Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The Scandinavian country of bike lanes and wind turbines reveals its darker, intolerant streak.
The Danes are doubling down on their “ghetto list.” Yes, that’s actually what the government calls it. In a series of announced policies that seeks to impose special requirements and even graver punishments for crimes committed in Denmark’s poorest urban areas, the Scandinavian country of bike lanes and wind turbines has revealed its darker, intolerant streak. The proposed policies would subject individuals—mostly immigrants or children of immigrants —to rules that are at turns punitive or paternalistic, based primarily on where they live.
The proposed measures, reported in Monday’s New York Times, are draconian. From the age of one, children living in one of 30 government-defined “ghettoes” would have to spend at least 25 hours a week away from their families—naps excluded—in government preschools to receive mandatory exposure to “Danish values,” or their families may have welfare benefits stopped. In another measure, proposed but not yet voted upon, Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen also wants to double the punishments for some crimes if they are committed within the confines of these areas. There has even been discussion of putting electronic tags on teenagers with a migration background to force them to keep an 8 p.m. curfew. This particular idea has been rejected, but that its debate even has a place in Denmark’s parliament shows how far right the debate has drifted.
For those who imagine Denmark as some form of progressive paradise, the notion of parents being forced to hand over toddlers or face punishment might seem bizarre and alarming. The idea of some criminals receiving lighter punishment because they robbed someone in a well-to-do area seems equally concerning. We look to Scandinavia for wind-turbines and nice furniture, not baby-snatching and Apartheid-lite. The story behind the measures is, however, more complex, if not less alarming: They have been presented as a way of easing social and residential segregation in Danish cities.
The measures come as part of a national plan to get rid of concentrated areas of poverty, and the attendant problems such as low educational performance and lower levels of public health. Also included in the plan, for example, is a ruling that in areas of high deprivation, no more than 40 percent of future housing can be public—an attempt to increase the country’s social mix. Denmark is not alone in Europe in trying this approach. As CityLab has noted in the past, cities like Berlin and Rotterdam have experimented with public housing quotas aimed at diluting concentrations of ethnic minorities, while the Paris region offers frequent tax breaks to encourage businesses to relocate to the deprived banlieues.
Denmark also aspires to integrate by acculturation: The plan would dilute other cultures with (typically wealthier) residents from Danish backgrounds and oblige ethnic minorities to send their children to institutions where their inculcation into official Danish culture is overseen by the state.
This attitude is displayed in other recent national debates, which often interpret expressions of difference as evidence of Danish identity under siege. The small city of Randers, which has a tiny Muslim population, ruled that, to fight a perceived wave of Islamization, pork not only could but must be served in public buildings. On the national level, a largely un-implemented plan attempted to force refugees to hand over family jewelry to pay their expenses. Neither did much to change Denmark’s laws, but both succeeded in pushing the line that outsiders are implicitly conniving and threatening. This is where the new ghetto plan’s more extreme concepts come in.
As this article in Discover Society notes, such official drives to repress minority culture have many European precedents. In the 1950s, efforts to assimilate Dutch Indonesians in the Netherlands went as far as regular home visits to ensure they were eating potatoes, not rice. Until 1973, Switzerland pursued a policy of removing children from itinerant Yenish families and placing them in poor conditions in orphanages, mental asylums, and prisons so as to dilute their differences from what was perceived as a mainstream Swiss identity.
What is distinctive is the way Denmark’s plans seem—intentionally or not—to continue this tradition by stigmatizing lower-income areas as dens of squalor and danger. The most deprived are in fact on a government “ghetto list.” Updated annually, Danish media reported this May that 30 Danish neighborhoods now had the official “ghetto stamp.”
The term “ghetto” may be a loaded one in the U.S., but in Denmark the idea that having the government formally label people or places with this word might exacerbate divisions doesn’t seem to get much purchase. (Indeed, they’re almost addicted to the term: The standard media phrase for any neighborhood with high-income residents is “rich man’s ghetto.”)
Neighborhoods with the ghetto stamp do indeed possess high numbers of residents with a migration background, higher levels of unemployment, and some small-scale gang activity. Ensuring that people in these areas get more opportunities and better security only seems right. The problem is: That is not necessarily what they’re
For a start, residents of the Danish “ghetto” often live in their home areas not through refusal to integrate but through lack of choice. When new migrants arrive in Copenhagen, for example, they are (like all low-income Danes) eligible for state-supported housing. They have to find it nonetheless in a city that’s nationally notorious for having a housing sector that is a closed shop to outsiders. Last year, CityLab talked to Karen Melchior, Social Liberal Party candidate for the Copenhagen Municipality, who noted that the city’s good value rent-controlled housing and housing co-ops—which form the largest sector in Copenhagen’s housing market—tend to be passed via word-of-mouth from friend-to-friend and colleague-to-colleague.
“The co-ops themselves set up rules on who is allowed to buy the flats and what they will price, and they themselves create a waiting list,” she said. “This can be quite nepotistic. You often need to already know somebody who is already living in one in order to get a flat. There is no public registry of the different associations, which means that people without connections can be excluded from them, especially low-income expats.” [Note, CityLab interviewed Melchior for an unpublished article on Copenhagen housing, not on the current ghetto plan.]
This leaves new arrivals to pick up what others won’t accept. New refugees, especially, have to accept their first housing offer from the municipality. They are thus forced to congregate in “ghettoes,” where cultural contact with other groups is limited.
There’s a distinctive European history to ghetto, of course. Deriving its name from the northeastern quarter of Venice to which Jewish residents were confined until 1797, the word came to be associated with areas where a substantial Jewish population persisted after specific restrictions on where Jews could live were lifted. The term derived yet more sinister associations during World War II, when the Nazis concentrated Jewish residents into closely guarded, insanitary quarters of cities prior to their deportation to work and death camps. But it would be false to assume that Danes are invoking such historical usages when they use the term. Instead, their imagined prototype is likely the American version—specifically the idea of a run-down, crime-ridden district where most people aren’t white. The use of this specifically non-European understanding of the word only serves to emphasize these areas’ otherness in official discourse.
The irony here is that Denmark’s “ghettoes” bear almost no resemblance to their American counterparts. Most have decent enough housing conditions, well-kept streets, and, of course, ample bike lanes. They’re also extremely small—it’s possible to walk across some of these areas in ten minutes. They have nonetheless become first ports of call for migrants because their housing stock was for long unmodernized, because they lack access to green spaces, and because wealthier Danish-born citizens have often (until recent waves of gentrification) avoided them due to their long-term associations with working-class poverty.
New arrivals to these neighborhoods don’t necessarily isolate themselves from the Danish institutions already there. According to figures cited in this article in the newspaper Politiken, 90 percent of Danish 3- to 4-year-olds from a migration background go to preschools, and 76 percent of 1- to 2-year-olds in that category go to day care. If a large number of “ghetto” children are evading the integrating pull of early education, their parents must be hiding them somewhere pretty secret. Then there’s the suggestion that special higher “ghetto sentences” could reduce crime—a claim for which no meaningful evidence has been provided. The hypocrisy of the suggestion that a crime committed in one area is somehow worse than somewhere else has not escaped local media.
Without evidence to suggest that either measure would do much to reduce crime or foster integration, what then is the point of the new ghetto plan? Danes have long had a pattern of coupling great generosity in overseas aid with a hostility towards actually accepting outsiders, a paradox described in the past as the Copenhagen Syndrome. Possessing some of the most restrictive immigration policies in the E.U., Denmark accepted nine times fewer refugees in 2015 than its neighbor Sweden.
The government’s new plans may do little meaningful to improve these people’s (or anyone’s) life chances. But that may not be the point: They seem instead to be a theater of cruelty, a display of intolerance designed to publicly shame people seen to be on the outside of society. Rather than fostering future integration, they’d create a two-tier legal system that could enshrine social divisions. And they’d help confirm a pernicious idea that Europeans have struggled to overcome for centuries: The understanding that there are those who are supposed to be here, and those who live in the ghetto.