Mila Freire is a Professorial Lecturer in the Latin American Studies Program at SAIS, where she teaches a course in Urban Economics, and previously worked at the World Bank for over twenty years.

According to Doug Saunders (2010), the 21st century will be best remembered for the unprecedented migration of people from rural areas into cities.  About three billion people (one third of the global population) will be moving into urban areas, looking for better opportunities and responding to structural changes propelling economic growth. This will be the last human movement of this size and scope.  Currently, UN projections predict that total world population will peak at about 9.5 billion in 2050-2060, of which about seven billion will be urban dwellers.  After this point, overall population growth will cease to be a problem; the further growth of cities will be more than offset by a decline in the rural population. 

We will not see an endless stream of people and families moving.  Most of the millions in transit will be silent or almost invisible, at least until they arrive at their destination, or their “Arrival City”, as Saunders calls it. In the short run, the world will pay more attention to the brutal displacement of millions of Syrian refugees, than to the organic and steady migration of families and individuals across nations and borders.  In the first case, individuals are expelled from their normal dwelling places and lifestyles without much alternative or choice of destination.  Since 1983, more than ten million people have been displaced every year.  In the second case. the economic migrants (in principle) have more choices, have planned better, and can usually count on a minimal network of relatives or friends.  In both cases, the way migrants are received on arrival has a major bearing in their capacity to be integrated into their new communities and to contribute productively.  Often they face neglect and rejection, which contributes to their feeling trapped, excluded and resentful. 

The world has seen several waves of dramatic migration.  The most striking were probably the migrations that took place between the 18th and the early 20th centuries, in response to the Industrial Revolution and rapid changes in transport and mobility.  Between 1950 and 2014, 3.5 billion people moved to cities, more than half in developing countries. This growth in developing countries has put enormous pressure on the demand for services, leading to overcrowding, slums, congestion, and poverty.  However, developing countries have coped with these demands remarkably well, despite budget constraints and demographic growth.  More than 500 million people have been taken out of abject poverty in East Asia and Africa, and increasing shares of the population have access to potable water and energy.  The incidence of poverty in cities has also declined, despite the continuing increase in population.  In Bangladesh, the incidence of poverty in Dhaka fell 14% in the 1990s despite an annual population growth rate of 6% (Spence at al, 2010).

These numbers suggest that the world will be able to absorb the next wave of urbanization and migration, but there is little room for complacency.  The speed of the transformation and the complexity of the new flows will require subtle approaches from migrants, residents, policy makers and tax payers, particularly in the way migrants are welcomed and integrated.  While access to services is improving, signs of exclusion and pervasive inequality augur for difficult times ahead as new societies and cities take shape.

While migration is essential for rapid and sustained growth, it poses challenges at local level, as people already living in cities become fearful of competition for resources.  That is, while migrants grow the economy, contribute to innovation and dynamism , add jobs and expand the tax base, the costs and benefits of migration are not distributed evenly (M. Keith, 2015). This is particularly true in the case of local and national governments trying to ration scarce public goods including the right to education, health, and subsidized housing along with its impact on overcrowded rental accommodations.  As has been said, “Newcomers to cities impose costs that others must bear and creates benefits that others may capture.” (Spence et al). 

There are further challenges.  International connections have increased exponentially and migrants may sustain links to distant locations.  After the Second World War, the mass migration to industrial cities in the global North took place alongside  declining social and family connections, and this facilitated assimilation into the new country or city. With increasing connectivity, migrants’ links with the original country are likely to remain important across generations, facilitating a two-directional movement of people, as is the case in cities such as Barcelona, Rome and Athens, which have evolved from locations of origin to migrant destinations and are now at times both at once. 

Successful urban migration depends on a city’s permeability, that is, its ability to integrate a new presence into the old fabric (Keith, 2015).  This in turn depends on the financial and managerial capacity of our cities.  What makes a city permeable?  In principle, the anonymity of cities like Lagos, New York and Shanghai with weak social bonds and indifference to strangers helps make urban neighborhoods more flexible, but this flexibility often leads to sprawl and low density or to self-absorbing enclaves that perpetuate exclusion.   
In 2004, the European Council adopted the Common Basic Principles on Integration.  It was supposed to promote a common approach towards migrant integration and to serve as a reference for future integration policies (Keith, 2015).  It identifies economic, social and political integration as a process involving migrants and the societies where they arrive. It shifts the emphasis from the self-assimilation of migrants to the implementation of policies that will successfully promote migrant integration. These policies include the consideration of employment, housing, education, health, language, culture, and a foundation of safety and stability in migrant settlements and of migrant networks (Ager and Strang, 2004).  In addition, the EU Common Basic Principles document identifies the core factor of migrant success – acceptance and respect. 

To be inclusive, cities need to build a sense of community. Sustained links between homeland networks and the arrival cities can be mutually productive, helping migrants to establish their own ethnic enterprises – which help upward mobility – as is the case in Korean and Cuban communities in the US.  However, in many cases, the receiving community fears the strong identity or culture of the migrants and chooses to pay no attention.  It is in this key interface between host country and newly arrived migrants that serious and sustained investments from governments and agencies are more likely to create lasting effect. (Sounders, 2010)

The big dilemma one faces at the political level is the tendency of Western countries to curtail immigration and/or to restrict it to a limited group of skilled workers for political and economic reasons, especially during periods of high unemployment or crowding.  However, Saunders claims that such measures will not be permanent.  Western countries will take in unskilled immigrants in the long run. Countries which have been limiting migration may not be able to do so for much longer.  First, the Western countries will face serious shortages of both skilled and unskilled labor due to shrinking family sizes and a fast-aging population.  In 2009, a study by the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business predicted that the United States will require 35 million more workers by 2030, Japan another 17 million by 2050, and the European Union another 80 million.  In Canada, 14% of businesses report a shortage of skilled and semi-skilled labor  (Saunders 2010). 

The second reason why migration into Western countries will continue is political.  Immigrants and their children become citizens, voters and politicians, and remain united by the issue of having access to their families of origin.  Christian Joppke notes in an article titled “Why Liberal States Accept Unwanted Immigration” that the only countries that have managed to effectively control levels of immigration have been those with authoritarian governments. During all the periods in which countries such as the US, Germany and France have had a zero-immigration policy, millions of low-skilled migrants have entered these countries, using a variety of familial and social networks to create a path of entry. In these cases, governments have come to realize that millions of potential taxpayers are living underground, earning incomes and not paying taxes, and in general this realization leads in the end to a mass amnesty. 

In sum, the quality of the transition and adaptation of migrants will depend on the framework that countries and cities develop to welcome the expected millions.  Populist policies of rejection and neglect may respond to the immediate fear of competition for public goods and public resources.  However, a wiser approach of helping the new migrants to express their potential and contribute to a more dynamic society will be the one that results in a dramatic contribution from new vibrant communities.   

In the neighborhood of Slotervaart, in Amsterdam, we have an example of an isolated community of migrants. Established in the 1960s, this community was created as a bedroom community for Dutch workers.  While perfectly organized and manicured, the town became the destination of Moroccan migrants and by 1991, more than half of the  45,000 residents were Moroccan workers, most of whom had no social links with the surrounding community. Most of the migrant children could not speak Dutch, the schools were of bad quality, and one third of the young Morocco-born migrants were dropouts and unemployable. The crime rate was appalling, and residents felt trapped and alone. Religious subcultures had emerged that borrowed radical elements never present in the Moroccan village culture. People living there were tugged by contradictions between the two cultures without being a member of either one. According to one teacher, “My students and their parents really wanted to be Dutch but there was no way to be Dutch here; there was no contact with the Netherlands, so they invented a new culture.”

In the 21st century, this bitter isolation would rise to threaten the core of Dutch society and state (Saunders, 291). The threat came from a second-generation migrant who was born in Slotervaart in 1978, and left high school disconnected and alienated.  In 2003 he turned to radical Islam and organized a deeply fundamental group of self-proclaimed martyrs. On November 2nd, 2004 he ambushed and murdered the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, shooting him eight times, slashing his throat and pinning to his corpse a manifesto calling for the death of several public figures.  This eruption of violence transformed Dutch society and politics in a rigid way, propelling anti-immigrant and far-right political parties to high office and becoming the dominant issue in Dutch politics. 

Three years later in 2006, the society had changed in a different way.  Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen, whose life was threatened by the note pinned to van Gogh’s corpse realized that the violence was the consequence of “the politics of failed arrival”.  At the same time, a number of Slotervaart ex-migrants realized that their arrival city had been planned and managed by Dutch outsiders, without input or collaboration from the residents. The first chairman, Ahmed Marcouch, was elected for their council and immediately engaged in providing things the migrants had always wanted – policy, security, good schools, making sure teenagers were in school, and cracking down on extremist societies and groups.  He met with Mayor Cohen, and in five years the neighborhood was rapidly changing and full of construction cranes. Residences were made closer and zoning restrictions were all but eliminated so that retail, light-industrial and commercial services could be mixed with housing. Business laws were relaxed so that people could open shops without excessive paper work. New condominiums were added to social housing. The new units were affordable for the next generation, and young professionals and artists began opening studios and benefiting from the creativity and vitality of the new community.

The lesson from mayor Cohen is that “a violent ethnic culture is nothing more that the temporary product of an ill-designed urban form or economic structure”.  Jane Jacobs would have approved the renewed importance that most Western urbanites are giving to the need for core neighborhoods to be dense, organic, spontaneous and flexible.  This process of community creation needs to include the new migrants and allow new urban neighborhoods to grow and develop the functions that best serve their residents, functions that turn out to fulfill both the needs of migrants and long term residents.


Ager, Allister and Allison Strang. 2004. Indicators of Integration, Final Report Home Office Development, Edinburgh.

Joppke, C. 1998. "Why Liberal States Accept Unwanted Immigration". World Politics. Vol. 50, No. 2.  Cambridge University Press.

Keith, M. 2015. “The Great Migration” in E. Glaeser and A Joshi-Ghani (Eds) The Urban Imperative: Towards Competitive Cities, Oxford University Press, And The World Bank

Saunders, D.  2010. Arrival City: How the largest migration in history is reshaping out world. Random House. 

Spence, M, P. Annez and R Buckley. 2009.  Urbanization and Growth, The Commission on Growth and Development, The World Bank, Washington

PHOTO CREDIT: "Construction in the middle of the desert" by Francisco Anzola is licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0