The future of multicultural cities

10 May 2023

“Migration has always been with us. Climate change, demographics, instability, growing inequalities and aspirations for a better life as well as needs in labour markets mean it is here to stay.” Those are the words of António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, and it is cities that host most people fleeing conflict, oppression, poverty or natural disasters. Indeed, the current urban population of 3.9 billion is expected to grow to 6.4 billion by 2050. 

People with a migrant background are undoubtedly a group that local governments are familiar with. In some of the big metropolises of the world, migrants represent over a third of the population and, in some cities, make up even half.

For this reason, migration will be a central topic of the Brussels Urban Summit, featuring in a plenary sesssion on Wednesday, 14 June. You can check further information here, and register here.

Migration is one of the quintessential urban phenomena driving much of the increase in urbanisation, making cities more diverse and liveable. Many urban societies and economies have flourished thanks to diversity, which has become the new normal and is dynamising city life, where cultures cross-pollinate. 

However, it’s also a challenging situation for those who leave their country of origin.

The local level steps up

While diversity creates new opportunities, new arrivals to cities often suffer inequalities that can make it difficult for them to thrive.

Some of those inequalities are language and cultural barriers or challenges in entering the labour market that stop minorities from feeling accepted, even those from families that moved several generations ago. Growing global mobility has highlighted challenges for local governments, such as increasing social imbalances, pressure on public services, lack of affordable housing and potential societal unrest. 

Acknowledging that our cities are becoming diverse is not enough. The shift to diverse and authentically multicultural societies is one of the main transitions urban areas are going through. Urban governments increasingly have to find solutions that ensure migrants are welcomed and integrated into the community through a wide range of labour market, cultural, housing, and educational policies, so that they can contribute to socio-economic and cultural diversity in their newfound homes and communities. 

Although integration is neither easy nor fast, cities can show off good practices. Thanks to the project CONNECTION, Zagreb developed the first local strategy for integrating asylum seekers and persons granted international protection in Croatia. Madrid’s action plan starts by improving the coordination between local services supporting migrant employment provided by three different levels of governance. The Spanish city will host, together with Eurocities, a mutual learning event on skills development and recognition of qualifications for migrants on 27-29 June 2023. 

Sofia opened its Bureau for Information and Services for third-country nationals, where migrants can find information and advice on accessing the labour market. Through peer, Athens inspired Dortmund to set up a one-stop-shop to support the integration of new migrants and refugees and help them navigate and adapt to challenges. 

Turning challenges into opportunities

To Tomasz Pactwa, Director of the Projects and Social Affairs Department of the City of Warsaw, “refugees are a potential.” 

“When it comes to the economy, in the beginning, we would probably have some problems with adaptation, integration,” says Pactwa. “But at the end of the day, after one or two years, when the process is finished, when refugees become our citizens, then the city will grow, we’ll have more children, more happy people.” 

In the future, 40% of services provided by humans working on computers are expected to be done remotely, which could contribute to increased mobility and more people with a migration background establishing themselves in urban areas.  

Martin Stakis, Mayor of Riga says, “If you can work from your home, you can work from everywhere in the world. We want Riga to be the place to work. That’s why one initiative is the digital nomad visa.” The city also works to co-fund the talents who would move and work in Riga’s international companies. 

Municipalities must be ready to integrate newcomers into the labour market. To do so, CONNECTION generated four  how-to guides on step-by-step tips for local-level use. One of them presents pathways to migrant employment. The other three cover strategic approaches to integration, gender in integration policy, and one-stop shops for integration. 

Discussing migration at the Brussels Urban Summit

The plenary session ‘Migration and Diversity: Cities lead the way in turning challenges into opportunities’ will take a deep look at the state of inequalities in cities within a highly uncertain global context. The event will occur on Wednesday, 14 June, as part of the Brussels Urban Summit co-organised by Eurocities. 

The panel debate will address challenges that human mobility presents for cities, such as housing and the inclusion of newcomers into the labour market. 

Cities’ representatives will discuss the adaptability of urban communities and the skillsets of today’s migrants. They will ask whether those skills are compatible with the needs of the local labour markets, or how we can connect the dots through language learning, intercultural exchanges, skills certification, or lifelong learning.

Migration and especially integration tend to become more complex when they impact the supply and quality of affordable housing for both existing and new residents. Therefore panelists will also ask how migration should affect housing policies.

Those off the radar

The same panel will address the place for undocumented migrants in city life. The truth is people migrate for various reasons and, in some instances, they end up as undocumented residents who lack full access to services, the labour market and the ability to participate in city life fully. 

This has long meant counting on informal networks for work and housing, which, indeed, for many cities in the world, constitute large shares of the urban economy. This has increased the risk of social exclusion, homelessness and poverty in cities such as Brussels —especially for women and single parents.

How can local governments ensure fundamental human rights, and the city’s liveability and maintain popular support for local migration policies? Should policy instruments focus on specific groups or create a standard system that provides services to the most significant number of people possible? 

The session aims to reflect on those questions and determine to what extent local governments can formalise the status of undocumented migrants and refugees so they can fully function as citizens. 

This session about migration at the Brussels Urban Summit will examine how migration and growing diversity shape our cities today and what strategies local governments and civil society can develop to cope with the in and outflux of new populations. Cities’ representatives, activists, and other experts will discuss how this affects the societal, cultural and economic urban tissue. 

Some confirmed speakers are Sara Mora, immigrant rights activist; Aleksandra Dulkiewicz, Mayor of Gdansk; Mansur Yavaş, mayor of Ankara; Ayşe Çaglar, scholar and author; Sven Gatz, Minister for multilingualism at Brussels. 


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer