Social Mix and the Challenges in Creating It

17 September 2017 | Posted In: #129 Winter 2016, #132 Winter 2017, Planning and Built Environment Issues, Tenure Mix – Social Mix, | Author: Kathy Arthurson

Urban planners and government policy makers often advocate having a social mix within a particular spatially defined area, such as in neighbourhoods with high concentrations of public housing. Kathy Arthurson looks at the theory and practice of social mix.

socialmix3What is Social Mix?

The term ‘social mix’ is commonly used interchangeably with tenure mix, which refers to the nature of housing occupancy. As such, this may include homeownership, private rental, public housing and community housing, with the different housing tenures all situated in the same location. This is considered an important aspect of planning policies that aim to build sustainable and vibrant communities.

The Origins of the Idea of Social Mix

Many contemporary ideas underpinning social mix as a planning tool have a long history, although its popularity waxes and wanes at different times. In Victorian England, for instance, support for social mix was a response to social class segregation due to slum housing concentrated in industrial cities. Locating housing for the working classes amongst middle classes was seen as a way for the poor to gain role modelling about proper forms of behaviour – and to maintain their health and vitality as a labour force for expansion of industrial capitalism.

Recently, making changes to social mix has become linked to policies of Australian public housing estate renewal. Concentration and segregation of public housing households on estates is perceived as causing stigma and other negative effects. Lowering the amount of public housing on estates, dispersing tenants amongst homeowners and private renters, and attracting home buyers to estates is characterised as a mechanism to fix the problems. Many developments arising on former public housing sites are designed to achieve a ‘social mix’, of no more than 30 per cent public or community housing tenants1.

The Challenges of Implementing Social Mix

Australian research that has sought public housing tenants’ views about social mix policies shows that they are not a quick or even appropriate fix for the ‘problems’ of  public housing. The policies rely on a simplistic explanation about lack of proximity of tenant households to home owners as a cause of problems and ignore other important issues. The reduced supply of public housing, reductions to funding, tighter targeting, and effects of economic and industry restructuring on employment opportunities have all impacted on the demographic mix of tenants. It is these factors that have led to increased stigmatisation of public housing, and exacerbated housing related poverty traps, not lack of social mix.

Certainly it is preferable in constructing new housing on vacant land (that hasn’t previously been developed) to have a mix of different housing tenure groups, in order to provide affordable housing, create urban diversity and accessibility to services for different groups. However, when tenure mix is changed on existing public housing estates people already live there. Many are long term residents. Estate renewal generally requires tenant relocation, and as the concentration of public housing is reduced overall some existing residents have to move permanently to other areas. But of course those that are able to return to the regenerated estate should get better quality public housing than before.

Social Mix in High Rise Developments

The consistency of the housing tenure mix that is implemented varies. It might comprise a fine grained (salt and pepper) mix – where residents from different housing tenures are located next door to each other. Alternatively the mix might be ‘thinner’ with different tenures clustered in particular pockets of the neighbourhood, or on one side of the road. All the public housing, for instance, might be clustered in the western corner of the neighbourhood.

Similarly, in high-rise buildings public tenants and home owners may live along-side each other, be grouped on different floor levels or live in separate buildings. At the Carlton Redevelopment Project (Lygon Site) in Melbourne all the public tenants are in one building and the private tenants’ apartments are located in two separate buildings. Originally it was planned to have a ‘salt and pepper’ mix of public and private units in the same buildings to break down social barriers between tenure groups. The complex includes an enclosed courtyard garden, visible from all three buildings but only accessible to residents in private buildings. Research in 2014 by Iris Levin, Kathy Arthurson & Anna Ziersch found this design is not conducive to social integration2.

Support Needed to Make Social Mix Work

What did bring different tenure groups together in a productive way at Carlton was the ‘Eco-Carlton Project’ – residents interacted in learning about the special environmental features installed in the three buildings. Participants in Eco-Carlton said that having a social mix on the estate was worthwhile, although research in 2015 I participated in found, that to maintain ongoing social interactions between the different tenure groups, more community development work was needed3.

In some instances, private residents were against a salt and pepper mix as they thought this would lower their property values3. This viewpoint highlights that any changes to social mix must be carefully managed to avoid recreating conditions of stigma and exclusion for public tenants. Otherwise, according to research, places of social mix may become new spaces for social exclusion through identification of ‘us’ – private owners who purchase properties – and ‘them’ – public tenants paying subsidised rents to government for their housing4 5.


Policy makers have not made a strong case for funding and support to address the long term viability and growth of public housing. The provision of stronger connections with support services in homelessness, education and health are also critical. Adopting social mix policies in estate renewal has become a convenient cover for the public-private mix and economic partnerships that come at the cost of selling off large amounts of public housing. Given the complexity of the issues it seems odd, if not counter-productive to focus on public housing concentration as the main problem and changing social mix as the solution. Especially when targeting of public housing only to people with high needs works against having a future social mix within public housing.

Associate Professor Kathy Arthurson is Director, Neighbourhoods, Housing and Health @ Flinders, Southgate Institute for Health, Society and Equity at Flinders University of SA.

References and Further reading

1 Coates, B. & Shepherd, M. (2005) ‘Bonnyrigg Living Communities Project A Case Study in Social Housing PPPs’ presented to National Housing Conference: Perth, Western Australia

2 Levin, I., Arthurson, K. & A. Ziersch (2014) Social mix and the role of design: the Carlton Public Housing Estate redevelopment, Melbourne, Cities, 40, pp. 23-31.

3 Arthurson, K., Levin, I., & A. Ziersch (2015) What is the meaning of ‘social mix’? A case study of implementing social mix policy at Carlton Housing Estate, Melbourne, Australian Geographer, 46(4), pp.  491-505.

4 Lelevrier, C. 2013. Social mix neighbourhood policies and social interaction: The experience of newcomers in three new renewal developments in France. Cities 35: 409-416.

5 Ruming, K., Mee J., & McGuirk, M. (2004). ‘Questioning the Rhetoric of Social Mix: Courteous Community or Hidden Hostility?’  Australian Geographical Studies, 42(2),234–248.

Also see ISV’s From the Vault – What is a “Better Social Mix”? – Spring 2003