Making The Open City …

Making The Open City and Urban Identities The Hard Way

by Saskia Sassen

Cities are one of the key sites where new norms and new identities are made. Cities have played this role at various times and in various places, and under very diverse conditions. Yet this role can become strategic in particular times and places, as is the case today in Europe. One important instance in the making of norms concerns immigration. What must be emphasized here is the hard work of making open cities and repositioning the immigrant and the citizen as urban subjects, rather than essentially different subjects as much of the anti-immigrant and racist commentary does. Here I address this issue from the perspective of the capacity of urban space to make norms and make subjects that escape the constraints of dominant power systems, such as the nation-state, the War on Terrorism, the growing weight of racism. The particular case of immigrant integration in Europe over the centuries is one window into this complex and historically variable question of the making of the European Open City.

In my reading, over and over again across time and space, the challenges of incorporating the “outsider” became the instruments for developing the civic in the best sense of the word. Responding to the claims by the excluded has had the effect of expanding the rights of citizenship. And very often restricting the rights of immigrants has been part of a loss of rights by citizens. This was clearly the case with the Immigration Reform Act passed by the Clinton Administration in the US – a Democratic Party legislative victory had the effect of taking away rights from immigrants and from citizens!

Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Europe: When the Immigrant is your Cousin.

Anti-immigrant sentiment has long been a critical dynamic in Europe’s history, one too often overlooked in standard European histories. And it is one that might take on new formats and contents today.

Anti-immigrant sentiment and attacks occurred in each of the major immigration phases in all major European countries. No labor-receiving country has a clean record –not Switzerland, with its long admirable history of international neutrality and not even France, the most open to immigration, refugees, and exiles. French workers killed Italian workers in the 1800s and accused them of being the wrong types of Catholics. Critical is the fact that there were always, as is also the case today, individuals, groups, organizations, and politicians who believed in making our societies more inclusive of immigrants.

History suggests that those fighting for incorporation succeeded in the long run, even if only partially. Just to focus on the recent past, one quarter of the French have a foreign-born ancestor three generations up, and 32 percent of the Viennese are either born abroad or have foreign parents. It took active making to transform the urban hatreds of foreigners into the civic. A sound public transport system or health system cannot sort users according to whether they are considered good or bad people. A basic rule needs to be met: pay your ticket and you are on. That is the making of the civic as a material condition.

Europe has a barely recognized history of several centuries of internal labor migrations. This is a history that hovers in the penumbra of official European History, dominated by the image of Europe as a continent of emigration, never of immigration. Yet, in the 1700s, when Amsterdam built its polders and cleared its bogs, it brought in workers from northern Germany; when the French developed their vineyards they brought in Spaniards; workers from the Alps were brought in to help develop Milan and Turin; as were the Irish when London needed help building water and sewage infrastructure. In the 1800s, when Haussmann rebuilt Paris, he brought in Germans and Belgians; when Sweden decided to become a monarchy and needed some good-looking palaces, they brought in Italian stoneworkers; when Switzerland built the Gothard Tunnel, it brought in Italians; and when Germany built its railroads and steel mills, it brought in Italian sand Poles.

At any given time there were multiple significant flows of intra-European migration. All the workers involved were seen as outsiders, as undesirables, as threats to the community, as people that could never belong. The immigrants were mostly from the same broad cultural group, religious group, and phenotype. Yet they were seen as unassimilable. The French hated the Belgian immigrant workers saying they were the wrong type of Catholics, and the Dutch saw the German protestant immigrant workers as the wrong types of protestants. This is a telling fact. It suggests that it is simply not correct to argue, as is so often done, that today it is more difficult to integrate immigrants because of their different religion, culture and phenotype. When these were similar, anti-immigrant sentiment was as strong as today, and it often lead to physical violence on the immigrant.

Yet all along, significant numbers of immigrants did become part of the community, even if it took two or three generations. They often maintained their distinctiveness, yet were still members of the community – part of the complex, highly heterogeneous social order of any developed city. At the time of their first arrival, they were treated as outsiders, racialized as different in looks, smells and habits, though they were so often the same phenotype, or general religious or cultural group. They were all Europeans: but the differences were experienced as overwhelming and insurmountable. Elsewhere I have documented the acts of violence, the hatreds we felt against those who today we experience as one of us (see Sassen 1999). Today the argument against immigration may be focused on questions of race, religion, and culture, and might seem rational – that cultural and religious distance is the reason for the difficulty of incorporation. But in sifting through the historical and current evidence we find only new contents for an old passion: the racializing of the outsider as Other. Today the Other is stereotyped by differences of race, religion, and culture. These are equivalent arguments to those made in the past when migrants were broadly of the same religious, racial, and cultural group. Migration hinges on a move between two worlds, even if within a single region or country – such as East Germans moving to West Germany after 1989 where they were often viewed as a different ethnic group with undesirable traits.

What is today’s equivalent challenge, one that can force us to go beyond our differences and make what it is that corresponds to that older traditional making of the European civic?

A Challenge larger than our Differences?

The particularity of the emergent global urban landscape is profoundly different from the old European civic tradition. This difference holds even though Europe’s worldwide imperial projects remixed European traditions with urban cultures that belonged to different histories and geographies.

What this emergent urban landscape shares with the older tradition is the fact that some challenges are greater than our differences. Therein lies a potential for reinventing the urban capacity to transform conflict (at least relatively) into an expanded openness rather than into war, as is the case for national governments. But it is not going to be the familiar order of the Open City and of the civic as we have come to represent it, especially in the European tradition.

I sense rather that the major challenges that confront cities(and society in general) have increasingly strong feedback loops that contribute to a disassembling of the old civic urban order. The so-called “War on Terrorism” is perhaps one of the most acute versions of this dynamic – that is, the dynamic whereby fighting terrorism has a strong impact on diminishing the old civic urban order. Climate change and its impacts on cities could also be the source of new types of urban conflicts and divisions. But I would argue that these challenges do contain their own specific potential for making novel kinds of broad front platforms for urban action and joining forces with those who may be seen as too different from us. Fighting climate change can bring together on one side of the battle, citizens and immigrants form many different religions, cultures and phenotypes. Similarly, fighting the abuses of power of the state in the name of fighting terrorism, can create similar coalitions bringing together residents who may have thought they could never collaborate with each other, but now that there is a bigger threat to civil rights that will also affect citizens, not only immigrants, novel solidarities are emerging. The spread of asymmetric war and climate change will affect both the rich and poor, and addressing them will demand that everybody join the effort. Furthermore, while sharp economic inequalities, racisms, and religious intolerance have long existed, they are now becoming political mobilizers in a context where the center no longer holds – whether this is an imperial center, the national state, or the city’s bourgeoisie.

Against the background of a partial disassembling of empires and nation-states, the city emerges as a strategic site for making elements of new, perhaps even for making novel partial orders. (One synthesizing image we might use to capture these dynamics is the movement from centripetal nation state articulation to a centrifugal multiplication of specialized assemblages.) Where in the past national law might have been the law, today subsidiarity, but also the new strategic role of cities, makes it possible for us to imagine a return to urban law. For instance, in the US, a growing number of cities have passed local laws (ordinances) that make their cities sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants; other cities have passed environmental laws that only hold for the particular cities. We see a resurgence of urban law-making, a subject I discuss in depth elsewhere (see Sassen 2008).

In my larger project I identified a vast proliferation of such partial assemblages that remix bits of territory, authority, and rights, once ensconced in national institutional frames. In the case of Europe these novel assemblages include those resulting from the formation and ongoing development of the EU, but also those resulting of a variety of cross-city alliances around protecting the environment, fighting racism, and other worthy causes. And they result from sub-national struggles and the desire to make new regulations for self-governance at the level of the neighborhood and the city. A final point, to elaborate the strategic importance of the city for shaping new orders, is that, as a space, the city can bring together multiple very diverse struggles and engender a larger, more encompassing push for a new normative order.

These developments signal the emergence of new types of socio-political orderings that can coexist with older orderings, such as the nation-state, the interstate system, and the older place of the city in a hierarchy that is dominated by the national state. Among these new types of orderings are complex cities that have partly exited that national, state-dominated hierarchy and become part of multiscalar, regional, and global networks. The last two decades have seen an increasingly urban articulation of global logics and struggles, and an escalating use of urban space to make political claims not only by the citizens of a city’s country, but also by foreigners.


In this context the city is an enormously significant assemblage because of its far greater complexity and diversity, and its enormous internal conflicts and competitions. Rather than the univocal though diverse utility logics of, for instance, WTO law and the International Criminal Court(ICC), the city forces an elaboration of multiple and conflictive utility logics. But if the city is to survive as a space of great complexity and diversity – and not become a mere built-up terrain or cement jungle – it will have to find a way to go beyond the fact of conflicts – conflicts that result from racisms, from governmental wars on terror, from the future crises of climate change. Historically cities have tended to transform conflict into the civic – through commerce, through the need of peaceful coexistence in dense urban environments. In contrast, the logic of national states is to militarize the response to conflict. In this capacity of the city there is a making of new subjects and identities –often it is not so much the ethno-religious phenotype that dominates in urban settings, but the urbanity of the subject and of the setting. But these shifts to the urbanity of subject and setting do not simply fall from the sky. It is often the need for new solidarities confronted by major challenges that can bring this shift about. At this point, the acuteness and overwhelming character of the challenges I described here can serve to create conditions where the challenges are bigger and more threatening than the internal conflicts and hatreds, and thereby force us into joint responses and from there onto the emphasis of an urban setting and urban identity.


Saskia Sassen, Guests and Aliens: Europe’s Immigrants, Refugees and Colonists (New York: New Press, 1999). Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). Anti-immigrant sentiment has long been a critical dynamic in Europe’s history, one too often overlooked in standard European histories. And it is one that might take on new formats and contents today.