Spatial Inclusion

By Myer Siemiatycki, Professor of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University

Myer Siemiatycki
Professor of Politics and Public Administration, Ryerson University

Migration and urbanization are twin drivers of global change today. Depending on how cities respond, we could be headed for hard times or a golden age ahead. The good news is we now have ample ‘best practice’ evidence of how to arrive at a happy ending.

Cities of Exclusion or Inclusion?

In this age of migration, more people than ever are crossing borders and living outside their country of birth. Never before has human migration connected so many places of departure and arrival. And whatever country immigrants move to, they overwhelmingly settle in cities.

Migration is propelling urbanization at fast-forward speed. By the year 2000, cities for the first time in human history accounted for half the world’s population. The United Nations projects that by 2050, two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. More than ever, cities are places of diversity – a meeting place of identities of difference.

Increasingly, human and social well-being will depend on whether cities can create an inclusive public culture, home to all. First and foremost, this will require sharing public space.

We know what failure will look like. It won’t be pretty, as cities become defined by:

  • Residential segregation and ghettos
  • Unequal access to institutions and services
  • Land use policies that are unresponsive to the distinct residential, recreational, religious and cultural needs of diverse communities
  • Recurring spatial reminders of advantage for some and deprivation for others

Such patterns inevitably create polarized and divided cities. Troubled cities.

Conversely, cities can be places of welcome and integration, when they make space for all. This typically benefits not only immigrants and minorities, but the economic, social and cultural position of the entire city.

The city of the future is ours to choose and build. There are many steps – big and small – that can be taken to create cities of inclusion. Some of the most effective and creative are designed to assure that public space (streets, parks, neighbourhoods), public services (housing, transportation) and public institutions (schools, libraries) serve the entire population.

Leadership can come from many stakeholders. This includes municipal officials, local residents, newcomer communities, local business, labour and media. All it takes is religions, and wanting a city open for all. Fortunately, there are many good examples to consider following.

Inclusive Public Space

How can public space build belonging in a diverse city? Two factors are especially important. First is being responsive to the distinct needs of immigrant and minority communities. Second is connecting these communities to the majority and other minority populations of the city. These are hallmarks of success stories from around the world.

Here is a sample of notable successes across a variety of public spaces.

Housing. Housing is the first urgent need for immigrants and refugees in their new arrival city. Municipal authorities have launched a number of creative initiatives to meet this challenge. Amsterdam created a ‘pop-up’ complex of prefab housing project Startblok Riekerhaven housing almost 600 single young adults. Interestingly, half the units are reserved for refugees, the other half for Dutch young adults, especially university students. All residents are required to devote time to site maintenance and upkeep. The result is greater networking, acculturation and housing security for newcomers, while Dutch students gain affordable housing and enriched global insight.

In Athens, the City Plaza project converted an abandoned hotel into co-operative housing for 400 people. Residents were intentionally selected from a range of nationalities, religions, and ethnicities. All share responsibility for collective chores including cooking and cleaning. In Berlin, the Refugees Welcome initiative has developed an online platform allowing resident Berliners to offer housing in their own homes to refugees. In addition to housing, this also provides refugees with local hosts able to promote the integration of newcomers. This Berlin project has now been adopted in 13 other countries! As the Berlin co-founder of the project stated: “It’s about bringing locals and non-locals together to dialogue, to have a better life for all of them.”

Cleveland USA, has identified refugee and immigrant housing as key to the city’s own urban revival. Its Dream Neighborhood plan, aims to rehabilitate derelict and foreclosed homes for newcomers settling in the city. Over 100 homes have been restored, now occupied by refugee and immigrant families. In addition to revitalizing residential areas, these newcomers are reviving adjacent commercial streets through thor shopping and entrepreneurial activity.

These cases remind us that newcomer housing can be leveraged to provide broader economic, neighbourhood, and social benefits.

Economic Opportunities.  Cities have adopted a number of measures to support immigrant entrepreneurial and business aspirations. The Boston Back Streets Program preserves zoning areas for small commercial and industrial uses in areas typically used by immigrant and minority entrepreneurs. Threatened by gentrification and re-development, Boston officials have recognized the importance of protecting these spaces of newcomer enterprise. In Toronto, the Tower Renewal Project pursues the same goal through mixed-use zoning of apartment towers that are home to many immigrants. Flexible zoning allows space in these towers for commercial purposes, including restaurants and assorted service provision. This has a host of potential benefits including business and job creation, and the convenience of on-site services.

In Turin, city officials have taken steps to assure immigrant entrepreneurial access to Europe’s largest open-air market, the Porta Palazzo. Immigrants account for 20% of those living and working in the market area. As tensions arose between merchants over space in the market, and the neighbourhood’s residential population started to decline, city officials recognized the need to support the market as a commercial hub and immigrant economic platform. Consulting with all market entrepreneurs, the city designated business space for all, and required merchants themselves to voluntarily oversee maintenance of the market site. With the market stabilized, the city then promoted a ‘Living, Not Leaving’ campaign, urging residents to remain in neighbourhood. A vibrant commercial market, with immigrant retailing. Became the glue holding a neighbourhood together.

Parks, Sport, Recreation. Many cities pro-actively use their parks as sites of immigrant integration. In Barcelona, a former hospital site in the Nou Barris district has been transformed into parkgrounds, earning the city an international award for promoting the “integrative task in a rapidly expanding and multi-ethnic quarter of Barcelona”. In New York, parks have a mandate to promote immigrant access. They advance this through special outreach to newcomer communities, diversity training for park staff, and diversifying not only park programs but also food menus in park restaurants. In Toronto, the recently launched Mayor’s School Cricket Tournament has brought this non-traditional sport into more than 50 schools and many parks in the city.

Identity Space. Newcomers seek to express their identity (religious, ethnic, linguistic) in their new urban setting. Inclusive cities find ways to welcome rather than resist such expressions of belonging. In Marxloh Germany, city officials supported construction of the country’s largest mosque, which opened to broad public support. The city consulted widely on the mosque plan which included inter-faith dialogue space, an under-sized minaret, and large windows for ease of transparency. In the Spanish town of Badalona, a request from its Sikh community to hold a religious procession through town streets was first denied, and then approved after town officials required Sikhs to meet with local residents for their support. Formal bridge-building meetings ensued, the request was approved, with public officials and neighbourhood residents participating in the parade.

Libraries.  Many cities use their municipal libraries to promote newcomer integration. Typically this includes language and reading circles, providing materials in many languages, as well as settlement services such as employment counselling. The Queens Public Library of New York, is America’s largest circulation library system, thanks in part to its immigrant outreach ‘New Americans Program’. Particularly creative is the ‘Living Library’ program developed in Valongo, Portugal. It features a real immigrant telling his or her migration story to an audience, based on the program slogan ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’.

Taking It To The Street.  Our final good practice shows how great inclusion initiatives can come from urban residents themselves. In Auckland New Zealand, the ‘Walking School Bus’ is an ingenious path to integration. Parents and children to walk to their neighbourhood school following a distinct route, picking up more and more participants as they proceed, just like a real motorized bus. In the process, diverse families connect, become familiar, and neighbourhood ties are strengthened. It also puts a neighbourhood’s diversity on walking display, every day.

The Author

Myer Siemiatycki is Professor of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University. Myer is the founding past Director of Ryerson’s Interdisciplinary MA Program in Immigration and Settlement Studies. His research and publications span the fields of immigration, urban and labour studies. Select achievements include the Distinguished Educator Award, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (1992); Ryerson Popular Professor Citation, Maclean’s Guide to Canadian Universities (2003-2006); Ryerson University Faculty Service Award and Research Domain Leader, the Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration & Settlement from 2001 to 2006. In 2012, Siemiatycki was appointed as the first Jack Layton Chair, leading the inaugural Jack Layton Book Club and the Jack Layton School for Youth Leadership.


Recommendations For Policy-Makers

  • All urban residents have a role to play building inclusive cities. Where we live, where we shop, whom we befriend, whom we vote for, and our commitment to share public spaces will shape our cities of the future.
  • Civic officials have a special responsibility to assure the city belongs to everyone.
  • They must assure that public spaces, services and institutions are equally accessible and beneficial to immigrant communities.
  • They must assure that public spaces, services and institutions build connections between all communities and identities in the city.
  • The path to civic inclusion consists of steps both big and small, best taken based on the widest stakeholder consultation.


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