, as one side wants “X” and the other “Y,” and then we vote and whichever side gets the most votes wins. That is an impoverished view of democratic disagreement in my opinion. A big part of fruitful disagreement is figuring out what the problem is and then what resources we have to address that problem. When we have a more diverse set of inputs in a debate, we’re going to be much better equipped to figure out what it is that we want and what tools we have to make improvements.

An engagement session part of On the Table, a week long series of conversations for community input into Lexington’s next Comprehensive Plan. Image courtesy of Civic Lex.

A lot of my work focuses on how diversity is a resource to solve problems, rather than just a problem that generates bigger disagreements. In any democratic disagreement, diverse people are going to see different forms of evidence or have access to different sources of information. Diversity brings different predictions on what will happen with a given policy proposal to a debate. They capture elements of an issue of which others are not cognizant.

When we can problem solve in a diverse group, the solutions we come up with tend to be better, even though the research shows that when people participate in problem solving in a diverse group they think they have done worse! It is not fun to disagree with people, and it is not fun to hear that we may be mistaken or that someone else has a different, better solution to a problem. It feels like the group is not making progress, when in fact we do better in diverse groups at problem-solving than in homogenous groups.

The empirical literature on this at the local level is kind of fascinating. In small, diverse groups, as in larger ones, given a concrete task people do better at solutions when there are diverse opinions but feel worse. You see this in small companies, where those with more diverse employees perform better, but employees are often less satisfied with their workplace than at more homogenous small companies. This applies at a city level and a national level as well — there’s more experience of disagreement, but the more disagreement there is, the better the outcomes.

“Culture at the Park” was an event series in Philadelphia’s Bardascino Park celebrating the diversity of cultures in the neighborhood through sharing food and learning traditions. Image credit: Albert Yee.

Q: What is it about communities that are more diverse across race, income and belief that builds social trust?

RM: What matters the most here is whether a diverse community is segregated or not. If you are diverse at the macro level — that is, a city or state has diverse populations within it, but at the micro level people live in very segregated neighborhoods — you are generally worse off. Your social trust plummets and it becomes harder for the government to provision public goods and services equitably. In fact, it becomes harder for the government to do a bunch of basic things, in part because each segregated group does not want the other side to “get something.”

What’s called “affective polarization” goes up, which is your tendency to identify with the particular views of your neighbors and disagree with other groups. Your dislike of the other side tends to increase, and it can become easier for politicians to take advantage of situations and avoid accountability in them by blaming a particular group for a problem. That’s how people end up shifting blame for poor government performance off of the government (where it belongs) and onto another group different from themselves.

I think the best read of the literature on this so far is driven by something called the Allport Contact Hypothesis, which describes what happens when you have interactions with people of a different group on roughly equal terms. That is, you are not on opposing sides, you are not competing. When this happens, the research shows you tend to develop fellow feelings for people who are different than you are. You develop empathy, you see that you have things in common, and you interact more. This hypothesis has been robustly tested, including in a really fascinating paper that examined group dynamics in South African universities where white kids and Black kids were paired together in dorms versus those living in racially segregated dorms. In this study, the outcomes for both groups went up (empathy, trust, a desire for more interaction), especially for Black students.

Downtown Akron Partnership hosts rollerskating at Cascade Plaza in downtown Akron as a way to bring together people from different neighborhoods. Image credit: LSquared Photos.

What’s fascinating about this research is that it is easy to see how success breeds success when you have people from diverse backgrounds interacting with each other on a regular basis. When people are exposed to the substance of human diversity, whether that is different food, or culture, or music, or goods, this can lead to more of an interest in reaching out to other new things, experiences and people. While you’re doing that, you are also developing a set of social skills that makes navigating differences easier. There is something of a flywheel that leads to people being more comfortable in diversity in the future.

I do need to point out that the effects on measures of social trust in the research are not huge. The literature finds fairly small effects in general on integrated diversity increasing social trust, but they are effects in a positive direction, whereas the negative effects of segregation are very large.

Q: How is geographic segregation of people harmful to reduced social trust?

RM: The basic mechanism of how segregation generates problems is this: when people are not talking to other people who are different from themselves, they do not develop connections to people who feel and believe differently. There’s no “fellow feeling,” no understanding about why another person disagrees with you, and when there is this kind of disconnection, it is easier to assign bad motives to someone in another group.

It then becomes easier for politicians or demagogues to shift people’s anger or disappointment in some social policy failure onto some other group, blaming the other group for bad outcomes. There is pretty robust evidence for this phenomenon in research from the U.S. and other countries. When people are not exposed to others that are different from themselves, it becomes easier for them to rely on stereotypes, which are then reinforced by politicians or the media. People are only able to see evidence that supports the stereotype.

The other interesting phenomenon is that like-minded groups (without a diversity of opinions) tend to get radicalized, without people in the discussion realizing it. If everyone discussing an issue starts from a similar viewpoint and set of assumptions, or if people in the group have a bias in one direction or another, the group actually pulls people to a more radical position than where anyone in the group started. Each new step of deliberation “resets the center” of where the group is and people’s beliefs get more extreme — the extreme positions start to feel normal. People with similar beliefs think they are participating civically and doing a good thing by discussing an issue thoroughly, so it is hard to tell them that their deliberations and positions have become extreme. They think they are engaging in robust debate.

The big tools of liberal democracy — discussion and debate — only work well if these tools are built on diverse inputs.

Customers from all over the city and region and from every background dine at the WEDI business incubator, West Side Bazaar. People can find tastes from home or to try something new. Due to a fire in 2022, West Side Bazaar is currently pursuing a temporary home and will reopen in a long awaited new building this Fall. Image credit: Brendan Bannon, courtesy of WEDI.

Q: What role might the public realm play in combating the physical segregation of people into like-minded communities?

RM: While some of the biggest and most long-term changes we could make would be reducing the extreme levels of physical segregation in housing and school districts, on the ground there are ways communities can organize activities and program public space that bring diverse people together. When I lived in Philadelphia, there was a regular night market in the summer, held in different neighborhoods, which gave each market a unique character and feel. The markets attracted a lot of people to different and maybe new neighborhoods. It was fun and also people were learning about different parts of the city, learning about different things they might not have been exposed to otherwise.

There’s a fair amount of empirical evidence that places that create opportunities for regular interaction work really well at combating physical segregation. In Buffalo, there’s a nonprofit organization called WEDI that operates the West Side Bazaar. They assist immigrant and refugee families, helping them start over economically by starting small businesses, which are usually food- and craft-based.

As West Side Bazaar helps these families build small businesses, they are also connecting them to the wider Buffalo community. They are drawing in customers from around the city. As a result, a number of these families have successfully launched a larger restaurant or another business born out of their small start-up. It helps generate the sense that immigrants and refugees are a bonus for the city, and creates new experiences for people in Buffalo to encounter people who are not like them. It turns integration into a positive experience for everybody, with benefits on all sides.

Zelalem Gemmeda, chef and owner of Abyssinia Ethiopian Cuisine, and daughter Feben at their original West Side Bazaar space. A West Side Bazaar stalwart since 2012, Abyssinia is relocating after the West Side Bazaar fire and will open at Downtown Bazaar this spring. Image credit: Brendan Bannon, courtesy of WEDI.

Whether it’s beer gardens or playgrounds or outdoor concerts, all this activity of creating consistent spaces where you can expect cross demographic mixing gives people more examples or more stories to tell themselves of positive experiences of meeting, interacting and connecting with diverse people. Maybe then a particular neighborhood is no longer thought of as intimidating, and people feel more comfortable around people who are different. These are good initial steps and at the same time, can make a city more lively and fun.

Q: Parks and public spaces are often the last things funded in local budgets and the first budgets cut in hard times. How can community leaders make a coherent argument about their importance in supporting better problem-solving, more social cohesion and a stronger democracy?

RM: Parks and public spaces are immensely important, and one reason why it can be hard to justify them as a budget item is that we do a very poor job of measuring their civic impact. Demonstrating how important they are is a function of exploring the civic outcomes that are associated with access to public space.

Measuring impacts like increased voter registration, increased volunteering, increases in demographic mixing* and other benefits would help. It would be useful in helping local leaders understand what’s at stake, and help them see that public spaces are directly connected to social and economic outcomes that improve the community. In fact, I would hope they would see that public spaces are fairly cheap and enduring ways of achieving these outcomes.

Since parks and public spaces are infrastructure, it’s important to remember that it is difficult to shift infrastructure in the short-term — we need to make good infrastructure choices because our decisions last a long time in the physical environment. Changing tax policy can be done with the stroke of a pen. Building parks or bike lanes or better sidewalks involves physical changes that are harder to reverse.

The recently completed Town Branch Commons in Lexington features protected bike lanes and green infrastructure. Image credit; Ty Cole, courtesy of SCAPE.

For example, Buffalo and Philadelphia and many other cities have had highways cut directly through the city, something that had systematic, deep, terrible outcomes. It cut off economic opportunities for entire, mostly minority communities, and it reduced people’s political voice and access to needed services. Today we are learning more about the impacts of freeways on air quality and temperature, and about the impacts of a lack of trees and greenspace on both. Having infrastructure that makes it easier to walk or bike impacts health equity as well.

I think I am making a plea to local leaders to systematically measure public space and then recognize that this critical infrastructure is essential in reaching our goals. Once we understand the results, we can compare them against other investments like tax breaks used for business attraction, or other programs that actually cost quite a lot of money. Public space can spur economic development, so investing in them could be a viable alternative. It might generate bigger gains on some civic goals than our other investments.

*Feel free to download Reimagining the Civic Commons measurement framework and DIY tools for measuring the beneficial social, economic and environmental impacts of public spaces. For example of our cities’ measurement reports, visit our website here.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration of The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, William Penn Foundation, and local partners.