E.g., 10/01/2023
E.g., 10/01/2023
The Role of Cities in Immigrant Integration

The Role of Cities in Immigrant Integration

It has long been recognized that urban areas, especially large cities, are places where cultural diversity flourishes. Cities like New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Sydney, London, Paris, and Amsterdam, which receive migrants from all over the world, exemplify the cultural, social, and religious diversity that many believe is a fundamental characteristic of places that will thrive—economically and socially—in an era of global interdependence.

History demonstrates, however, that diversity is not a sufficient condition to bring about the sustained inclusion of the different groups that populate a city. The collapse into inter-ethnic conflict of once relatively harmonious multicultural cities like pre-World War I Vienna, pre-World War II Warsaw, and in more recent decades Beirut, Sarajevo, and Srebrenica, highlights the fragility of cultural diversity. Learning to live with cultural diversity, managing cultural exchanges among people, organizations, and institutions, and dealing directly with inequities and discrimination are challenges that cities must face if they are to be socially inclusive and culturally diverse.

For most cities, efforts to decrease social polarization and manage diversity rely on the "bedrock" social policies of public education, health care, and income support that are usually the responsibility of national and state, provincial or regional governments. But social inclusion also depends on the quality of the countless interactions that occur among the kaleidoscope of individuals, social groups, and institutions that exist in a city. In this respect, city governments also have a responsibility to develop local policies that manage diversity and integrate newcomers and long-established residents into dynamic social, economic, and political environments. They also must take the lead in mitigating practices of exclusion and segregation that are so acutely felt in the places where people live. Social inclusion in urban places does not just happen organically.

Management and Integration Programs

Managing diversity and creating the conditions for social inclusion can no longer be a concern for old central cities alone. In many cities the majority of immigrants, both new and long-established, settle in the suburbs, not the traditional inner-city enclaves that so dominate our imagined ethnic landscapes. In the United States, this trend could be observed in some large immigrant gateway cities during the 1980s, but in the past decade suburban neighborhoods have emerged as new multiethnic immigrant enclaves in both new and established settlement gateways.

Inclusive Urban Environments Rely on:
  • Street design
  • Pricing and availability of public transportation
  • Location and accessibility of employment
  • Management of schools
  • Management of police services
  • Economic development that benefits a range of social groups
  • Enforcement of employment codes, commercial regulations, and by-laws
  • Garbage removal
  • Licensing street vendors and public market spaces
  • Pricing and servicing industrial land

Established central cities may have depth of experience in working with diverse populations, but immigration is forcing suburban municipalities to catch up on managing diversity. In the 100 largest metropolitan areas of the United States, the rate of immigrant population growth was 54.8 percent between 1990 and 2000. The rate of growth in the suburbs of these same metropolitan areas, however, was 63.7 percent, far outstripping the rate of central city immigrant growth (21.7 percent). In only 32 of the 100 metropolitan areas did the growth of the immigrant population in the central city exceed that in the suburbs during the 1990s.

Immigrants have a range of needs—from housing to education to language instruction to efficient public transportation for accessing jobs spread over vast metropolitan areas. These needs are far from new, but they pose integration challenges because of where immigrants live within metropolitan areas. Unlike many central cities, suburban municipalities have had little need until recently to provide integration services to newcomers and their children. Most suburban neighborhoods also have little experience in managing cross-cultural communication or encouraging social inclusion among neighbors from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. In low-density suburbs where socio-cultural homogeneity has been an archetypal condition if not a founding principle, the emergence of a plurality of cultures is a radical change. It also poses a challenge to encouraging integration in the sites where different cultures and social groups meet—schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, streets, shopping malls, and soccer fields.

A Role for Cities?

Cities are social, economic, and political entities that have developed in response to the actions of countless individuals and relationships among a wide array of institutions and organizations. They also reflect past decisions about construction and density, land use, transportation, economic development, political processes and representation, and social planning.

Many of these decisions, often made decades earlier and without consideration for the cultural pluralism that characterizes contemporary immigration, reverberate through to the present to influence opportunities for social inclusion and integration. Whether it be a city founded in the 18th century or a suburban "edge city" built in the late 20th century, the policies and practices that urban places adopt to mitigate socio-economic fragmentation and polarization will also reflect present-day constitutional, economic, and social contexts, as well as political configurations. Consequently, there will be many "solutions" to the local immigration and cultural diversity challenge.

Many national and state or provincial governments do not have a specific urban policy agenda, but the "non-urban" social and economic policies they pursue do have a direct influence on social inclusion and managing diversity in cities. Income support and social welfare policies that establish a threshold of support for disadvantaged individuals and households can do a great deal to diminish extreme forms of social polarization. The same is true of universal public education and health care policies. Investment by senior-level governments in expensive urban infrastructure, especially in older cities, can also minimize extreme differences in the quality of public goods and services across neighborhoods. In some countries, national and state governments also have pursued policies aimed at diminishing social isolation and fragmentation by investing in social housing and efficient public transportation systems.

The social, economic, and taxation policies supported by national and state/provincial governments set the broad context in which the effective management of diversity issues can occur. Local governments, however, play a crucial role that is too often underestimated. This is especially the case in our post-industrial society—cities are the locales where a knowledge-based economy grows and consequently they are assuming an ever more influential role in the economic, political, informational, and cultural affairs of society. Cities are also ideally suited to address many issues associated with the inclusion of newcomers, such as reducing the social and residential exclusion of marginalized and disadvantaged groups, increasing social and spatial access to public services and employment, and constructing democratic, efficient, and equitable local governance structures.

Cities also hold the distinction of organizing and regulating many activities of daily urban life that are prosaic, but nevertheless crucial to the social and economic inclusion of residents. Some of the most important sticking points in terms of encouraging two-way integration between immigrants and receiving communities revolve around opportunities for positive encounters between groups in public spaces and perceived inequalities in access to public services and goods. The enforcement of building codes, management of social housing, police, schools and transportation services, and supporting economic development for a range of social groups and communities may not be leading national policy concerns. Such issues, policies, and their delivery do, however, make a difference at the scale where social inclusion is lived and negotiated on a daily basis.

There are many areas of potential policy intervention that cities can pursue to encourage integration between newcomers and native-born residents and foster urban environments in which inclusion rather than exclusion and conflict are the norm:

  • "Governance" relationships between governments, state agencies, non-governmental organizations and social groups
  • Policies and programs that support fledgling immigrant and minority communities and/or respond to their distinct needs and experiences as they integrate into a new society
  • Investments in public goods and services ranging from daycares and community centers to water and sewer systems
  • Urban land-use planning and housing
  • Police services and outreach to minority communities
  • Urban transportation and accessibility to employment and services
  • Economic development initiatives that engage local entrepreneurs and seek to diminish rather than exacerbate marginalization and segregation

Illustrations of each of these interventions are possible, but promising examples of progressive actions in governance, housing, and urban transportation will be highlighted here.

Local Politics Addressing Local Needs: Governance Structures

In the last two decades, cities around the world have witnessed movements to democratize local government and increase community and social group involvement in local affairs. Governance, as distinct from government, has become an influential concept in structuring interactions between local government and civil society groups and organizations.

Some city administrations have deliberately cultivated relationships with minority communities and social groups, including immigrants and refugees, to enhance their involvement in actions and programs that touch their lives. In Portland, Oregon, as part of the Building the New American Community Project (funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement), the city's Metropolitan Human Rights Center and Office of Neighborhood Involvement, as well as Multnomah County's Office of School and Community Partnerships, have deliberately sought out the active involvement of several refugee and immigrant communities in a number of different initiatives. This collaborative effort to develop governance relationships with newcomer communities that have limited experience in local politics and government includes projects that encourage neighborhood economic development, as well as programs that address the needs of school-aged immigrant and second-generation youth and their families.

The Value of Unintended Outcomes: Urban Land Use and Social Integration

Sometimes cities get lucky and decisions made in response to acute circumstances decades earlier can have unintended benefits for social inclusion in today's multiethnic cities and suburbs. Decisions made about suburban development in Montréal during the 1950s and 1960s, for example, have had largely positive implications for diminishing spatial segregation and building community cohesion among some ethnic groups in the contemporary city.

In response to a crisis in housing availability in Montreal immediately following World War II, the decision was made to encourage the construction of medium-density rental housing and single-family owner-occupied housing in neighborhoods on what was then the suburban periphery. The housing crisis eventually subsided and over time more and more immigrant households settled in these relatively affordable dwellings. Among immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent, for example, extended families use the relatively close spatial proximity of rental and owner-occupied housing to maintain close relationships, even though they are at different stages in settlement and integration processes. Families deliberately search for rental housing in the same neighborhood as their more well-established relatives so as to maintain social networks that are rich in information and support, and furnish links to larger Indian communities, thereby diminishing feelings of isolation. The relatively close proximity of people from different social classes and ethnocultural backgrounds in these suburban neighborhoods also has allowed newcomers to tap into information, employment, and social networks beyond the orbit of their ethnic group.

Networking a Fragmented City: Public Transportation

It is difficult to overestimate the value of public transportation investments in facilitating social inclusion and access to opportunities in cities where employment is scattered in nodes throughout the metropolitan area. Even in a small city like Lowell, Massachusetts, (one of the Building the New American Community Project communities) transportation is a key factor in integration. The termination of public bus service immediately following the afternoon rush hour has been identified as a major impediment to new refugees and immigrants taking advantage of evening English-language training courses. The One Lowell Coalition of immigrant, refugee, and community organizations has been extremely effective in highlighting the need for better public transit if the community as a whole intends to integrate immigrant workers into the life of the city.

In a similar vein, significant investment by Toronto and Montréal in subway and bus systems following World War II has been shown to increase significantly the ability of new immigrants to access both employment and public services. Researchers have pointed out that the investments made by Metro Toronto in developing an integrated public transit system did a great deal to sustain social cohesion and interaction in a city that grew rapidly following World War II. In fact, investments in public transportation, coupled with tax-pooling policies among middle-class suburban municipalities and the poorer central city, did much to encourage a convergence of population characteristics within the metropolitan region over time.

Successful investments that diminish exclusion and marginalization always must be adapted to urban change lest the situation deteriorate. In recent decades, low levels of investment in public transit and an absence of direct tax-sharing relationships between new and old municipalities in greater Toronto have contributed to increased segregation. Augmented by a boom in outer suburban employment districts, there has been a growing spatial mismatch between the housing locations of less-well-off residents, many of whom are newcomers, and the distribution of employment opportunities. In this respect, Toronto is a city where access to the full spectrum of employment opportunities and urban services is more restricted for the less affluent and mobile. The possibilities for meaningful interaction between the large number of social classes and ethnocultural groups in this city, which continues to be the primary destination for immigrants to Canada, are also much diminished.

Looking Forward: Cities and Diversity

As cities across the world become ever more the focal points of post-industrial economic growth and immigrant settlement, city governments, agencies, social groups, and organizations of civil society are playing ever more influential roles in shaping social inclusion and integration pathways. In part, this means that cities will take on new policies and programs, and some may assume responsibilities that traditionally have been associated with more senior-level governments in order to respond to the needs, challenges, and opportunities posed by new residents, institutions, and economic activities.

It also means that cities must continue to play a role in creating socially inclusive environments by strategically pursuing urban management initiatives that are positive in terms of outcomes but are only indirectly related to immigrants and their settlement and integration. Urban transportation, housing, and policing, for example, are not normally thought of as immigrant integration programs, even if they seek to achieve greater social inclusion.

Some cities will be able to draw many unintended benefits from decisions made decades earlier as they pursue policies of two-way integration. Other places will struggle with urban landscapes and social environments that seem ill-equipped to capitalize on the opportunities commonly associated with cultural diversity in a post-industrial economy. Achieving greater social inclusion and equity in both kinds of cities will demand multiple policy "solutions," for at the heart of this challenge lies the cultural and social diversity, plural circumstances, and fluidity that characterize today's multiethnic societies.