Connections within diversity – How to break the silence around multiculturalism?

29 huhti 2017
Kaisa Schmidt-Thomé

If we want to break the silence around multiculturalism in Finnish urban planning, we need to develop vocabulary for it. The people involved in urban planning will also have to start thinking in terms of relations – between people.

The future of our country will be multicultural, as Kimmo Lapintie wrote in his BEMINE blog text in February (Lapintie 2017). While the natural growth rates are low, the population growth is already based entirely on immigration. Considering this, it is indeed remarkable that multiculturalism considerations have remained absent in the urban and regional planning documents (Lapintie 2014). According to Lapintie, this reflects the bio-political nature of urban planning which is ”interested in people as population groups with biological features, such as age, gender, fertility, health and disability.” He would like to see a new understanding that brings in the cultural and social features instead of focusing on the variables such as the size and productivity of the population.

What if we took on the challenge of creating a post-biopolitical planning? How should we grasp the socio-cultural diversity and cultural as well as religious differences conceptually? The terminology is not established, and there are not that many Finnish words available for the vocabulary. Besides multiculturality/-culturalism (monikulttuurisuus) one can talk about interculturality and transculturality – both of which might translate as ’kulttuurienvälisyys’. But does it really matter which words we pick? My point is that it helps if you pay attention to the concepts and their different burdens in terms of connotations. What may suit a more contextual discussion might not be that well-placed when talking about encounters between citizens.

Multiculturalism can be understood as the recognition of co-existence of a plurality of cultures within the context of a nation (state). In this discourse the common understanding is that different cultural groups are awarded equitable recognition (Stratton et al. 2001). That would sound like a great achievement already in many countries, wouldn’t it? However, such a society might still consist of parallel ’realities’ where encounters across the divides would be few. It could also mean that people remain locked within the circles that they allegedly belong to. The question then is, how can the different social and ethnic groups be recognised without being essentialized?

Interculturality helps us here because it focuses on relations. It shares the recognition of difference and equality included in the multiculturalism discourse, but it brings in the principle of positive interaction. It centres individuals and institutions instead of focusing on the relations between fixed cultural groups. The focus on relations helps to avoid ‘ethnicizing’ cultural differences. The intercultural character of a society is a matter of cultural diversity as a whole, not only a matter for those who are allegedly different from some assumed unity within the society. As everyone is someone else’ s Other, interculturality is everyone’s issue (Guilherme & Dietz 2015).

But let’s get back to urban planning. Should it become more aware of multiculturalism or try to promote intercultural encounters? In my view, these two tasks should complement each other. Building on Kymlicka’s (2003) model, I would like to see a combination of intercultural citizens and institutions operating in the multicultural cities. Urban planning would in this context be much about getting rid of the barriers that prevent groups from receiving equitable recognition. However, of at least equal importance, from my point of view would be the creation of encounters. By that I don’t mean only that planners would have to know how to provide spaces of encounter. First and foremost, they should be able to feel for the ’full’ individuals instead of their bio-political reductions, as Lapintie might refer to the end-users whose multiple affinities are currently not taken into account.

In order to manage the diversity and maintain individuals’ equal access to resources, major institutional reforms – even radical intercultural openings (Terkessidis 2010) – are needed. This would mean also that (planning) education has to be rethought. Here I do not mean providing people with ‘recipes’ of accurate behavior in given intercultural contexts (Guilherme 2013 ) nor schooling students as if the intercultural competences drastically differed from the intracultural ones. Rather, I call for more diversity-awareness and self-reflexivity as well as for making new connections within the existing diversity.

In cities that are bundles of different pasts, no single type of existence can represent “normality”. Unlike the nation states that still try to stick to some largely imagined shared past, cities have to be prepared to share the future, by creating connections within the diversity.



Guilherme, M. (2013). Intercultural competence. In Byram, M. & Hu, A. (Eds.) Encyclopaedia of language teaching and learning. London: Routledge. Pp. 346–349.

Guilherme, M. & Dietz, G. (2015). Difference in diversity: multiple perspectives on multicultural, intercultural, and transcultural conceptual complexities. Journal of Multicultural Discourses 10:1, 1-21.

Kymlicka, W. (2003). Multicultural states and intercultural citizens. Theory and Research in Education 1:2, 147–169.

Lapintie, K. (2014). Miksi monikulttuurisuus ei mahdu suunnittelijan suuhun – eikä päähän? Yhdyskuntasuunnittelu 52:3.

Lapintie, K. (2017). Three invisible things in Finnish urban planning III: multiculturalism. Blog post of the BEMINE project 14.2.2017.

Stratton, J., Ang, I., & Bennett, D. (2001). Multicultural imagined communities: Cultural difference and national identity in the USA and Australia. In Multicultural States: Rethinking Difference and Identity.

Terkessidis, M. (2010). Interkultur. Edition Suhrkamp.


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