You are here

Positive narratives on integration- building inclusive cities

Edited on

02 May 2021
Read time: 2 minutes

Following the workshop hosted by Rumourless Cities  at the 18th European Week of Regions and Cities, Lead Expert Ruth Essex reflects on how developing and reinforcing  inclusive city narratives is more important that ever…

Cities across Europe have been developing strategies to address the rise in xenophobic populism and hate speech reinforced by traditional and social media, which often act to increase segregation and deepen divides.  

This work has become even more relevant since the arrival of Covid-19. Outbreaks create fear and fear is a key ingredient for racism and xenophobia to thrive. According to the Lancet:

The pandemic has uncovered social and political fractures within communities, with racialised and discriminatory responses to fear, disproportionately affecting marginalised groups.”

Political leaders have misappropriated the COVID-19 crisis to reinforce racial discrimination, doubling down, for example, on border policies and conflating public health restrictions with antimigrant rhetoric. For example, Matteo Salvini, former Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, wrongly linked COVID-19 to African asylum seekers, calling for border closures. The pandemic has also provided an excuse for Italy and Malta to close their ports to people rescued at sea. And no stranger to a xenophobic declaration, Trump referring to the ‘Chinese virus’.

This is not helped by the new EC “pact on asylum and migration“  which reinforces a negative perception of asylum seekers and migrants by including a proposal that they should operate “relocation and return sponsorships”, dispatching people refused entry to their places of origin. In a similar vein visiting the Greek-Turkish border in March, Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president, declared: “I thank Greece for being our European aspida/shield”.

But Covid is also highlighting how interconnected we are and has seen an explosion of mutual aid and community self-help initiatives. Additionally, it has become crystal clear that health protection relies not only on a well-functioning health system with universal coverage, but also on social inclusion, justice, and solidarity.

Recent research investigating how COVID-19 is shaping the way Europeans think about politicians shows that trust in political institutions has diminished but so too has faith in populists. In a similar vein recent polls show that support for populist parties is waning. At this critical juncture, how do we move forward in a more positive direction? How do we build on this sense of interconnectness and solidarity? How do we build on the awareness raised by movements such as Black Lives Matter?

A recent seminar at the 18th European Week of Regions and Cities hosted by the URBACT Transfer Network, Rumourless Cities explored some of these issues and in particular how cities can develop more positive narratives on integration.

It is important to acknowledge that facts often do not persuade, the way in which they are presented are critical, stories are powerful and can frame the way in which people think about subjects such as the economy, migration and inclusion. Commonly, populations are characterised by having an ambivalent/anxious majority with views strongly informed by emotions and personal values.  Most profoundly it is the shared story which binds us together. Moreover, author Suketu Mehta emphasises that “The whole debate around migration is populist and the populists are gifted storytellers. They can tell a false story well.”

How do we counter that with powerful and positive stories of inclusion? Urban identities are porous and city life tends to breed many identities for it’s citizens- populists tend to flatten identity into a single image- linking it to home/place. A study in the UK by organisation Hope not Hate found that, people view immigration through its impact on the place that they live. How do we deal with this when developing inclusive narratives for our cities?

The Rumourless Cities network considers that key to this is the development of a city-wide approach combining strong political leadership with grassroots action and campaigns by dispelling misinformation and rumours and deconstructing stereotypes. This entails:

-Using an asset based approach to present a positive sense of place, including place identity, shared and alternative histories, shared values, city branding, changing external perceptions, shared history and values

- Political leadership and creating a culture of tolerance and openness- uniting leadership and communities.

- Mobilisation at the grassroots- building strong local networks, supporting young people as community leaders.

Each city needs to develop an inclusive narrative which is true to it’s history, values and character and also looks to the future. This requires an understanding of public opinion on migration and inclusion; what are the most common local rumours and misconceptions; and how information is generated, sourced and circulated. Key is developing a shared and coherent vision which is framed in a variety of ways to appeal to a broad range of the population. The evolution and defining of this shared vision and narrative must itself be an inclusive process in order to be meaningful as must be the process by which it is owned and communicated amongst residents.

Examples shared in the workshop include Amadora’s anti-rumour campaign- Do Not Feed the Rumour and the long term grassroots activity in schools exemplified by teacher Elisa Moreira; The Altona Declaration – a statement of inclusion and shared values co- created by city leaders and citizens and forming the backbone of a city wide communication campaign in Hamburg-Altona; the work of educators in Messina to support young people in developing their own messages of inclusion through film making and social media; city leaders working with grassroots organisations in Cardiff to celebrate the multicultural history and identity of this diverse city.

Developing inclusive narratives is an essential part of imagining and realising the sorts of places we want to live in and it is more important than ever that cities directly and assertively engage in this process.