Wicked Failures? Cities Offer Local Solutions

April 29th, 2014

By Dana Wagner

document-300x199When failure in religious inclusion of immigrants makes headlines, the story is typically about a place, a city, where things are (or aren’t) happening.  Addressing “wicked failure” of immigration policy is not an exclusively national-level conversation. Cities can and do step up with clever solutions when national governments don’t get it right.

That’s because city governments are closest to the people and responsible for day-to-day, tangible services. If something goes wrong, they face it right away. If there’s a demonstration? City streets get blocked. Racist graffiti? The city cleans it up. Violence? City police departments deal with that. A developer plans to build a mosque, and it’s controversial? City planners get that file.

Unlike national governments, cities simply can’t afford to get bogged down by immigration ‘politics’ for all the above reasons.

The stakes are high. The health and literal functioning of cities cannot ignore the importance of good immigrant integration, especially in cities like Canada’s Toronto, where almost half the population is foreign-born.

Here are two examples of good practice – in Marseille and Hamburg – that respond to national failure.


The city of Marseille, in the south of France, is forecast to become the first Muslim-majority city in Western Europe.  Would this demographic reality go against the French model of republican assimilation?

One of the tenets of assimilation is the policy of laïcité, or secularism, meaning that the state prohibits the recognition of ethnicity or religion in political life. This is a rigid secularism, forbidding, for instance, data collection on ethnicity or religion. It fails to account for distinct needs of religious groups in public policy, and is accused of creating, not erasing, disruptive ethnic divisions.

So in 1990, the Mayor of Marseille established a forum, a body called Marseille Espérance, that formally acknowledged the importance of religious identities in the public space.

Members include the city’s religious leaders (Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists), who meet regularly with the mayor to address the city’s social needs. It’s a fairly standard forum, but it’s also outright dissent. Here is a municipal leader rejecting a rigid secular identity out of recognition that religious communities have a stake and, to live peacefully, they need a voice.

Not surprisingly, this practical approach to governance has been successful. For one, the forum unanimously approved building a long-stalled mosque, which is to have the largest capacity in Marseille and is now under construction. The forum worked as a mediating body to diffuse community conflicts.

A marker of success in the city’s approach was a non-event. The riots that hit Paris and other French cities around 2005 did not occur in Marseille. Astrid Ziebarth, of the German Marshall Fund,  wrote in The New York Times that “Marseille held its breath — to then exhale slowly when Marseillaise youths did not join the uprisings. To many, this was a sign that the city, where it is estimated that every fifth person is born abroad and about every third person is Muslim, was doing something right in fostering social cohesion among a diverse population.”


Hamburg in Germany offers another such example of policy correction. Over 20% of residents in Hamburg are immigrants. Like in the rest of Germany, Turkish Muslims form the largest ethnic minority and a sizeable population are not citizens. Researchers noticed that over the last decade, even though many qualified for citizenship they had not applied. The naturalization rate was low and falling.  Why?

Germany has been making a transition from viewing immigrants as “guest workers” to future citizens. But citizenship rules have been slow to catch up with the new, welcoming agenda. Compared to Canada, it takes longer for immigrants to be naturalized, and for many immigrants, dual citizenship is not an option as choosing to be German means forfeiting another identity.

Without the ability to change citizenship rules, the City of Hamburg decided to at least intervene with a welcoming message. The city began a campaign in 2010 to encourage immigrants to naturalize, under the motto “Hamburg, my port. Germany, my home.” The focus was on communicating the benefits of citizenship and breaking down the complexity of applying. All over Hamburg billboards sprang up featuring cultural stars who were also immigrants, there was a website with step-by-step guides, the Mayor’s Office sent personal letters to prospective citizens, and the city recruited counselors from immigrant communities, notably the Turkish community, to guide people through the process.

An interesting campaign strategy embedded in its motto was to promote a local identity alongside a national one: to be a Hamburger and a German. Ricard Zapata-Barrero, a Barcelona-based professor who heads a research group on immigration, notes the importance: “This sense of urban identity needs to be better explored and politically managed. Here lies one of the driving forces behind the success of cities in the accommodation of diversity.”

The fact that a naturalization campaign was a city initiative says a lot about the city’s perceived stake in having engaged residents: ones who vote, who receive full services, and who feel attached to their communities. And the effort paid off. Naturalization of Hamburg residents increased by 45% between January and March 2012 over the same period in 2011.

Don’t Overlook Cities

There are several other examples of diverse cities in liberal democracies where rock-star mayors with pro-immigrant agendas buck the national narrative. Places like Thessaloniki in Greece, and Lampedusa in Italy.

Can city leaders also swing towards anti-immigrant rhetoric? Indeed they can. But there is likely less appetite because of the reinforcing relationship between immigrant integration and healthy, safe cities.

On the search for immigration solutions by governments, don’t overlook cities. They’re sometimes ahead of their national counterparts, and can certainly innovate in spite of them.

This article is adapted from a presentation to a panel on Failures in Integration and Religious Diversity in Liberal Democracies at the Munk School of Global Affairs 2014 Graduate Student Conference: Wicked Failures: Lessons Learned and Looking Forward in the Global System.

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