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A new study tries to determine what a “tolerant” city looks like.

Are cities really bastions of tolerance? My own work has found that members of the creative class prefer quasi-anonymous lives, giving cities an advantage in attracting a wider range of talented people across social and demographic groups. But as recent events in Baltimore and beyond remind us, cities have also seen eruptions of intolerance, violence and hate.  

A recent study, “Tolerance in the City,” published in Journal of Urban Affairs, explores this the connection between tolerance and urban life. The research, by sociologists Christopher Huggins at the University of Kentucky and Jeffrey Debies-Carl at the University of New Haven, takes a close look at a whether urban tolerance stems from indifference about one’s neighbors or rather a more conscious acceptance of different ways of living—the more contemporary view.

The researchers distinguish between two forms of tolerance. “Tolerance of difference” is acceptance of others who speak a different language, follow a different religion, are immigrants or foreigners, or are of a different race. “Tolerance of threat” is tolerance of people who are not only different but perceived (accurately or not) as “social outsiders.” To get a clearer look at this aspect of tolerance, the study examined how people feel about living close to groups like heavy drinkers, gays, people with AIDS, or drug users. The researchers looked at these aspects of tolerance on an individual level, by characteristics of respondents such as age, education, employment levels, and by place based-factors like the size and density of the cities they lived in. The researchers used detailed data on 48 nations from the 2005-2008 edition of the World Values Survey, which asked participants what sorts of people they would like to have as neighbors (among other questions).

When it comes to individuals, the study found, unsurprisingly, that more highly educated people and those working full-time are more tolerant, while older people are less so.

More interestingly, the study found a connection between tolerance and the size and affluence of cities. Specifically, nations with larger cities and more full-time workers are likely to be more tolerant of those who are culturally different and those who may be perceived as “outsiders.” A small increase in the physical size of a city, the researchers found, led to a significant increase in tolerance of difference. A similarly incremental increase in aggregate income corresponded to a more moderate increase in tolerance of threat. As the researchers put it, “the larger the context the individual resides within, the greater the feelings of tolerance of difference.” In other words, bigger, denser, more affluent cities, in which most residents are employed, are some of the more tolerant places in the world.

But there are certain factors that promote intolerance in cities. The main factor associated with intolerance is the separation, or so-called “fractionalization,” of cities along religious, ethnic, and linguistic lines. (The researchers use measures of fractionalization originally developed by Harvard economist Alberto Alesina.) Places with high levels of linguistic fractionalization—that is, cities where residents speak many different languages—are less tolerant of difference: Every unit increase in linguistic fractionalization leads to a moderate decrease in tolerance. As the researchers note: “This means the lack of a dominant cultural language may create more dissension within a society.”

Similarly, they find places with higher levels of religious fractionalization—where people have many different religious beliefs—also have lower levels of tolerance of threat. Even more interestingly, they found cities with larger populations tend to be less tolerant of difference.

There seems to be a contradiction here: Why would physically larger and denser cities have more tolerance of difference, but cities with large populations and a diversity of languages have less? Huggins and Debies-Carl have a theory: We experience the size and density of a city firsthand, when we are traveling around it and performing our day-to-day activities. But the size of a city’s population and the number of languages its residents speak may not be as readily apparent. “[I]f one only experiences population size and heterogeneity while watching the news or hearing about them second-hand in conversation,” the researchers write, “one is unlikely to personalize the encounter or adapt to it.” As a result, people different from oneself are more likely to “remain unfamiliar,” maybe even “threatening or unnerving.”

Cities are not always more tolerant, but it appears that those that are built to promote interactions between different sorts of people are. We know that denser, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods with shared parks and public spaces are great places to live. But they’re also the building blocks of more tolerant and inclusive cities.

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