A man, a woman and a child walk through the historical city of Berlin Spandau.

Germany's cities and cultural diversity: from inexperienced to dynamic

Highly qualified bankers from the EU, "guest workers" from Turkey, refugees from Syria – Germany's cities are experiencing cultural diversity in a variety of ways, and their responses are equally distinct. The communities range from mostly homogenous small and midsized cities to mega-diverse metropolises that benefit from the numerous cultures present there.

Cultural diversity has long been part of life in Germany. Yet the question arises of how to respond when more and more people from different cultures live in close proximity. Our study shows the variety of experiences Germany’s communities have had with cultural diversity. The spectrum ranges from small and midsized cities, which have little experience, to super-diverse metropolises such as Frankfurt am Main. The study was carried out on our behalf by the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space, in cooperation with Technische Universität Berlin.

Large, prosperous cities attract more immigrants and respond proactively to their diverse populations. The opposite is true for shrinking communities in economically challenged areas. In such cases, policy makers, public administrators and civil society often lack the resources, experience and willingness to engage with the topic of diversity.

"Even if the underlying conditions differ, we need to actively shape diversity in all of Germany’s communities."

Stephan Vopel, the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s expert for social cohesion

"That means ensuring integration policy dovetails with each community's overall development policy."

In major cities such as Stuttgart, community leaders have long been addressing the topics of immigration, integration and diversity. Today they are benefitting from those farsighted efforts. "As they compete for skilled labor from around the world, these booming cities have become attractive destinations – because they offer jobs, but also because they are open to other cultures and they allow people the freedoms they are looking for," says Kai Unzicker, project manager for this year's Reinhard Mohn Prize. The cultural diversity study was carried out for this year's prize, which is dedicated to the topic "Living Diversity – Shaping Society."

Six different city types provide a differentiated picture

The study groups Germany's cities into six types based on the factors of migration-driven diversity, economic situation, demographic development and experience dealing with immigration. The six types are: 'Magnete,' 'Solide', 'Ambivalente', 'Nachholer', 'Gestalter' and 'Unerfahrene'.

'Magnete' describes economically dynamic metropolises with strong growth and a large share of non-natives, such as Frankfurt am Main, where 51 percent of the population is of non-German heritage. Magnet cities responded to immigration early on, for example by creating agencies or commissioners responsible for actively managing migration-related cultural diversity.

Major cities in eastern Germany are also becoming more diverse

'Solide' and 'Ambivalente' cities have been greatly influenced by past inflows of "guest workers" and, as industrial centers, have considerable experience with diversity. The cities in the 'Solide' group, which includes Stuttgart, are economically robust and growing moderately. Cities in the 'Ambivalente' category are experiencing weaker economic growth and their populations are increasing at a slower pace, as can be seen in the case of Bremen.

In eastern Germany in particular, there are expanding metropolises with favorable economic prospects such as Dresden. Yet since these cities are home to few migrants, they have had relatively little experience with diversity – until now. In this type of city – the 'Nachholer' group –  diversity will increase markedly in the future.

Inexperienced small and midsized cities have difficulty dealing with diversity

Different patterns can be seen outside the major metropolises. On the one hand, midsized cities exist which have a relatively large number of non-native residents, as well as stable populations and steady economic development. These Gestalter cities are already coordinating their integration policies and development efforts. The study cites Germersheim in Rhineland–Palatinate as one example, a city in which 54 percent of local residents have an immigrant background.

Things are different when it comes to Unerfahrene communities. In these midsized cities – such as Neubrandenburg in Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania – the percentage of migrants is low and the community has little experience dealing with diversity. Usually the economic situation is difficult, the population is shrinking and both the physical and social infrastructure are under pressure.

How can cities respond effectively to diversity?

The study's authors, Felicitas Hillmann and Hendrikje Alpermann, recommend the following approaches for actively shaping diversity:

  • Greater dovetailing of urban development and immigration policies through interdepartmental cooperation among public administrators at the municipal level
  • Increased networking of communities both within Germany and the EU
  • Federal and state funding for integration services which are provided by communities
  • Introduction of low-threshold opportunities for immigrants to participate in political processes, such as giving non-EU citizens the right to vote in local elections
  • Greater focus among civil society actors on migration-driven cultural diversity