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Welcoming Migrants: Planning for Inclusion

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Jun 02, 2014 / 0 Comments

By Casey Weston*


Living in Marseille should give those of us working at the Center for Mediterranean Integration a unique perspective on the MENA region; after all, 20% of Marseille’s population is foreign-born, including many immigrants from MENA. In my particular neighborhood, tagines are more popular than ratatouilles, and “Salaam” more commonly heard than “Bonjour.” I recently stepped out of my quartier, however, to don my urban planning hat and visit a famous edifice in Marseille’s posh south side designed by urban planning visionary, Le Corbusier. From the building’s rooftop, I could see the legacy of Le Corbusier’s design aesthetic looming in the distance: large public housing towers surrounded by ample green space but relegated to foothills far afoot from most public transportation, most jobs, and the vibrant city center. Unfortunately, this type of designed exclusion is not unique to public housing residents; it also greets many migrants when they first arrive in their destination cities.


Urban development trends in OECD countries—from zoning regulations that require quarter-acre plots to deliberate placement of rent-controlled properties—have long facilitated well-documented racial, social, and economic segregation. Immigrants, who usually settle in cities, may feel the deleterious effects of these planning policies more than most other groups. Unfortunately, this segregation often precludes the emergence of economically and socially vibrant enclaves, as immigrant populations are sometimes splintered in prohibitively small pockets far and wide. The negative effects of multi-faceted social segregation on excluded urban populations have been widely-demonstrated, but less research has examined how these exclusionary urban trends negatively affect cities, at large.


We know from urban experiences in the North America, South America and elsewhere that clustering marginalized populations such as immigrants in poorly-integrated public or private developments does not bode well for the developments’ residents or the larger community. Poorly-designed open spaces in these peripheral zones are viewed as crime-prone, which makes them less marketable and encourages the depreciation of surrounding property. Negative characterizations of immigrants’ neighborhoods lead to the construction of railroads, highways, or even walls designed to cut immigrants out of the urban fabric. This spatial exclusion compounds the effects of linguistic and cultural barriers that many immigrants face and encourages labor market exclusion when immigrants must struggle to integrate into business networks, travel to work, and access centrally-located services. In failing to address this urban planning issue, urban policymakers in destination countries fail to activate populations with a documented penchant for entrepreneurial success and willingness to contribute to the labor market.


Perhaps most dangerously, spatial and economic exclusion facilitates immigrants’ social exclusion by other citizens, often veiled in discussions of urban blight or neighborhood stability. The term “immigrant” can be applied haphazardly as cover for prejudices based on race, socio-economic status, or religion. These prejudices, which we know lead to economic inefficiencies, are reinforced by poor urban planning and gaps in municipal policy. These policy gaps—in spatial urban planning, regional labor force development, and social inclusion—reduce the gains of international mobility for migrants and the cities that they call home.


It is clear that cities have a more active role to play in unlocking the tremendous development potential of international mobility. But how, exactly, can urban planning and municipal-level policy play a larger role in welcoming migrants? Elevating the role of urban planning and policy in the discourse around migration is likely to be very useful in maximizing the benefits of migration that seem so elusive.  At the ILM program we are now trying to bring these elements together by creating a Migrant Labor Integration Network for Cities and Urban Planners (LINC UP). Stay tuned for more on this soon.


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