On December 1st 2019, the Ministry of Transport and Housing issued the latest strategy on how to tackle Denmark’s so-called “ghettos”. The strategy officially declares 28 neighbourhoods with public housing projects as “ghettos”. Fifteen of these urban areas are given the detrimental classification “hard ghettos”. This is the result of a long history of stigmatisation of inhabitants in socially challenged areas.
Over the past few decades, the term “ghetto” has become more and more common in public debate. It is widely employed in political debates, conference talks, and in the mainstream media. It initially surfaced in the 1990s, when the Social Democratic Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen warned of the “huge problems created by some urban districts, where many unemployed immigrants live in conditions that look like a ghetto” (1994). However, “ghetto politics” entered the political agenda in the 2000s and has remained there since. The label of “ghetto” has been frequently used to tag an urban settlement of predominately non-Western immigrant populations with higher-than-average rates of unemployment and crime.
In 2004, the first Liberal and Conservative government led by PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen approved a programme to combat “Ghettoisation”. It outlined criteria and presented a preventive policy strategy to deal with “the widespread problem of ghettoisation”. In particular, the government expressed “serious concerns about the obstacles that ghettoisation creates to integration, especially where the majority of the population is made up of unemployed immigrants and their descendants”. These areas, it was warned, can develop into “ethnic enclaves” with “little or no economic, social and cultural contact with the rest of the society”. Direct causality between ethnic background and segregation was established. The ghetto became the preferred metaphor for parallel social structures developing separately from the rest of Denmark, constituting a growing socio-economic and cultural danger to the rest of society.
In 2010, the liberal PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen stated the “need to put a stop to the parallel societies” by applying a harsher approach such as the demolition of existing housing structures and the reconversion of urban space. This rhetoric became unequivocal and more sinister in Ramussen’s 2018 New Year’s speech, in which he evoked “the holes on the map over Denmark” being a cause of great concern “because the ghettos’ tentacles extend onto the streets” by spreading violence “into schools where neglected children hang on the edge,” by reaching into “the city coffers, where incomes are lower and expenses higher than allowed,” and into society, “where cherished Danish values such as equality, liberalism and tolerance lose ground.”
The stigmatising function of the word “ghetto” is based on a set of detailed administrative and statistical criteria. A 2010 strategy document titled “The Ghetto Back Into Society – Combating Parallel Societies in Denmark” launched by the then Liberal and Conservative government with the support of the right-wing populist party, The Danish People’s Party, officially identified three criteria needed to classify an urban neighbourhood as a ghetto: unemployment levels, the rate of crime, and the share of residents with non-Western backgrounds, including their descendants. The list, overtly referred to as the ‘Ghetto List’, is updated every year.
In 2013, the centre-left interregnum government led by the Social Democrats (2011-2015) added two additional criteria to the list: income and education. However, this document deliberately avoided the use of the term “ghetto”, preferring “socially disadvantaged areas”. In spring 2018, the Liberal-Conservative government drafted yet another strategy plan, this time called “Denmark Without Parallel Societies. No Ghettos in 2030.” The terms of the plan were later discussed and approved by a large majority in parliament, including by Social Democrats and members of the Socialist People’s Party. According to the ‘Ghetto Plan,’ an urban area fulfilling the following set of criteria is to be defined as a ghetto:
Once the first two criteria are fulfilled and two additional criteria on the list are met, the fate of an urban district is decided: it lands on the ‘Ghetto List’. Furthermore, if an area remains on the ‘Ghetto List’ for five consecutive years it is automatically deemed a “hard ghetto”. For these urban areas, the consequences are huge and costly, as they entail a comprehensive process of urban demolition, displacement, housing reconstruction and renovation.
The main goal of the programme is to reduce the availability of public housing to a maximum of 40 per cent of eligible families by 2030. Instead, the proportion of other forms of public housing, such as housing for the elderly, or student accommodations should be increased and public accommodation should be privatised by being sold off to private investors. In total, 3,700 dwellings are to be demolished. Ten thousand new apartments need to be re-built; 700 of them are to be sold to private investors, 900 reconverted into public housing for young people and the elderly (Mandag Morgen 2019: 4-5). The aim is to ensure “a better composition of residents” through the settlement of “economic and socially resourceful residents”.
Furthermore, the ‘Ghetto Plan’ includes a whole catalogue of new proposals with the purpose to regulate, discipline, and eventually punish the residents’ “damaging” upbringing of their children and their non-adherence to social rules and regulations. It starts with mandatory kindergarten attendance for toddlers from the age of one, testing of pre-school children’s fluency in Danish and the introduction of a maximum proportion of schoolchildren from non-Danish backgrounds in schools. The measures also include the curtailing of welfare benefits in case of non-compliance with the rules and the criminalisation of so-called “re-education trips” – lengthy and regular stays of children in their parents’ countries of origin. Also, crimes committed in the “ghetto” are to be more severely punished than in other neighbourhoods.
The effects of the plan exemplify what critical geographer David Harvey (1985, 1990) calls urban “creative destruction”. These effects have huge economic, social and human implications for the affected populations. The estimated cost of redevelopment is estimated to be 1.3 billion euros. Around 11,000 people are to be displaced, with another 5,500 to be temporarily resettled. Remarkably, the affected municipalities and the public housing organisations involved have chosen different strategies of implementation in order to comply with the requirements set out by the plan. In Aarhus, the local government has, for instance, decided to implement a wide-ranging plan of destruction and reconstruction (particularly in Gellerup, where a third of the buildings will be demolished). The city of Copenhagen has chosen to limit demolitions and decided instead to renovate existing buildings (e.g. in Mjølnerparken).
The 2018 ‘Ghetto Plan’ will initiate a huge and comprehensive urban social experiment. Never before has Denmark simultaneously implemented such wide-ranging measures in so many different urban areas throughout the whole country. The practical implementation, the resulting developments, the impact and consequences of this social and urban experiment are considered by many to be unpredictable. Several concerns have been voiced over the assumptions and the short and long-term repercussions of such a programme.
As for the imminent future, the Danish public housing model (the so-called almene boliger) is at risk both in terms of quantity and quality of housing supply. Run by non-profit housing organisations, this instrument has characterised the Danish public housing sector for over half a century by granting decent, safe and comparatively low-cost rental housing to the general public. This welfare-based public housing model relies primarily on rental income to finance the maintenance and refurbishment of buildings. Hence, the restriction in the supply of public housing in the so-called ghettos as well as the focus on redevelopment of these areas will also reduce the amount of financial resources available to maintain and renew the remaining stock of public housing.
It is worth mentioning that there are well over 500,000 public housing buildings in Denmark, providing accommodation to about one fifth of the population. The so-called “hard ghettos” only account for about three per cent of such housing. The ‘Ghetto Plan’ could thus result in increased gentrification by pushing forward market-driven solutions rather than making a serious effort to tackle the social and economic problems of deprived urban areas. The way decisions are taken by the authorities – particularly on the municipal level – is highly problematic. The implementation of the programme lacks inclusiveness, dialogue, and the involvement of local associations and residents’ communities. Minority communities in particular often complain of being by-passed and marginalised by the authorities. Moreover, they feel targeted by top-down decisions that show little concern for residents’ opinions and concerns. Such sentiments have arisen only in the past two decades as the result of constant stigmatisation and discrimination in policy reports, political discourse, and in the mainstream media.
The “Ghetto” is seen as a threat to Danish society from within and constitutes or rather is the direct manifestation of a parallel reality inhabited by people following their own sets of rules, values and behaviours. To paraphrase sociologist Loïc Wacquant (2006: 92), the residents of the Danish ghetto are projected as the “formless aggregate of pathological cases, each with its own logic and self-contained causes, as the creatures of a noxious ethnic culture, or yet as the beneficiaries of a profligate welfare state that perpetuates the very misery it is supposed to combat”. It is a narrative that evades dealing with some of the main structural drivers that have been responsible for accelerating the socio-economic impoverishment, deprivation and segregation in these areas over the past decades. These are rooted in the far-reaching industrial and urban transformations that have taken place since the 1980s. They have stripped these places and their people of the main role they performed in the past: a reservoir for unskilled, predominantly non-Western migrant labour. In this sense, the governments’ declared battle against parallel societies marks a trend in Danish politics and administration towards the creation and the propagation of a racializing state-sanctioned stigma.
Susi Meret is an Associate Professor at the Department of Politics and Society, Aalborg University. Her main research interests are in the field of politics and sociology, in particular, right-wing populist parties, voters, majority attitudes towards minorities and migration regimes in Europe. Her recent work focuses on the reactions of mainstream parties towards populism, the role of Islam in the West, the rise of the new populists and the reactions from the civil society.
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