Urban Citizenship as a Policy

Monday 18th December, 2017

Henrik Lebuhn

In recent years, “urban citizenship” has become a buzzword among immigrant rights activists and progressive policy makers in many European cities. As the Mayor of Palermo recently stated in an interview: ‘We welcome all migrants. If you ask me, how many refugees are living in Palermo, I won’t answer: 60.000 or 100.000. Instead I’ll say: None. If you come to Palermo, you are Palermitan.’

Grassroots campaigns like ‘All of us are Bern’, ‘Solidarity City Berlin’ and ‘The whole World in Zurich’ as well as top down policies like the Council of Europe’s ‘Intercultural Cities Programme’ are – sometimes more, sometimes less explicitly - built around the idea of urban citizenship. A key reference for most of them is the successful Sanctuary City movement in North America. Cities like New York, San Francisco and Toronto have a long history of protecting undocumented migrants by putting policies in place that bar local police forces and city administrations from cooperating with Federal immigration authorities. Some cities, like New York, have even started to issue their own municipal IDs. These programs explicitly undermine President Trump’s attempts to criminalize migration, recognize undocumented immigrants as urban citizens, and allow marginalized communities to safely interact with local authorities and access urban resources.

The scholarly debate that tries to tackle such dynamics started roughly in the early 1990s. As Marisol García argues: “Forms of urban and regional citizenship develop when policy instruments are introduced locally and regionally in order to maintain and/or create social entitlements as a result of citizens’ demands or as a result of local institutions’ innovative practices; and when the mechanisms for political integration provide an open sphere for participation and contestation not only for established citizens, but also for denizens’. Much of the literature in this field builds on T.H. Marshall and his seminal essay on ‘Citizenship and Social Class’ published in 1950. Marshall investigated the historical development of modern citizenship since the 18th century. He elaborated that the development of civil rights in their formative period was characterized by the gradual addition of new rights. Thus, he showed that the conception of citizenship and what it entails has been historically contingent and contested. Also, his understanding of citizenship allows for a differentiation between civil, social, and political rights and the distinction that formal membership in a polity does not necessarily go hand in hand with substantial citizenship in all of its dimensions. 

The urban citizenship debate makes use of this framework and zooms in on urban processes. While many of the early contributions focused on the question of status, the more recent debate has productively shifted towards an analysis of the agents, conflicts and processes that shape urban citizenship regimes at various scales. The normative idea implicit is that the city is not just an administrative or geographical unit, but also a polity that comes with its own citizenship-membership. But rather than resting on nationality, membership in the urban polity is regulated through notions of place, belonging and everyday practice. Against this backdrop, authors like Rainer Bauböck argue that the ‘real significance of urban citizenship’ consists of its cosmopolitan character and the potential to ‘transform national identities and nationalist ideologies from below and from within’.

Ironically, it is exactly the focus on immigration, diversity and a more cosmopolitan urban democracy that provides grounds for an important shortcoming in the current debate: Marshall himself wrote about “full citizenship” in a historic context that was characterized by the rise of social democracy and the strengthening of the welfare state. But the current debate on (urban) citizenship tends to neglect the material dimension of citizenship and ignore the political economy of marginalization and social polarization. Instead, it operates with a notion of “rights” that is firmly rooted in a liberal tradition. Rather than including the issue of economic democracy, it often favors a diversity concept more akin to managerial approaches.  

This becomes especially evident in top-down policies like the above mentioned “Intercultural Cities Programme“ (ICC). Established in 2008, it is a joint initiative between the Council of Europe and the European Commission and supports cities with culturally diverse populations in their efforts to implement anti-discrimination and diversity policies. In November 2017, ICC celebrated the release of a revised strategy paper. It emphasizes the reference to urban citizenship by strengthening key aspects such as human rights, anti-discrimination, intersectionality, myth-busting and refugee inclusion. The participating cities, over one hundred at this point, become part of a European network and receive support and advice through a methodology that includes research, peer review, good practice exchange and locally specific policy development.

On one hand, policy frameworks like ICC are important, because they can make a crucial contribution to the strengthening of immigrant rights, the recognition of cultural diversity and other dimensions of urban citizenship such as gender equality. This is particularly critical in a time when many European countries are experiencing the rise of nationalist movements and right wing governments. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that the ICC program mentions the political context of austerity and neoliberalism without drawing specific conclusions for its actual policy outline.

However, neoliberal urbanism impacts citizenship on many accounts. For example, the implementation of “good policies” comes with a price tag. Anti-discrimination policies and municipal ID programs are only worth the paper they are drafted on if cities can pay for dissemination and implementation strategies and enforce new regulations, e.g. if they can pay for the translation of information into various languages, hire staff for community outreach and offer training for administrative staff, etc. This is especially challenging for cities in crisis-ridden countries like Greece, which also happen to shoulder an extra burden when it comes to dealing with refugees. A truly European policy should be aware of this. Also, urban citizenship is not only about immediate discrimination based on race and gender. It concerns very mundane things like affordable housing, the right to education and access to a comprehensive health system. If a city doesn’t provide decent care for the elderly, if working class urbanites are being displaced from neighborhoods in the midst of gentrification, and if national governments deny refugees access to medical services, the effects may not fall into the remit of “diversity politics”. But these processes seriously constrain residents’ citizenship, and they undermine the cosmopolitan character of a city.

Finally, over the past decade or so, national governments have introduced laws and regulations that extend the “Fortress Europe” deeply into the civilian sphere of everyday life, work and mobility. This is especially true for the urban realm. The “Immigration Act” passed in the UK in 2014 is a case in point. In the UK, landlords now  ‘have a responsibility to restrict illegal immigrants accessing the private rented sector’. The government even released a landlord‘s guide to checking immigration documents. As a result, private landlords and property managers are being absorbed into the highly restrictive European border regime. The law can also lead to direct ethnic discrimination. Understandably, many landlords are unsure about how to handle legal issues, or simply try to avoid additional bureaucracy. Hence, they prefer national citizens over immigrants when it comes to finding tenants. Local governments and European policy advisers who want to strengthen urban citizenship would be well advised to address, refute, or at least circumvent these kind of national “snitch-laws” – a point that their counterparts in the US and Canada have long understood and which has lead to the development of tactics like “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies within the Sanctuary City movement.

In short, the debate about urban citizenship can give important impulses for the development of progressive policy frameworks. In the area of migration and immigrant incorporation, it can shift the perspective from “migration as a problem” towards the question of “rights and recognition”. However, a policy that takes Marshall’s conceptual foundation seriously and aims at the provision of “substantial rights” to citizens and denizens alike – however limited this may be on the urban scale – needs to include a redistributive component. “Urban citizenship” does not equal “diversity” or “intercultural dialogue”. It encompasses more. It includes a very material dimension of safeguard and wellbeing. When it comes to undocumented migration, it also implies that local governments take a firm stance against national and European trends to establish ever more restrictive measurements and turn the urban realm - quite literally - into a border zone.

The scholarly debate has a critical role in this process since it shapes the conceptual tools then being adopted by policy makers in the field. Hence, public sociology should flesh out and defend a broad understanding of urban citizenship. This will help activists to expand the scope of immigrant rights campaigns, and it will remind policy makers that urban citizenship as a policy framework needs to address rights, resources and economic stability. Otherwise, the concept may not be much more than intercultural ornament on an otherwise exclusive neoliberal city.

Henrik Lebuhn is Assistant Professor in Urban and Regional Sociology at HU Berlin and affiliated faculty member at the Center for Research on Social Change at UC Berkeley.

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