Renny Ramakers: "Immigrants can revive shrinking cities and abandoned areas"

byRenny Ramakers

published on 30/11/2015

Newcomers could revitalise declining places and economies, have a chance to make their own living and be part of a new and diverse society.

What do refugees tell us? Our team met a very diverse group of refugees stuck together in an empty government building in Amsterdam. Their situation is not very pleasant, to say the least. Yes, they have free food, clothes and living space. But those are not the things they really desire. They would rather pay for their basic needs and have access to everything Dutch citizens have access to, to have the possibility to get a job, earn a living, to set up a company: “The system forces us to stay as ‘sub-humans’ here”. The only thing they can do now is dream, dream about becoming a fashion designer, a musician, a cook or a politician.

The reality is that they have to live together in an unwanted environment - some have been living here already for years – not knowing whether they will get a residence permit or have to leave. Those who are lucky and can stay will have a hard time to find a job. This is not only because of the unemployment rate in Europe or because of a mismatch between the qualifications earned their home country and the ones required in their new homeland: a recent survey also showed that employers are very reluctant to employ applicants with an exotic family name. So it can happen that a former dentist has to earn his living as a cleaner or - when he is lucky - driving a taxi and a former journalist might end up as a dishwasher in a restaurant. And consequently their housing will be in the poorest parts of the city.

Kilian Kleinschmidt, one of the world’s leading authorities on humanitarian aid, says to Dezeen: “Everybody who is coming here right now is an economic migrant. They are not refugees. They were refugees in Jordan, but they are coming to Europe to study, to work, to have a perspective for their families. In the pure definition, it’s a migration issue” He believes that migrants coming into Europe could help repopulate parts of Spain and Italy that have been abandoned as people move increasingly towards major cities. “You could redevelop some of these empty cities into free trade zones where you would put up a new population and actually set up opportunities to develop a trade and work. You could see them as special development zones, which are actually used as a trigger for an otherwise impoverished neglected area”. He attempted to set up a workshop in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, providing access to digital fabrication tools but faced a lot of opposition. “The whole concept that you can connect a poor person with something that belongs to the 21st century is very alien to most aid agencies [..] We have to get away from the concept that because you have a status – migrant, refugee, martian, alien, whatever – you’re not allowed to be like everybody else.”

A lot of areas in Europe are abandoned or shrinking because of a lack of economic perspectives and because successful cities attract the young people. By creating Special Economic Zones, these areas could be revived: we have seen this happening in the city of Shenzhen, once a quiet fisherman’s village, now a vibrant city.

Of course there is the risk of rebellious locals who might fear an “invasion” of hundreds of immigrants. But many of these areas have seen their population grow older and older, schools, shops and sports clubs close down and social life deteriorates: the fear for strangers might be well compensated by an economic and social revival of the area. Then the path towards a co-existence based on shared needs opens up.

It would be an opportunity par excellence to create a new town that combines the desires of the remaining inhabitants and those (mainly young) immigrants, a city that is open for change, a city with an open infrastructure where people build their own life, where inhabitants could stay and leave, where regulations are tweaked to create economic opportunities for all. This could be a pilot for the city of the 21st century, maybe even a city-state, with new jobs, new economies and new technologies: a city based on diversity.


Top image: Zaatari refugee camp in the north of Jordan (credit: U.S. Department of State).

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