Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

The remarkable growth and stability of multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in England

By Gemma Catney (Queens University Belfast, UK), Richard Wright (Dartmouth College, USA), Mark Ellis (University of Washington, USA)

Ethnic diversity in English city neighbourhoods has been the subject of longstanding public interest. While some have argued that diversity is associated with lower social cohesion and trust, others have demonstrated the opposite, and that it can lead to reduced racial prejudice and intolerance, and even better mental health. As spaces where people of different ethnic groups come together and potentially even form romantic unions, multi-ethnic neighbourhoods might be understood as “places of possibility” for future inter-ethnic household mixing and the emergence of multi-ethnic identities: the population of ethnically mixed people in England nearly doubled, to over 1.2 million between 2001 and 2011.

But how prevalent are highly diverse neighbourhoods across England? And should we expect their numbers to keep growing?

Multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in England

There is no doubt that England is far more ethnically and racially diverse than it was 20 years ago. The population identifying with an ethnic group other than White grew from just over six percent in 1991, to nine percent in 2001, and to 14.5 percent in the most recent Census (2011). Migration and demographic momentum (the balance of births and deaths) have led to this growth in the minority ethnic population, so that by 2011 around one in five people living in England identified with an ethnic group other than the majority White British. This growth in diversity at the national level is also mirrored in England’s towns and cities. Despite evidence that ethnic residential segregation has seen a steady decline, hegemonic political-policy perspectives perpetuate claims that England’s communities are becoming more isolated from one another, with the Pakistani and Bangladeshi population particularly stigmatised. Our research, recently published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, shows that multi-ethnic neighbourhoods have quietly become a notable feature of England’s evolving ethnic landscape.

Sources: 1991 Census, Table SAS06 (Crown Copyright); 2001 Census, Table KS006 (Crown copyright); 2011 Census, Table KS201EW (Crown Copyright).
Notes: Only neighbourhood types with ten or more LSOAs in that category are shown. WhLD = White low-diversity; WhMD = White moderate-diversity; InMD = Indian moderate-diversity; PaMD = Pakistani moderate-diversity; BaMD = Bangladeshi moderate-diversity; MEN = multi-ethnic (high-diversity). Place names referred to in the text are labelled in approximate positions: Ln = London; B = Birmingham; Lr = Leicester; M = Manchester; L/B = Leeds and Bradford. North arrows and scale bars are not included since these maps are cartograms that distort Euclidean space.

Crucially, our investigation of neighbourhood diversity takes the “multi” in multi-ethnic seriously. While many previous studies of multi-ethnic neighbourhoods included those where one group forms a clear majority, our analysis develops a new, and demanding, standard of high diversity in that no one ethnic group can constitute more than 45 percent of a multi-ethnic neighbourhood’s population. It also requires the presence of people from at least five different ethnic groups. In addition, our identification of “multi-ethnic neighbourhoods” does not pivot around the presence/absence of White people, nor does their absence signal diversity. Despite evidence to the contrary, a narrative persists that (mis)understands ethnic diversity as segregation, interpreting diverse places that lack a White majority as evidence of separation. But neighbourhood diversity need not, and should not, centre on the relative presence or absence of White people.

Using these criteria, our research shows that multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in England grew from just over half a percent of all neighbourhoods in 1991, to over one and a half percent in 2001, to over four percent in 2011. Put differently, by 2011, 1,417 of England’s 32,844 neighbourhoods were profoundly ethnically diverse. This may seem small at first blush, but that count means that multi-ethnic neighbourhoods are the most common neighbourhood type that is not White majority. In addition, over 2.5 million people lived in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in 2011, equating to about five percent of the total population.

This growth is especially significant in London. The capital was home to over 70 percent of England’s multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in 2011, up from just under 50 percent in 1991. Yet while high-diversity neighbourhoods were concentrated in London, a steady growth of high-diversity neighbourhoods has occurred in other places. The number of multi-ethnic neighbourhoods grew threefold between 2001 and 2011, with London’s proportion remaining stable over this decade. Therefore, by 2011, multi-ethnic neighbourhoods existed in sizeable numbers outside of London, in parts of Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, Leicester, and some other metropolitan places in the midlands and northern England.

Who lives in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods? That is, who is exposed to high diversity in their residential neighbourhood?  Nearly 32 percent of England’s Bangladeshi population lived in such spaces in 2011. Remember that these are not neighbourhoods with a majority Bangladeshi (or any other) ethnic group – they are spaces where there is a significant mix of people from different ethnic groups. A similarly high proportion of inter-ethnic residential mixing is experienced by Black African and Black Caribbean people. This challenges common perceptions of the self-segregation and isolation of people of colour. The share of White people living in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods is smaller. However, while only 1.25 per cent of England’s White British population lived in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods 2011, the population composition of multi-ethnic neighbourhoods was over 20 percent White British, equivalent to nearly 530,000 people. Moreover, the share of White Britons living in ethnically mixed neighbourhoods more than doubled between 2001 and 2011.

The stability of multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in England

A study in the USA found that less than fifty percent of neighbourhoods retained their high-diversity status for more than a decade (2000-2010). In other words, in the US, ethnic and racial diversity is temporary; many such neighbourhoods transition, say, from being predominantly White to being predominantly Latino. In stark contrast, however, multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in England are remarkably stable. Of the 170 multi-ethnic neighbourhoods identified in 1991, 149 (88 percent) had retained that status by 2001. The stability of multi-ethnic neighbourhoods increased in the subsequent ten years. Some 504 multi-ethnic neighbourhoods, or over 95 percent of multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in 2001, were highly diverse in 2001 and 2011.

This is an important finding: most English multi-ethnic neighbourhoods are not avenues to another type of space, as they are in the US. This result is even more remarkable when we consider how the spatial units that define neighbourhoods in this study (Lower Layer Super Output Areas) have considerably smaller mean populations (1,600 people) than the US Census tracts (4,000-8,000 people) that denote neighbourhoods. An intuitive hypothesis is that smaller neighbourhoods would have less stability, but we find the opposite.

Just as London dominated the story of multi-ethnic neighbourhood formation, the capital takes the lead in neighbourhood stability. Of all neighbourhoods that retained their high-diversity state between 2001 and 2011, some 73 percent were in the capital. This was a significant increase on the period 1991 to 2001, where just 56 percent of that stability occurred in London’s multi-ethnic neighbourhoods. In other words, as London’s diversity has grown, at the neighbourhood scale, it has become less transitory. 

This story challenges dominant UK policy-political narratives of increasing diversity as a pathway to increasing polarisation. Increased diversity, rather than segregation, is the direction of travel for almost all neighbourhood types. We find, for example, that “South Asian” majority residential spaces – Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi areas – are becoming moderately diverse, not low-diversity. Our observed transitions into moderate- and ultimately high-diversity are suggestive that areas classified as ‘segregated’ at one point in time could well be in transition to greater ethnic diversity – and might well retain that status. Likewise, there is no evidence of an emergence of low-diversity non-White spaces in the future.

Our research thus points towards more ethnically mixed futures. However, we temper this optimism with a couple of reflections. Firstly, previous scholarship urges us to be wary of over-romanticising the impact of everyday encounter – where residents are “living with difference” – in nurturing ‘meaningful’ inter-ethnic (or, more generally, inter-group) interactions, and tolerance. Additionally, the uncertainties posed by the impact of Brexit loom large. The implications of leaving the European Union on future immigration/emigration scenarios are difficult to predict, and every possible scenario will have at least some impact on the UK’s diverse future. Reduced population growth for some ethnic groups would potentially have consequences for the future stability of multi-ethnic neighbourhoods. Added to this, the decision to leave the EU has been associated with increased racial violence, which could have major implications for feelings of being welcome in diverse spaces, as well as their stability.


About the authors: Gemma Catney is a Population and Social Geographer at Queen’s University Belfast, with research interests in ethnic residential segregation and diversity, ethnic inequalities, and internal migration. In 2019, she was the recipient of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) Gill Memorial Award, for outstanding early career research. Richard Wright holds the Orvil E. Dryfoos Chair in Public Policy and is Professor of Geography at Dartmouth College in Hanover NH, USA. He mostly studies the effects of racialisation and nativism on housing and labour markets. Mark Ellis is a Professor of Geography and Director of the Northwest Federal Statistical Research Data Center at the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA. His research investigates questions associated with immigration, internal migration, local labor markets, and residential segregation.

Suggested further reading

Catney, G, Wright, R, Ellis, M. (2020) The evolution and stability of multi‐ethnic residential neighbourhoods in England.  Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12416

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