Revitalising the role of the city through cultural integration

Among the factors within a population’s surroundings that can help or hinder cultural integration, the GEITONIES research project concludes that although the local neighbourhood is an important starting point to establish informal interethnic contact, more responsibility for promoting integration should be adopted at the city, national and EU level to develop meaningful, long-term relations.

The GEITONIES project (meaning ‘neighbourhoods’ in Greek) investigated how day-to-day intercultural relations develop within a population and the relative importance of the neighbourhood compared to larger scale surroundings at the city, national and European level. Theories have been proposed about the importance of neighbourhood integration, but there has been a lack of empirical data to date. The GEITONIES study was innovative in that it considered the needs of the whole population of a neighbourhood, i.e. native and immigrant, to facilitate integration.

The key message is that integration is a very time-dependent process. Findings show that second generation immigrants in a population have a greater number of close interethnic friendships than do first generation immigrants, but that the latter engage more over time. On a national scale, interethnic relations were more common in cities with a history of immigration, such as Vienna and Rotterdam, than for southern Europe, where immigration is a more recent phenomenon.

A policy approach therefore needs to be tiered to accommodate migrants in different phases of the integration process. Specifically, few intercultural relations in the early stages of settling in a country should not be interpreted as resistance to integrate or as a failure of social cohesion policies, rather that time will have a positive effect on the process.

Neighbourhoods – ‘support networks’

The role of the neighbourhood is to provide immigrants with information, housing, language assistance and access to urban resources when they first settle in a country. Casual contact at the neighbourhood level promotes familiarisation and tolerance between different cultural and religious groups. However, the researchers found that relying solely on the local neighbourhood had a negative effect in terms of developing long-term, robust intercultural relations, as it tended to restrict contact to a small range of cultural and religious backgrounds. Encouraging wider participation in society should be the role of the city (see below).

Policy recommendations

  • Language-teaching programmes should be developed to facilitate integration in the first years of settlement. This measure could specifically target recently arrived immigrant children, with additional language support in schools.
  • Policies toward deprived neighbourhoods with high levels of unemployment should target the creation of new jobs for immigrant and native populations, to promote socio-economic equality within the whole population.
  • Local development policies (i.e. transport links, creation of public spaces, such as parks, squares, libraries and community centres) should take into account specific characteristics, such as proximity to city, diversity of the population and existing infrastructure.

Cities – ‘broadening horizons’

Cities should provide a forum for intercultural dialogue, promote the positive representation of different cultural groups, and increase freedoms and opportunities - or ‘mobility’ – for both the native and immigrant populations. The researchers found that the media have an important role to play in the social representation of ethnic groups. In Portugal, the relationship was reasonably positive, since the media do not stress ethnicity in news pieces as strongly as other countries, for example Greece.

Policy recommendations

  • Cities should define common goals between native and immigrant populations for urban development.
  • Represent different cultural backgrounds on city councils, advisory boards and within the health and education sectors to develop ‘intercultural competence’.
  • ‘Broaden the horizons’ of citizens by linking neighbourhoods through common goals and projects, therefore increasing the potential size of an individual’s social network. This will increase the likelihood of intercultural contact.
  • Establish a professional and responsible attitude to reporting on ethnic groups in the media, promoting success stories and positive representation.

Nations – ‘an equal footing’

The key at the national level is enabling an equal footing between native and immigrant populations, and to facilitate acquisition of a legal status for long-term residents. The research findings highlighted the relationship between the legal status of migrants and the development of friendship networks with native populations.

Policy recommendations

  • Nations need to guarantee equal legal rights to migrants, to facilitate the long-term development of resident status and, whenever relevant, to speed up the process of requesting asylum.

Europe – ‘building bridges’

Policy recommendations

  • The EU can help discourage formal cultural education and encourage informal exchange by identifying common transnational interests and projects linking European institutions.
  • The EU can promote local and city-wide initiatives across physical space and cultural backgrounds.

Methodology and context

To collect data for the GEITONIES project, a random sample of 100 natives and 100 immigrants (aged 25 and over) were selected in three neighbourhoods in each of the six cities studied: Lisbon, Bilbao, Thessalonika, Rotterdam, Vienna and Warsaw. The cities captured a range of different contexts, i.e. socio-economic conditions, history of immigration, fraction of population who are first and second generation immigrants, diversity of the immigration population and the national importance of the city (capital or peripheral).

The researchers stress that the study took place during a global economic crisis, which may explain some extremes in attitudes observed, either in enhanced solidarity across cultures or enhanced separation. GEITONIES represents the first comprehensive study of its kind in Europe and it is important now to maintain a process within each country to monitor the effect of economic conditions.

GEITONIES - Generating interethnic tolerance and neighbourhood integration in European urban spaces (duration: 1/5/2008 – 30/4/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 3 “Major trends in society and their implications”, Research area 3.3 “Cultural interaction in an international perspective”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).


Contact: Lucinda Fonseca,