In Motion: Urban Development Through the Prism of Migration

Department of Political Science; Department of Sociology

On March 13th, the European University hosted an open forum devoted to the topic of migration and urban development, with support from the Consulate General of the Netherlands in St. Petersburg and the Netherlands Institute in St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg and Amsterdam were given special attention as “open” cities, whose populations have a high proportion of migrants.  

A special feature of the forum was its attempt to surpass traditional notions of migration as a national and ethnic phenomenon—a kind of “national methodologism.” Forum participants considered the city and urban space to be a basic framework for analyzing the launch of migration processes, and they studied the ways cities respond to them migration processes. Presenters included urban studies and migration specialists such as Professor of Urban Sociology Jan Rath (University of Amsterdam); Olga Tkach, a sociologist from the Center for Independent Social Research (St. Petersburg); and Andrey Iakimov, representative of the charitable foundation for the support and development of educational and social projects known as the “PSP Foundation” (St. Petersburg). Olga Sezneva, Professor of Urban Studies at the European University (St. Petersburg, Amsterdam), delivered some opening remarks.

Professor Jan Rath:

Why do researchers primarily focus on cross-national forms of mobility, but not others? This is an open question. But it seems productive to consider migration in the framework of urbanization. In this sense, migration processes fuel a different type of transformation within cities tied to residents’ needs for housing and security, and also make cities ethnically and culturally “diverse.”

Here a question arises: why has the city become such an attractive place for migration? The initial reason for living and settling in cities stemmed from the relative safety and security they offered in comparison to nomadic life. Cities, having today become centers of migration processes, attract new residents for economic reasons: Chicago is a good example of how economics can drive a city’s development. Furthermore, such cities have a tendency to transform into mega-cities that annex neighboring territories—take Shanghai for example. Today, we can speak about the emergence of new types of migrants, the growing role of the service economy, and the development of cultural industries that attract highly qualified professionals as well as foreign investors.

It’s interesting that in describing urban diversity we mainly emphasize its positive influence on urban development even though ethnic diversity that results from migration processes is seen as a problem: concentrations of migrants are considered to be unsuccessful projects of cultural and social integration. Professor Rath emphasized, however, in the example of Amsterdam’s Chinatown, that ethnic entrepreneurs not only create new jobs, but also develop and mobilize various social networks in the framework of urban space that offer “other” forms of goods and services and bring “life” and diversity (and hence touristic value) to city streets and neighboring districts. Thus this part of the city, which was seen as an unsafe and unattractive prior to the arrival of immigrants from China, became gentrified and it didn’t force Chinese immigrants to relocate to different neighborhoods. This means that migration is capable of changing local areas in positive ways.

Olga Tkach
Labor Migration in St. Petersburg—At Home and in the City:

In her report, Olga Tkach presented the results of several studies done by fellows of the Center for Independent Social Research that were conducted over recent years. Her research interest was directed at areas of migration existing outside of work: the semantics of the concept “home,” types of migrant homes, “live-work” connections, forms of leisure, and ways that migrants become familiar with urban space.

A migrant’s home is a complicated concept that can be understood in various ways. Tkach’s report presented the concept of home as shelter and a migrant’s personal space. Types of migrant housing can be distinguished based on how and by whom housing is obtained. The first type is independently-found housing provided by the real-estate market, (the latter, however, is often unfriendly toward migrants). In contrast to many European cities, St. Petersburg has few distinct neighborhoods made up of migrants, nor are there migrant enclaves. Most often, migrants find temporary housing in densely populated communal apartments in various areas of the city that they share with their compatriots—mostly strangers. Moving from one such “staging post” to another, migrants gain social capital and expand their network of acquaintances. Subsequently, they can move to new places with those whom they know; but the basic principles of cost saving and the maximal effectiveness of the rented housing remain the same.

Migrants perceive their housing to be a place to sleep, but not so much a home to make “their own.” The modesty of material facilities explains the high degree of migrant mobility: at any moment they need to be ready to change houses. More attention is paid to the relationships developed with neighbors than to the facilities themselves.

A second type of housing is accommodation provided by employers, and may be either individual or collective. Small enterprises often develop housing for migrants, including those working illegally, in store rooms or other places not designed for living in order to minimize costs to both migrants and employers. In such cases migrant workers are often exploited excessively, and the absence of spatial distance between home and work causes stress.

Large companies with a steady percentage of migrant employees can afford collective housing. Control over employees allows for extra working hours but the distance between work and home, as well as legal status, permits migrants to get acquainted with the city and perform some leisure activities.  

Other agents of housing can be found in the diaspora community or in consulates. Governmental projects for building tenement housing for migrants began in 2011. There are now 12 such multi-family dwellings within St. Petersburg that are built like dormitories with shared rooms and amenities. Employers rent these apartments and are responsible in the case if employees violate the rules of living.

Of particular research interest are projects run by migration centers that are currently under consideration by government body. These centers will provide not only housing but educational programs and jobs as well; by implementing such policy, the government hopes to avoid the “negative perception” of migrants by the city locals.

However urban life for migrants, is not limited to home and work. If previously researchers strongly associated spaces inhabited by migrants with “work” and “home,” then more recently, with the appearance of more leisure time, migrants are actively exploring various types of urban public spaces: historical centers, parks, shopping malls, cafes, etc. Some urban spaces have been “privatized” by migrants; during religious holidays, for example, when they create their “own” infrastructure and organize their “own” events. Increasing number of job offers and legalized status has opened new spheres of labor to migrants, such as transportation, housing and service sectors. Scenarios of migration are changing as well: less often migrants try to save money to send back home, and less frequently do they set aside their lives “for later.”

In this way, the urban migrants’ high degree of mobility (mobility of residence and the freedom to chose their living situation and neighborhood) has allowed them to become better accustomed to urban space and to amass social capital. As a result, migrants have a stable position in cities: the more they try to expand their relational networks, the better integrated they become. On the contrary, attempts by different agents to “consolidate” migrants in an enclave, protecting them from the city and vice versa, leads to low levels of integration and prevents migrants from putting roots in the city.

Andrei Iakimov
“Uzbek Petersburg”:

Andrei Iakimov gave a report dedicated to description the cultural portrait of a migrant city. In Russian social discourse, notions of “migration” and “migrants” are strongly associated with ethnic affiliation. These words resound most often when discussing the increasing influx of migrants to Russian cities from Central Asian countries.

Migrants themselves possess certain notions about which ethnic groups represent specific cities: St. Petersburg is thus considered to be an “Uzbek” city, as a large proportion of its migrant laborers are ethnically Uzbek or Uzbek citizens. According to official data, there are 300,000 to 500,000 Uzbek migrants living in St. Petersburg. Uzbekistan is one of the most influential countries in Central Asia. The Uzbek language and popular culture are widely disseminated in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and because of this relationship, St. Petersburg’s community of migrant workers also communicates in Uzbek.

The aforementioned phrase “Petersburg—the Uzbek city” appeared in the media several years ago. It was intended to draw attention to the extent of “constructing” an alternative Petersburg as part of the existing one. Diaspora organizations whose social activities are aimed at supporting “Uzbek Petersburg” can be called the “architects” of this city. They are building their own infrastructure, organizing “Uzbek Petersburg’s” informational support systems and generating consumer interest in the city.

“Uzbek Petersburg’s” infrastructure consists of two levels: the first is the infrastructure of migration—that is, governmental institutions and commercial agents as well as the transportation system. The second level is the infrastructure of migrant adaptation, including city residence and networks of migrant institutions and organizations (cafes, clubs, kindergartens, etc.), and events for their own community. Two printed editions, supported by funds from the Uzbek diaspora and various foundations, ensure Uzbek Petersburg’s information support. These newspapers, positioned as “for migrants, by migrants,” are published in both Russian and Uzbek.

Consumers of Uzbek Petersburg are primarily employers interested in its labor opportunities, which they can find through special outsourcing agencies. It is known that the work hours of migrants are one and a half times greater than permitted by the Russian Federation’s Labor Code, while their salaries are one and a half times less than the average for city. The city faces urgent problems of illegal labor practices as well as the growing market for illicit sexual services involving migrant women.

Obstacles to constructing “Uzbek Petersburg” include the following: first, the individualistic trajectory of adaptation. Not all migrants know that diaspora exists, nor do all of them want to be associated with it. Second is extraterritoriality: in St. Petersburg there are residential clusters densely populated by migrants, but these are not vividly expressed and don’t present themselves as distinctive migrant quarters. Resettlement happens according to nationality: migrants seek to find neighbors from their home countries.

Anastasiya Golovneva, Liubov Chernysheva