Migrants turn cities at the crossroads into “Transient Urban Spaces”

Understanding the relations between migration, translocality, and urban transformations

Dr. Benjamin Etzold

Geographer, Bonn International Center for Conversion

13. Nov.



Key Words:

city making
migrants in the city
production of place/locality

In a paper in the geographical journal Population, Space and Place, Tabea Bork-Hüffer, myself, and other colleagues from the German Research Foundation’s project “Megacities-Megachallenges” argue that migration is predominantly urban-bound and that migrants contribute significantly to the production of “transient urban spaces. With our concept of transient urban space, we highlight the agency of all urban citizens who contribute to `making cities´ in this age of globalization and migration.

The social, political, and economic spaces in cities are produced and reproduced by people’s everyday practices, interactions, and imaginations; in short, they are expressions of social relations and people’s agency. There are two core dimensions of transient urban spaces: first, they can be characterised through their translocality, and second, they are undergoing permanent transformations, i.e. they are highly dynamic and permanently re-produced. The nature of transient urban spaces might be easier to understand when the metaphor of a crossroad is used.


Translocality – Cities are expressions of the relations between and interactions at places

Transient urban spaces are translocal in the sense that they transcend the physical and administrative boundaries of one specific city, but rather connect different, sometimes distant, physical places through interactions, flows, and imaginaries. Like cars and passengers intersect at a crossroad, material goods, capital, people, information, and ideas that have their origin in other places and that have traversed space come together in particular places in cities, where they are exchanged, re-arranged, and re-loaded with meaning. Migration is one of the drivers of the emergence of translocal spaces. Migrants – no matter whether they are rural-urban, urban-urban or international migrants – not only move through different physical spaces and across administrative boundaries, but also traverse different `social fields´ and thereby take on positions of power vis-à-vis other actors. But different places and social fields are not only connected. New glocal spaces emerge through the intermingling of global trends and local re-interpretations. Transnational or translocal spaces are constructed through the trajectories, networks, and practices of migrants and other actors who live their daily lives, interact, and communicate across different nations and dispersed places. As Brickell and Datta note in their book on “Translocal Geographies. Spaces, Places, Connections”, cities are the “sites of translocality par excellence harbouring places of origin, settlement, resettlement and transit.” An analysis of the relationship between cities and migration thus has to go beyond the study of migratory movements to cities (important and complex as they are) and the life of migrants in cities (including necessary debates on social exclusion, segregation, and migrants’ roles in urban labor markets), and also look at the coupled processes of urban restructuring and translocal migration.



Transformations – Cities are always in the making

The temporal dimension is the second part of the definition of transient urban space as cities and distinct places in cities are always – and have always been – in transition. Transient urban spaces are permanently transformed and reproduced through social practices; they are fluid and literally always `in the making´. The outcome of this process is open and actively re-negotiated and re-interpreted by the engaged actors. These dynamics become clear, if we again use the crossroad as an image: new people move in, while others leave; there are different speeds of movements; there is a distinct rhythm of the use of this space of passage with rush hours and quiet moments; and the re-construction of the physical infrastructure re-directs the flow of goods and people and shapes the quality of the place. Urban citizens live with, react to, and contribute to the dynamics of transient urban spaces. They invest capital, labor or time, and thereby contribute to the re-production of urban space. Flexibility seems to be a key to cope with or take advantage of permanent changes in the city. Those who can adapt easily in a highly volatile context, for instance, land developers and innovative entrepreneurs, might benefit from changes. For others, the permanent transformation and the need for flexibility produce stress and insecurity. The different temporalities of the city’s physical structure thus also reflect actors’ social positions of power in the city. For example, in a largely-informally governed megacity like Dhaka, an illegally-constructed high-rise building of a rich investor is certainly more permanent than an illegally-built slum shack self-made by a rural-urban migrant that can be demolished easily. Moreover, discursive events, political projects, and paradigm shifts leave `marks´ in the urban space. Each city and every place in it has then its specific trajectory. In many cases the visible re-constructions of urban space can be traced back to a distinct historical era, e.g. to a period of nation-state building, structural adjustment or world market opening.



Migrants create translocal relations and drive urban transformations

What do temporality and the dynamic nature of the urban space mean for migrants in the city?

Firstly, migrants are not passive victims, but rather active drivers of urban re-structuring. And they are creators of translocal or transnational flows. This is particularly the case in megacities like New York (USA), Guangzhou (China), Bangkok (Thailand), Dhaka (Bangladesh) or Istanbul (Turkey), into which internal and/or international migrants continuously move and which therefore grow rapidly in terms of population, the economy, and the built-up area. Migrants bring along their own package of perspectives, identities, habits, values, and norms, which then mix with the local context and create new social, cultural, economic and political structures in the cities. Through their agency they are actively re-directing, re-working, contesting, and sometimes even resisting urban restructuring and the flows into, within, and out of their cities. It is the people – and not the invisible hand of financial-technological globalization – who define the character of and make the everyday life in their cities.

Secondly, newly created transient urban spaces sometimes pose a challenge to established state regulation and neoliberal governance regimes and might even lead to negotiations and contestations over space. Poorer migrants’ rather subversive productions of the urban space are often perceived as less desirable or even intolerable – innumerable stories of slum evictions, raids against street hawkers or demonstrations for people’s `right to the city´ are proof of this. In cities, the existing power relations in a society and struggles over participation, citizenship, and belonging show openly.

Thirdly, the position of migrants in the city changes over time. The dialectic process of adaptation and integration as well as resistance and separation evokes socio-cultural changes among and creates new relations between the migrants and the `original´ residents.

Finally, the nature of the translocal fields as such might change. Family relations across distant places might dissolve with the generations, or they might intensify through technologies that enable easier and less costly communication. In which direction the translocal networks, and indeed the reality of people’s translocal lives, evolve not only depends on the trajectories of the individual migrants and their families, but also on the ruptures and transformations in the distinct urban locales.

Further reading:

Bork-Hüffer, T., Etzold, B., et al. (2014): “Agency and the Making of Transient Urban Spaces: Examples of Migrants in the City in the Pearl River Delta, China and Dhaka, Bangladesh”. In: Population, Space and Place:

Etzold, B. (2014): “Migration, Informal Labour and (Trans)Local Productions of Urban Space – The Case of Dhaka’s Street Food Vendors”. In: Population, Space and Place:


This Blog is published under a CC BY 4.0 license. You are allowed to share and adapt this content under these conditions.

NOTE: This blog is a crossposting and was originally published on the TransRe Blog “Connecting the Spots“.

Benjamin Etzold is a senior researcher at the peace and conflict study center BICC. He is currently coordinating the international and interdisciplinary EU-funded research project TRAFIG (‘Transnational Figurations of Displacement’), which looks into the role of mobility and translocal connectivity for people in protracted displacement situations. From 2007 to 2016, he worked in the Geography Department of the University of Bonn, where he also obtained his PhD in 2012 with his research on the livelihoods of street vendors and political contestations in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Since then, he has led a case study on rainfall variability, food security and human mobility in Bangladesh in the research project “Where the Rain falls” by the UN University and CARE. His expertise is in refugee and migration studies, social geography, livelihoods of vulnerable populations, labor relations, and food security.

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Dr. Benjamin Etzold

Geographer, Bonn International Center for Conversion

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