Taking It to the Streets: A Municipal Role in Immigrant Integration

January 9th, 2013

In Practice to Policy: Lessons from Local Leadership on Immigrant Integration (full report, pdf), we look at what good practices can tell us about the role of local governments in immigrant integration. Four international experts contribute analysis and policy insights on the range of municipal levers available to promote both immigrants and city success.

Myer Siemiatycki
Ryerson University

Streets are the defining characteristic of cities and urban life. What distinguishes cities from rural and small-town sites is the street – at once both a reflection and embodiment of all that is unique about cities. Urban population, architecture, infrastructure, economics, society, culture, order and disorder all are manifest on the street. This essay examines how the street can become a path to immigrant integration.

Cities divided, cities united

We are living in “the age of migration.”1 More humans than ever now live outside their country of birth. More countries than ever are now major senders or receivers of migration flows. And whatever part of the world immigrants move to, they overwhelmingly settle in cities.

Cities have always been composed of diverse populations. Deyan Sudjic reminds us: “The tension between different ethnic groups has been the essence of big city life for 3,000 years. By definition, cities are places that attract outsiders, and which form a meeting place between different cultures.”2 On what terms do these different cultures converge in the modern city? Sharon Zukin speaks for many urban scholars in replying that the well-being of cities now depends on whether they “can create an inclusive public culture.” Such successful integration may well begin on the street, as “accepting diversity implies sharing public space.”3

City streets and public spaces can reflect either social inclusion or social exclusion. Landscapes of exclusion are typically characterized by such features as:

— immigrant ghettoes;

— unequal access to institutions and spaces of employment, learning, government, etc.; and

— municipal planning policies that are unresponsive to the distinct residential, recreational, religious and cultural needs of diverse communities.

Such patterns inevitably create polarized and divided cities.

There are many risks in such a situation. They include social strife and the lost opportunity to fully benefit from the human capital of a diverse urban population. Streets can either divide or unite urban residents.

Municipal leadership: Landscapes of inclusion

Municipal governments generally have limited powers, as assigned by a senior level of government. Typically, municipalities have very little direct role in immigration policy. National governments set policies related to immigration admission, status and citizenship; they frame the terms of integration around approaches ranging from marginalization to assimilation to multiculturalism, depending on the country.

But it is cities that are the destination point of migration journeys. In Canada, for instance, 95% of all immigrants in the country live in a census metropolitan area – the most populated urban places. And more than 60% of all immigrants in Canada live in just three cities – Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

Immigrants make cities their home. The record shows there are many steps – big and small – that cities can take to promote the integration of immigrants in their new urban home. Some of the most creative and effective initiatives assure that urban space – streets, but also parks, schools, libraries – serve the entire population. As Valerie Preston and Lucia Lo state, good things happen “when immigrants successfully transform the city’s built environment, creating places that signify their presence and testify to their rights to occupy public space.”4

Because municipal governments typically regulate the use of urban space, they play a critical gatekeeping role in what can be built and happen on the street and other public spaces. Let’s look at some examples of how cities are promoting integration, sometimes street by street.

Taking it to the street

Local initiatives can be taken by anyone with a good idea. As the examples below show, this can involve leadership from municipal officials, newcomer communities and members of the broader urban community. What all these examples have in common is an attempt to use urban space as a pathway to equitable integration.

Planning – Municipalities are increasingly becoming committed to “multicultural planning,” which Mohammad Qadeer defines as “sensitivity of the planning process to cultural diversity.”5 This leads to better responsiveness by cities to the distinct spatial needs of immigrant and minority communities.

Zoning – The “Boston Back Streets Program” is a City of Boston government commitment to preserve zoning areas for small and mid-sized light industry and commercial supply firms typically owned by immigrant and minority residents. Often located off the beaten track, these firms were being displaced by urban re-development. Recognizing their importance to immigrant employment and enterprise, Boston has taken steps to assure space is available for the operation of such businesses.

Enterprise – Cities are now also showing greater commitment towards ethnic retailing. “Ethnic retailing,” Zhizi Zhuang observes, “is fluid, dynamic, and complex in nature.”6 It can operate from stores located on some of the city’s oldest streets, or in shiny new suburban malls built on different scale and design than traditional western malls. Recognizing the importance of local ethnic economies, city governments are now more flexible in their approach to retail location, size, signage, parking, etc.

Culture and faith – Thanks to migration, non-Christian religions are the fastest growing faith communities in cities of the global north. This has given rise to applications to build new mosques, gurdwaras and temples. In many cities, such plans have generated tensions and conflict with neighbours and municipal officials. Successful cities, Annick Germain declares, are creative in “reconciling new places of worship with their environment.”7 In this fashion, Engin Isin and I concluded in a study of building mosques in Toronto, “[c]ities often open themselves to the world one building at a time.”8

Living together – Many cities promote walking the streets as a way for immigrants to get to know their new city, and longer-term residents to become familiar with newcomer communities. In The Hague, the city organizes tours of immigrant places of worship, neighbourhoods and markets. In Toronto the local school board takes teachers on “Community and Faith Walks,” visiting newcomer neighbourhoods and places of worship. In Wellington the local council promotes cross-cultural exchanges and business networking between newcomer immigrants and the indigenous Maori population.

Healthy neighbourhoods – The City of Auckland has developed a most ingenious walkway to integration – “the Walking School Bus.” With more than 300 different routes and networks across the city, children and parents walk a set route and schedule to school every day, picking up more participants as they proceed just like a real, motorized bus. In the process diverse families connect, know each other’s homes, and become neighbours.

Multiculturalism – Many cities provide public space for immigrant or multicultural festivals. When the growing Sikh community in the northern Spanish city of Badalona requested municipal permission to hold a Sikh parade through city streets, the city government first organized community dialogue between the Sikh community and its adjacent neighbourhoods. This built goodwill leading to a successful parade with non-Sikh neighbours and city officials participating in the parade.

Speaking out – Talk or graffiti on the street can sometimes express anti-immigrant sentiments. Barcelona has adopted a creative “Anti-Rumour Campaign” to counter such views. Working with grassroots organizations, the city trained more than 350 “anti-rumour agents”to deliver public speaking and perform street theatre countering anti-immigrant prejudice.

Libraries – Many cities use their municipal libraries as sites to promote newcomer integration. Typically this includes language and reading circles, offering materials in many languages, and even the provision of settlement services such as employment counseling. Particularly creative is the “Living Library” program in Valongo, Portugal. It travels to high schools presenting each class its own “book” – which is a real immigrant telling his or her migration story and experience to the class. Students then get to comment and ask questions, based on the slogan “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”9

Parks, sport, recreation – Many cities also pro-actively use their parks as sites of immigrant integration, through special programs or making space available for non-traditional activities (e.g. cricket, capoeira, tai chi). New York, for instance, has a policy to promote newcomer use of parks through such initiatives as special outreach to local newcomer communities, diversity training for park staff, providing more diverse food menus in park restaurants and offering more immigrant-friendly programs. In Barcelona, an abandoned hospital site in a newcomer neighbourhood was recently converted to a park that has enlivened the area and earned the city an international award for advancing an important “integrative task in a rapidly expanding and multi- ethnic quarter of Barcelona.”10

Successful integration: A two-way street

Successful integration requires flexibility, goodwill and generosity by both immigrants and their receiving society. Cities are the stage on which this encounter of diverse identities plays out. The essence of city life, Iris Marion Young states, is “the being together of strangers.”11 In this age of migration, cities play a major role in determining whether urban strangers will live together equitably or unequally, harmoniously or in conflict. You can find clues to how your city is performing on the street.

Practice to Policy report – Related articles:


Myer Siemiatycki is professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. He is the past and founding director of Ryerson’s graduate program in Immigration and Settlement Studies, and past Community Domain Leader at the Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement (CERIS) in Toronto. His research explores immigrant and minority community civic engagement. Topics of interest have included immigrant and minority political participation, transnationalism, minority religion in the public realm and temporary migration. Much of his research has focused on the immigrant experience in Toronto.

1. Castles, S. and M. Miller. (1993). The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World. New York: Guilford Press.

2. Sudjic, D. (1993). The 100 Mile City. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company. p.292.

3. Zukin, S. (1995). The Culture of Cities. Cambridge: Blackwell. pp. 44, viii.

4. Preston, V. and L. Lo. (2009). Ethnic Enclaves in Multicultural Cities: New Retailing Patterns and New Planning Dilemmas. Plan Canada, January-February 2009. pg. 70.

5. Qadeer, M. (2009). What is This Thing Called Multicultural Planning? Plan Canada, January-February 2009. p.11.

6. Zhuang, Z. (2009). Ethnic retailing and Implications for Planning Mulitcultural Communications. Plan Canada, January-February 2009. pg 79.

7. Germain, A. (2009). Religion in Public Space in a Multi-Ethnic Environment: Reasonable Accommodation in Zoning. Plan Canada, January-February 2009. p.91.

8. E. Isin and M. Siemiatycki. (2002). Making Space for Mosques: Struggles for Urban Citizenship in Diasporic Toronto. In Sherene Razack (Ed.), Race, Space and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Ottawa: Between the Lines Press. p.206.

9. Maytree Foundation. (2012). Do not Judge a Book by Its Cover. Good Ideas from Successful Cities: Municipal Leadership on immigrant Integration. Toronto: Maytree Foundation. p.70. http://citiesofmigration.ca/good- ideas-in-integration/municipal/

10. Maytree Foundation. (2012). Parc Central de Nou Barris. Good Ideasfrom Successful Cities: Municipal Leadership on immigrant Integration. Toronto: Maytree Foundation. p.53. http://citiesofmigration.ca/good-ideas-in- integration/municipal/

11. Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p.240.




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