The ambivalence of diversity and the politics of urban renaissance: the case of youth in downtown Portland, Maine

Loretta Lees

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Lees, L. (1). The ambivalence of diversity and the politics of urban renaissance: the case of youth in downtown Portland, Maine. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(3), 613–634.

In this article the ambivalence of public policy responses to diversity on the street are documented empirically through a detailed case study of the marginalization of youth from the downtown public spaces of Portland, Maine, USA. Urban planners, architects and property developers have become increasingly concerned with improving the quality of urban life and the public spaces on which it depends. They argue that urban revitalization initiatives must embrace diversity — cultural and economic, as well as functional and spatial. This diversity of different ‘diversities’ is often under‐theorized, as are the benefits of, and relationships among, social and cultural diversity, economic diversification, mixed‐use and multi‐purpose zoning, political pluralism, and democratic public space. It is my contention that this ambivalence is not simply a smokescreen for vested commercial interests, but also provides opportunities for expressing alternative visions of what diversity and the city itself should be. Looking specifically at youth, I explore a relatively underexamined aspect of inner‐city diversity. While there is a relatively well‐developed literature about the contested place of low‐income groups, racial minorities and the homeless in urban redevelopment initiatives, youth have largely been ignored.

Main finding
The author found two contradictions in the diversity of diversities in the city’s redevelopment plan. First, notions of liberalism and cultural pluralism did not sit well with document references to ‘the downtown community’ which implied consensus on values, lifestyles, and other norms. Second, tensions between diversity as an end and as a means for economic development were still present. The latter manifesting in business owner’s oppositions to youth’s noise and behavior in public spaces near their businesses. Despite state tactics to remove youth (curfews, policing) and marginalize them (building of remote skate park, plans for remote youth center), youth have continued to occupy public space, sparking support from civil libertarians for individual rights and encouraging communitarian discourse about civic responsibilities. Squires’ concept of ‘grammar of conduct’ is suggested such that public space be at once conventional and acknowledging of conflict and power dynamics so equality with difference may be achieved.

Description of method used in the article
The author used a multi-method approach to the case study inclusive of: 1) examination of local planning documents, press reports, ‘letters to the editor’ from local papers over the previous 12 years, and relevant statistics, 2) discourse analysis of redevelopment rhetoric and ideas about planning for diversity, 3) in-depth, in-person and phone interviews with key city actors and business owners, and 4) participant observation of key redevelopment site and contested public spaces during three summers plus discussions with youth using those spaces.

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Case Study
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Parks/Gardens Streets
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