Diversity and Cities 

In Sydney, changing international migration patterns and the rise of apartment living means people of different cultural backgrounds are regularly interacting with each other inside their high-density buildings. And it’s not without its problems.

In 2016, it was estimated that around 55 per cent of the world’s population now lived in cities. By 2030, urban areas are projected to house 60 per cent of the world’s population. While migration and compact city policies are rarely seen as intersecting by policy makers, cultural difference and living in close proximity to each other can compound the tensions that already exist in apartment buildings and society more broadly.

“We know that we have a rapid increase in urban density and also… [increasing] cultural mix in our cities…  but there isn’t much focus on both of these things at the same time”.

Dr Edgar Liu

These tensions could be about shoes being left in common areas, or washing hung on balconies, or ‘offensive’ cooking smells wafting beyond the kitchen walls and down the halls. These tensions are connected to the gradual shift away from migrants from countries such as the UK and the increase in migrants from countries such as China and India.

“Australian cities are obviously very culturally diverse and Australian research into this has been quite agenda setting globally.

Dr Chris Ho, UTS

Today we’re talking to Chris Ho from the University of Technology and Edgar Liu from the University of New South Wales about how high density living and cultural diversity are changing the way we live in Australian cities. And when it comes to intercultural relations, little attention has been given to what’s happening inside the apartment buildings of our cities.

In 2015, Australia passed an important but somewhat overlooked milestone. It was the first year that the construction of attached dwellings, such as apartments, overtook the construction of the stereotypical Australian detached home. This change flew under the radar of many Australians, possibly because state and territory governments in Australia have been pushing for more apartments to be built for years as the dream of a detached home on a quarter acre block becomes less viable for many.

Australia is not alone when it comes to increasing housing densities in cities. Countries around the world have been spruiking “compact city” policies for decades. These policies focus on building up rather than building out, and in Australia it’s working. Across the Greater Sydney metropolitan area, for example, 30% of residents live in apartments. Around Australia, almost one in ten people now live in an apartment.

In the past, the migrants who came to Australia would often settle for good. Some of our earliest migrants never travelled back to their homeland. But global migration patterns are changing and today we have a different mix of permanent and temporary migrants, and a much more globally mobile population. Some migrants will come to Australia to stay, while others will arrive on work or study visas and may stay for shorter periods. Many recent migrants are likely to leave Australia at some point, if only for holidays or to visit families aboard.

You might think that in a highly mobile world and in a culturally diverse city like Sydney that racism would be a thing of the past. But in Australia, racism is never far from the surface and increasing housing density can turn the temperature up on racist trigger points. And while racism and housing scholars have been looking at these issues for some time, policymakers have largely overlooked the implications of the intersection of cultural diversity and increasing housing density in Australia.

This makes apartment buildings important hubs for fostering multiculturalism and addressing racism in our cities. But we need to pay more attention to how to make apartment buildings work for residents from many different cultural backgrounds. Recently arrived migrants may be unfamiliar with Australian apartment lifestyles and rules.

While multicultural apartment blocks certainly have their challenges, they also offer opportunities for residents to enjoy the richness of a diverse and cosmopolitan life. With more culturally diverse residents living in apartment buildings, fostering intercultural co-operation is necessary for both the management of the buildings and multiculturalism more broadly.

Australian strata regulations and bylaws reflect what we understand owning or living in an apartment to mean. But the rules, obligations and ownership models may look very different in other countries, and these different understandings of apartment living and ownership can travel to Australia with the migrants.

Apartment residents, strata committees and strata managers are finding that they need to adapt to the reality of their culturally diverse communities. Sometimes, people who are new to Australia don’t have the language skills, or they aren’t familiarity with Australian strata regulations, and this limits their participation in strata committees.


Dr Christina Ho is a Senior Lecturer & Discipline Coordinator, Social and Political Sciences, within the Communications program, based in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.  Chris is interested in: multiculturalism, diversity politics and cosmopolitanism; migration policy and migrant experiences; cultural and national identity formation among migrants; Chinese migration to Australia, including Chinese international students; Muslim diasporas and gender; cultural citizenship and community arts; segregation and schooling; and ethnic concentration and community building in urban areas.

Dr Edgar Liu is a Research Fellow at the Faculty of Built Environment’s City Futures Research Centre. He joined the Centre in April 2009 soon after completing his PhD in cultural geography at the University of New South Wales. His research primarily focuses on assessing the effectiveness of public housing estate regeneration in Australia; service integration and Indigenous housing; affordable housing; housing choice decision-making; and concepts of community and place.

Read more about their work here: Diversity and participation in private apartment buildings: a review of the literature; and Higher density and diversity: apartments are Australia at its most multicultural

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