Evolving Society Focus Society

Othering in Denmark: “Ghetto List” from Planning Perspective

What does the Danish state imply with its ghetto law policy?

Written by Amay Visser, Bergen Jome, Danielle Baillargeon, and Daphne Nietfeld.
This is a story in the Mapping the Ghetto in Paradise series. 

The concept of “ghetto” comes from the Italian word “getto” used to describe the neighbourhood where Jewish people have historically lived. Making use of the word ghetto to describe a particular area, comes mostly, if not all, with negative expectations about this area. This word, therefore, does not seem fitting to describe particular areas in Denmark, a cosy, small country with soft-hearted residents. How then, did the Danish politicians come up with the “ghetto-list”? Was this may be based on the idea of ghetto-lists found in other countries? What do they want to achieve with this description?

As mentioned above, the word ghetto originates from the Italian word “getto” used in 1516 to describe city areas in Venice where Jewish people were forced to live. With this restriction, there was automatically a separation between the Jewish community from the “other” Venice residents. The word ghetto as a result is intrinsically linked with the idea of separation. From 1516 until now, ghetto as a description has been used to describe mainly inner-city areas where often people from minority groups live. The overrepresentation of minority groups in these areas is often the result of social, legal or economic pressures[1].

Denmark published their ghetto-list in 2010 with the criteria that, once a neighbourhood satisfies two or more parameters on the list it can be considered a ghetto by the government. One of the most striking and main criteria is: “at least half of the residents living in the area are immigrants or descendants of non-western countries[2]”. This criterion in combination with calling neighbourhoods ghettos is thought provoking in our opinion, because it has a negative connotation, as previously discussed in our, precedent articles. Why then did they include this criterion on the list?

Looking at Sweden, and the ways in which the Swedish state has marked particular living areas might shed light on why these criteria may have been included. As Denmark’s neighbour, Sweden, has areas that are labelled as ghettos. One of the main criteria for classifying a certain region as ghetto is the low socio-economic status of its residents, and high crime-rate. In Sweden, therefore, areas are marked as ghettos on the basis of poverty and crime rate, not on the immigration status of its residents. This brings us back to the question why the Danish government has chosen to include the criterion about immigrants in its parameters to identify ghettos.

By specifically targeting residential areas that are immigrant heavy through the instrument of the ghetto list, the Danish government is furthering the insidious process of ‘othering’. ‘Othering’ occurs when a group of people aggressively draw inviolable boundaries around their identity through maintaining traditions, racial purity and by perpetuating negative stereotypes about the ‘Other’.

This helps in ‘setting groups apart”, often leading to misunderstandings and prejudices. These groups are most often based on common norms and values. In the case of Denmark and the existing ghetto-list, the ghettos do not seem to fit with the Danish identity according to the politicians. By doing this, they exclude a whole group living in Denmark as not Danish. The ghetto-list therefore is not a tool to serve integration in the Danish society, but a tool to push out people who do not seem to fit with the current Danish identity.

Timeline of the Ghetto List[3]

1960-79: Construction of 200,000 social housing units
• Great success at first and solving housing issues in major urban areas
• Was created to provide adequate universal access to housing
• Rent control in effect, to make it possible that low-income residents can still be able to pay their rent
1980s: Refurbishments needed for the social housing buildings
• Many damages with expensive renovation projects
• The need for more social housing renovation changed the mandate for the National Building Fund, making it so the state was the only one who supported the construction of new homes, but the National Building Fund took care of refurbishments
1990s: Discourse about problem affected areas within Danish politics
• Published reports and further discussions bringing up arguments of the negative effects of clustering people with lower socioeconomic backgrounds
• Because of continuous discourses, in 1993 the national government created the first social measures about these problems affected areas, including collaborations to ensure coordination for housing refurbishments, reduced rent rates, and social initiatives to reduce crime
2000: The word “Ghetto” appears in political discourse
• Problem affected areas started to become referred to as “ghettos” by the end of the millennium
• “Ghetto” officially used in Danish political terminology, making the term more widespread
2004: Prime Minister Fogh Rassmussen’s Speech
• Stating that these “ghettos” have failed, giving an example where the men are unemployed and yet the women are isolated and only speak the languages of their native countries
• That these areas formulated that he refers to as “ghettos” leads to higher amounts of crime and violence in Denmark
• Saying that “ghettos” unintentionally mixes up the Danish values, explaining that these problems are not natural to Denmark
2010: Prime Minister Løkke Rassmussen and the social construction of the “ghetto”
• Expressed that there are “holes in the Danish map” where “Danish values are no longer leading”, pressing the need for the immigrants and descendants to integrate into Danish society
• Referred to “ghettos” as the opposite of Danish identity or “Danishness”
2018: Dismantling of the “ghetto”
• Løkke Rassmussen explains that the ghetto creates a negative spiral, saying that he wants a firmer immigration policy as Denmark’s is too “lax”
• Reformation of a “ghetto strategy”, replacing Denmark’s “ghettos” with new housing units, displacing the thousands of people who live inside of these areas with little to no help finding new affordable housing options


The entire basis for the ghetto proposal from the government is problematic, as has been briefly demonstrated before. As Troels Schultz Larsen explains in an article, the problem does not lie within the neighbourhoods to begin with, the problem is the people. Preparing ghetto lists does not prevent poverty, but rather produces stigmatisation, which makes people feel unsafe and changes the perception of people living in these ‘ghetto areas’. 

Besides that, the Danish ghetto list has drawn inspiration from other countries, such as Sweden, Germany and The Netherlands. Even though the housing and labour market in Denmark are different from the countries it takes inspiration from for its ghetto lists. For more information about this refer to our previous articles.

Looking at the definition of ghetto, it might be wrong to use the word itself as well. As Professor Loïc Wacquant (UC Berkeley/Paris) defined ghetto:

1. One homogeneous, stigmatised population group (e.g. POC or Jewish people).
2. Physical demarcation. This means that the group of people need to be physically and/or socially separated from the rest of the community with a clear marking of inside/outside.
3. Economic constraints. (In)direct discrimination, for example in the labour market, based on characteristics of the area in which one lives.
4. Institutional demarcation. The ghettos should be cut off from the community’s public institutions and they therefore develop their own institutions.
5. Territorial stigmatisation characterised by the shaming of certain places.

Looking at this and taking Troels Schultz Larsen’s critique into account, it is not logical to talk about ghettos (or even parallel societies) in Denmark, as it does not concern a homogeneous population group. The slack of the word “ghetto” makes it easy for politicians to use ridiculous generalizations about the entire area or entire groups of people.

Besides that, the high relocation rates show that there are no fixed boundaries between the ghetto communities and surrounding areas, therefore the Danish “ghettos” do not comply with the definition of ghetto. 

In conclusion, there are no ghettos in Denmark according to the definition of Troels Schultz Larsen. In Denmark, there are multi-ethnic neighbourhoods where people from different ethnic minority backgrounds live. The use of the term “ghetto” should be stopped to describe people who do not have a multitude of choices in where to settle in Denmark, but rather pick their homes in affordable neighbourhoods.

It is clear that the “other” is very apparent in Denmark.

Footnotes & addtional readings

[1] Definition of ghetto, via:https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ghetto

[2] Latest edition of contentious “Ghetto list’ includes 29 areas. 15 housing areas characterised as being particularly hardcore, Christian W, 2018, via: https://cphpost.dk/?p=107149

[3] The Political Strategies to Dismantle the “Ghetto”, Understanding the “Ghetto” in Denmark through the Nationalist and “Othering” Discursive Lenses, Adryan Sasongko

Quotes and Ideas from Professor Michele Pace – Roskilde University: Danish migration policies with Professor Michelle Pace

Three years after Denmark’s infamous ‘jewellery law’ hit world headlines, not a single piece has been confiscated

The ghetto proposal of the government: ‘One Denmark without parallel society – no ghettos in 2030’.

Cover photograph by Daphne Nietfeld

About the Authors

Amay Visser is a Dutch Bachelor of Psychology student studying at RUC on her Erasmus exchange.

Bergen Jome is from the United States and holds a bachelors in history and public affairs. She is currently studying a masters in Nordic Urban Planning Studies at Roskilde University.

Danielle Baillargeon is Canadian and recently graduated from her Bachelor’s of Urban and Regional Planning from Ryerson University. She is currently studying her Nordic Urban Planning Master’s at RUC. 

Daphne Nietfeld is an International Relations and Political Sciences student at Erasmus University College. For this semester, she is studying Communication Studies at Roskilde University.

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