The residential distribution of migrants in cities

Where do different migrant and post-migrant communities live in a city? Are they spread out, or are they concentrated in specific neighbourhoods?

The place where migrants settle is never the result of pure choice. Rather, it depends on a number of overlapping factors including the historical period and first place of arrival in a city, the types of accommodation that are available and accessible in a given moment, the proximity of accommodation to the place of employment, the presence of a pre-existing national community, as well as the social class, gender, age and type of household of a newcomer.

Many major cities in the world are made up of an intricate patchwork of neighbourhoods, where one or more migrant communities have made their home. London is one such example. In 2005, The Guardian newspaper published a map entitled ‘London: The World in One City’ (and its accompanying key), which indicates 100 places across the British capital that are associated with particular national, ethnic and religious groups.

The map offers an accessible and fun way of making sense of the geography of London’s migrant and ethnic minority communities, and at the time of its publication it appeared to confirm the claim that London had become the most diverse city on earth. Some of the places identified are common knowledge to anyone who has lived in London, such as the Bangladeshis on Brick Lane, the Punjabi Sikhs and Pakistanis in the western suburb of Southall, or the extremely wealthy Russians who have bought properties in upmarket Mayfair. But it also highlights lesser-known communities, for instance Koreans in South Malden, Portuguese in Stockwell, and Algerians in Finsbury Park.

The map would look slightly different today as new groups have arrived, others have gravitated towards other parts of London, while some have left the city altogether. We need also to remember that this map is only a representation of migrant and ethnic minority presence in London. Like any map, it does not show the full picture. Most significant of all, the map gives the impression that all migrant communities ‘stick together’.

The reality is far more complex. Some groups are indeed highly concentrated in certain places, for instance Bangladeshis in the Borough of Tower Hamlets (which includes Brick Lane), but other groups such as Indians and Black Caribbeans, are distributed more evenly across a much larger area.

One arising problem is that the popular association between a group and one particular area can get used to explain people’s housing aspirations in simplistic and essentialist terms. Hence, the Bangladeshis all tend to live in Tower Hamlets because they are Muslim and prefer to isolate themselves from others, while Black Caribbeans are more culturally (and religiously) integrated into mainstream English society and so are more likely to live and mix with White British and other groups. These singular explanations can lead to ‘sophisticated’ stereotypes that not only ignore the multiple reasons for migrants’ housing trajectories, but also overlook the internal diversity of putatively ‘segregated’ communities.

Let’s briefly compare two key factors that influenced the residential distribution of Bangladeshis and Black Caribbeans in London.

In terms of employment, many of the first Bangladeshis who arrived in London worked in the rag trade and later in the booming South Asian restaurant scene, both of which were concentrated in the East End of London, while many early Black Caribbean migrants were employed by the city’s public transport company or the National Health Service, and thus were instead more spread out across the city.

The period of first arrivals is also crucial. The bulk of Black Caribbeans arrived between 1948 and 1974 and the only choice for most was to initially rent accommodation in the private sector, which was dotted around the city. In contrast, the majority of Bangladeshis arrived during the 1970s and 1980s following reforms that had opened up access for ethnic minorities to state-controlled social housing. Moreover, social housing was administered at borough level and not at a citywide level, and this was particularly extensive in Tower Hamlets, which, as one of the capital’s historically poorest areas, had undergone slum clearance and depopulation after the Second World War.

Transnational social networks and family reunification imply that newcomers often move to areas where fellow members of national or ethnic communities are already settled. This may represent the only option in a city like London where housing is extremely expensive, and can result in an increase in residential concentration, as in the case of Bangladeshis living in Tower Hamlets. This does not mean though that other people do not live in the same area or even share the same buildings.

Over the last decade, in fact, the borough – located between the City of London and the 2012 Olympic Park – has seen an intensification of gentrification as other British and international professionals have bought property there. At the same time, there are internal differences as with any community. Like many ethnic minorities, socially mobile Bangladeshis have decided to move out of the neighbourhood and buy homes in the city’s outer suburbs. Meanwhile, the arrival of Bangladeshis from Italy in Tower Hamlets over the last decade has increased competition for housing and other resources and has highlighted the different provenance of the two groups – mainly rural Sylhet in the case of the ‘locals’ and urban Dhaka in the case of the ‘Italians’ – and the divergent attitudes towards cultural and religious life that this entails.

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This article is from the free online course:

Migration and Cities

European University Institute (EUI)