What a List Won’t Tell You About Denmark’s Working Class Communities
By Per Mouritsen
If you walk through Trigeparken—a public housing estate a little outside Aarhus city in Denmark—it is hard to understand how this particular community, with its white-painted blocks of flats and large green areas, made it on to the official Danish list of “particularly vulnerable residential areas.”
Denmark’s social democratic government coined this term to replace Trigeparken’s former “ghetto” categorization, designated by the previous government. Even though the name has changed, the idea remains the same.
The first day I came to Trigeparken to interview residents for the Open Society Foundations’ report on Europe’s working class communities, I saw children having fun in the playground, mothers doing their grocery shopping or picking up their kids from school.
This was certainly not a ghetto. There were no burnt-out garbage containers. No signs of vandalism. No deserted, concrete wasteland. Yet, most Danes still call areas like Trigeparken ghettos.
This new research on white working class communities in Aarhus, Denmark, offers an insight into the views and experiences of Danes living in Trigeparken but is likely to echo experiences of other areas in Denmark, which also feature on the “ghetto list.”
The research is part of a wider research project of Open Society’s At Home in Europe project, which examines the daily experiences of communities from the majority population in Western Europe, and their views on issues like employment, health, education, housing, politics, and media.
Every single person I spoke to at Trigeparken resented having the “ghetto” stamp. “This is not a ghetto,” I was constantly told. Many would defend their area, saying it was not “like one of those other areas in Copenhagen, where you have drive-by shootings and the schools are falling apart.”
Others expressed how unfair this label was and the effect of being constantly asked by friends and colleagues how one could live in such a place or think of raising children there. “It is perceived as a place where no one would want to move and start a family, but this is far from reality,” said one father who had recently moved to Trigeparken.
Most of Trigeparken’s 1,050 inhabitants were “placed” in this public housing estate by the local council, which supports them by paying their rent. There is a mix of people: low-income earners, people who are unemployed, or people who suffer from disabilities and have to fully rely on Denmark’s welfare system. There is also a percentage of recently arrived immigrants and refugees.
If you are a welfare recipient in Aarhus you have little say over where you live; the only way to move out of Trigeparken and change your public housing accommodation is to find work in another area. But—as the report points out—most people are in fact quite happy to live in Trigeparken and do not want to move out; they want to improve the living standards of where they are.
There are many successful local initiatives in Trigeparken that this research highlights. Crime rates are down, and school attainment has improved. Police respond quickly when needed. The Youth4Youth mentor network was identified by residents as an activity that considerably helped the local school reach out to young people and motivate them to change the way they perceive their situation and prospects for the future. As a result, more youth engage in sports. The municipality’s idea to establish a “health café,” a mobile health service, facilitates residents’ access to basic health services and helps promote healthy habits.
The “ghetto list” in Denmark was a way for the government to be seen as doing something to deal with crime and poor integration. But in reality the list only brought negative side effects. It stigmatized entire neighborhoods, with residents and social workers struggling in vain to break away from the effects of this stigma.
There is also an isolation effect that comes with the “ghetto” label; people would avoid moving to Trigeparken when given the choice. Finally, the ghetto list was highly selective; it drew attention to only 40 vulnerable areas—not necessarily the worst ones—leaving out numerous other places in Denmark, which were just as much in need of resources and concerted local action. The label was as cosmetic and selective as it was counterproductive.
Our new research found that the problems these so-called ghettos face are less dramatic than those reported in the media; it is not about gang wars or young Muslim men being radicalized but about more mundane everyday things.
For example, the most important problem at Trigeparken is the large discrepancy in the quality of housing relative to rent levels between the two departments of the local housing association, Ringgården; the cost of one type of housing in Trigeparken is very different from the cost of the same type of housing depending on what housing association you are affiliated with. If rent levels were more equal and reflective of the value of the properties, fewer families would have to move out, and Trigeparken’s sense of community would be stronger.
The Danish “ghetto discourse” presents the areas in question as causes of the problems residents experience—whether that be unemployment, radicalism, poverty, or crime. This is incorrect. Economic and structural reasons brought residents to public housing estates in the first place.
Treating people as “ghetto” residents will not miraculously drag people out of their plight. Practical solutions will, and this, in many ways, is actually what is going on at Trigeparken in Aarhus, according to our research.
Policymakers and local administrators—certainly in Aarhus—have at their disposal detailed statistics on areas such as housing prices, crime rates, or school attainment to help in their policymaking. Publicly branding certain areas such as Trigeparken is not needed and should be stopped.
If the government wants to properly address issues in Trigeparken and other similar public housing communities, it should start by reducing their marginalization and isolation and help built community pride. As I discovered through this research, there are effective practices at the local and community level, which reap real rewards and should be encouraged and shared across the country.
Per Mouritsen is lead researcher for the White Working Class Communities in Aarhus report, and a professor and migration expert at Aarhus University.