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Seattle as “Arrival City”: Notes Toward a Municipal Immigrant Integration Policy

2011 July 6
by David Moser

“It is social diversity, not just the diversity of buildings and uses, that gives the city its soul.”

– Sharon Zukin — Naked City


The best cities are those that have the most immigrants. The source of so much of what makes our species interesting and promising, cities derive much of their scintillating creative energy and economic dynamism from their capacity to integrate and mix people who were previously distant strangers. Incubators of invention and newness, great cities perpetually throw disparate, previously un-related cultures into transfiguring collision, setting in motion evolving cultural hybrids. People from far-flung corners of the globe living in proximity, exchanging, negotiating norms and establishing new codes, cannot help but create new ideas and forms of life. As we move deeper into this difficult 21st century, we are increasingly in need of the types of new ideas that tend to come from cities. [1]

Yet if so much of what makes cities special places comes from their capacity to absorb and use the energy of those who have come from afar, why do people who love and study cities devote so little time to thinking about how urban immigrants are faring, and how we might attract more? Though some of Jane Jacobs’ most memorable passages are lush descriptions of the integral role foreign-born immigrants play in the life of the city, particularly around her beloved Hudson Street in the Greenwich Village of the 1950’s, this aspect of her writings has been largely ignored by the legions of “urbanist” writers, planners, and policy makers who have been informed and provoked by her now canonic work. [2]

Consciously or unconsciously using Jacobian language, urban planners and policy wonks love “diversity of uses”, and architects and engineers tout the diversity of buildings and public spaces. All these aspects of our urban built-environment and infrastructure are certainly important parts of making cities into the vibrant, bustling, noisy, provocative, weird, and sublime places they have the potential to become. But few talk about the countless advantages more foreign-born migrants would bring our city. And though it is precisely the creative concentration of international mobile labor that is largely responsible for turning “global cities” into engines of innovation, [3] foreign-born migrants rarely come up in discussions of urban economic development. This is a strange and unfortunate omission.

Richard Florida, for instance, has won wide notoriety for his argument that what makes cities successful is their capacity to attract what he calls “the creative class”. Knowledge workers, academics, architects, programmers, and others engaged “creative” work are now, according to Florida, the driving force in urban economies, and attracting these people should be at the center of urban economic development policy. While there is much to be said for Florida’s theories, I would argue that a city’s capacity to attract and integrate foreign-born migrants is far more important for its long-term economic strength and cultural richness than attracting the hipster website-developers Florida celebrates. And yet who, anywhere, is talking about developing strategies for attracting more foreign-born migrants to our cities?

Seattle has a proud and unique immigrant heritage, and is today home to a wonderful diversity of cultures, which are gradually making our city a more interesting and hopeful place to live. In particular the established immigrant neighborhoods throughout the I.D., C.D., South Park, Beacon Hill, Rainier Valley and High Point (and, if Seattle is lucky, perhaps soon White Center), for instance, add immeasurably to Seattle’s social capital. Any future claims we may make about being a “Global City” will be possible because we have these types of places in our urban geography. Anyone who lives or spends significant time in these and other neighborhoods throughout South Seattle, with their substantial and growing East and West African, South-East and South Asian, Latino, and Pacific Islander communities (just to name a few), might easily start to question the image of Seattle as a “white” city. [4]

Yet increasingly, Seattle is allowing our suburban regional neighbors in Tukwila, Kent, SeaTac, Burien, Redmond, and elsewhere to claim most of these new arrivals. Of course many of these recent immigrants do work in Seattle, and we as a city gain from their general economic and cultural impact on the region, so Seattle does still benefit from their contributions even though they may live elsewhere. But my point is that by not doing more proactive work to draw and integrate immigrants into our city and neighborhoods, we as a city are willfully neglecting one of our greatest advantages. And we are also depriving too many immigrants of the comparative advantage of living in the central city. As Ed Glaeser writes: “Cities are good for immigrants, and immigrants are good for cities”.

There are of course many organizations throughout the city that do tremendous work on various aspects of immigrant integration. Advocacy groups like One America and Northwest Immigrant Rights Project; community-based non-profits like El Centro de la Raza, Asian Counseling and Referral Services, the Refugee Women’s Alliance, the YWCA, and Neighborhood House (disclosure: my employer); and many, many churches, schools and businesses provide crucial components of the integration process. But our city, as most cities, and indeed as our country, lacks any kind of comprehensive strategy to coordinate and support these efforts at the policy level.

In a future post I will explore in a more detailed fashion what a municipal-level immigrant-integration policy might look like. I will propose specific measures the city of Seattle could adopt to make itself a more hospitable, accessible “Arrival City”, to use the phrase coined recently by Doug Sanders in a moving and provocative book (  But for now I leave with the simple hope that those who advocate for cities and those who advocate for immigrants might talk to each other more.


David Moser works for Neighborhood House, a non-profit serving Seattle’s immigrant and refugee communities ( He is also a graduate student in the Institute for Public Service at Seattle University.


[1] Edward Glaeser’s recent Triumph of the City is a definitive account of cities as “engines of innovation” that has quickly      become required reading for urban policy-makers (and has apparently become quite popular with members of the Seattle City Council

[2] See Roger Valdez’s “Urbanist Creed” for a good local synopsis of this world-view:–/

[3] Much of Saskia Sassen’s work has been devoted to explaining exactly how this works.

[4] Though statistically, alas, this image is all-too-true. Amongst major U.S. cities Seattle ranks 2nd only to Portland in its percentage of Caucasian residents (about 75%). There is an honest debate to be had about how much of this imbalance is due to blatantly racist attitudes and housing covenants throughout most of the 20th century ( and how much is due to accidents of geography (Seattle was far from the South, and thus not an easy destination for the “Great Migration” of African-Americans out of the South in the late 19th and early 20th century).