Bridging Migration and Urban Studies with Prof. Ricard Zapata-Barrero: An Interview Exploring the Local Turn, Urban Resilience, Regional Cities, and Urban Memories

By Pelin Kılınçarslan, Postdoctoral Researcher, Migration Research Center at Koç University (MiReKoc)

Thanks to Oğuzhan Açıkgöz for providing technical support

“If there is so much evidence that cities are built by migrants and that we can say that most of the city’s population are migrant populations, and if we consider this from a generational point of view and ask people, ‘Who and where did your grandfather or even your great-grandfather come from?’ then in the end, we will discover that the city is a city of migrants, there are not national homogeneous cities.”

Ricard Zapata-Barrero is a Full Professor in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain). He is the Director of GRITIM-UPF (Interdisciplinary Research Group on Immigration), a member of the Board of Directors of the Global Network IMISCOE (International Migration and Social Cohesion in Europe), and coordinator of EuroMedMig, a platform of scholars working on migrations from all edges of the Mediterranean. His broad research focuses on contemporary issues related to the governance of diversity and migrations within the framework of democracy and citizenship. For more publications by Prof. Ricard Zapata-Barrero, please visit his website:

As part of the research capacity building objectives of the BROAD-ER project, Prof. Zapata-Barrero is visiting MiReKoc this February and March 2024 to further strengthen collaborative efforts in understanding the urban-migration nexus. As partners in the BROAD-ER project, we conducted an interview to discuss key issues in his current research agenda at the intersection of migration and urban studies, which are already shaping the debate in Europe and beyond.

I would like to start with the “local turn” debate in migration studies. Migration has long been dominated by state-centric approaches. However, there is now a growing recognition of migration and integration as multilevel policy issues, involving diverse actors and different levels of government. In the context of this emerging focus on multilevel governance, you, along with Tiziana Caponio and Peter Scholten, opened the “local turn” debate in 2017 through your well-known special issue [1] and article [2] on theorising the “local turn” in migration governance.

Could you tell us more about why we should take this “local turn” seriously, what it really means, and how it shapes the current debate on migration governance?

It is true that the “local turn” notion summarised one of the concerns that we have in our conversations, taking the multilevel governance at the beginning seriously, and then trying to analyse the interaction between different levels of governance but taking the cities as the central point. This was the starting point of the local turn debate. Of course, the local turn frames a scholarly discussion that has many other substantial dimensions. The first one, as you already said in your statement, is that we are trying to go from what we consider to be state-centric approaches in doing research to a much more city-centric approach. This involves not only trying to analyse migration governance from the city point of view but also considering analytically what we refer to as the horizontal and vertical levels. The horizontal level refers to the relationship between cities and civil society organisations, and other local actors contributing to the governance of the city. The level of relation between cities and upper levels of governance, mainly the state, is the vertical level. This is where conflict and cooperation often co-exist. Considering these two key analytical angles, the local turn is a way to bring the city voice into the policy and scholarly debates. Cities are not just administrative units of the state, but also have their own autonomous dynamics and specific needs. Therefore, they must be considered as actors capable of managing the particularities of their own migration context.

In addition, and probably more to reflect my own views, there are two kinds of patterns that also contribute to this debate. The first one is epistemological. Epistemology is the way we produce knowledge. From this point of view, we incorporate scale analysis or scale thinking within this local turn, which means that depending on the scale of governance and depending on the scale where we are conducting research, the outcomes may be different. The knowledge produced on migration at the state level is different from the knowledge that we produce from the city. The local turn is also an assertion that the knowledge of migration produced at the city level must be taken into account, because this “local knowledge” can be the basis of urban sovereignty. Incorporating this epistemology and multiscale, we are not only making a claim of thinking migration from a different scale, but also this is a way to de-essentialise what the state tends to essentialise in terms of migration. Then we enter directly into methodological nationalism that says that most of the categories we have in thinking and conducting research on migration are state-based. The state has this kind of magical dimension that essentialises whatever it touches. Essentialising means we cannot move it. Essentialising means that we cannot discuss it, because if we try to problematise what is considered “essential” for the state survival, we can even be criminalised, as it happened to most NGOs operating in the Mediterranean. This process of state’ essentialisation is always surrounded by two key concepts: security and stability. It means that if you touch what the state essentialises, then instability and insecurity will come. With the local turn we discover that this state essentialism could be problematised by the cities. This is what is happening with most pro-active cities, and a long list of brands: solidarity, refugee, welcoming, sanctuary, human rights, just cities. This is almost the local turn’s basic effect, I would say, the basic epistemological effect of the local turn. The cities can be the location where counter narratives can take shape. This is very important for us because the local turn allows us not only to think critically and with alternative narratives, but also to de-problematise and de-essentialise what the state tends to problematise and essentialise. This is probably why it has provoked also attraction by migration researchers.

I would say that another issue of the local turn is that—this is also the path I have taken myself—the local turn has been the opportunity to make visible new patterns of urban action. The BROAD-ER project is nothing more than that. That is, the fact that cities are making decisions that often could be different from those made by the state. Autonomy-building is crucial. There are numerous examples of this city’s patterns claiming autonomy and sovereignty. I have even referred to them as “rebellious cities” in some instances, as they resist the state’s political narratives and actions. In a recent study, I analysed the processes of de-bordering in Barcelona [3]. While state bordering dynamics remain active, many cities are following normative principles of equality and human rights by taking the route of de-bordering. Analysing state-city tensions belongs to the local turn, but not all is tension and conflict, there are also collaborations and alliances-building with civil society, and other government actors at the regional level for instance. What for me is important is that cities are offering us the opportunity to analyse new ways of thinking how to govern migration without this alarmist and crisis narrative that always surrounds state decisions.

The second trend, also within the BROAD-ER, is related to external affairs that we can categorise as city diplomacy. The idea is that the city is becoming a new geopolitical actor. This is a completely new city pattern. The city is becoming visible and intervene in most state geo-migration politics. International relations have always assumed that the state is the only interlocutor. Now the city is taking some space in these international relations, saying that “we are also actors, and we can also decide on geopolitical migration issues.” Within this new pattern, there can be different nuances from city networks, meaning that cities begin to network with other cities: welcoming cities, solidarity cities, refugee cities. We have a lot of examples of that. But there are also much more diplomatic patterns where cities begin to take on some external affairs, representativity, and make agreements with other cities on migration and so forth. This pattern is also something very important because the cities’ department of external affairs were usually devoted, I would say, 100% to social cooperation, helping development basically on resources with other cities and so on. Now, the local turn makes it visible that cities are also diplomatic actors, trying to penetrate a sphere of decision-making that was completely monopolised by the state. This process also needs to be analysed within the “local turn” frame and how cities are configuring new paradigms of international and diplomatic relations, beyond the traditional aid and cooperation.

The third and last pattern is the way that the city is also building alliances with civil society and becoming active— I don’t like the word “activist” because it does not contain necessarily constructivist narratives, and I prefer to use the traditional social movements notion—sharing their claims, basically in the Mediterranean but elsewhere. The alliances of cities with civil society actors—national, city, traditional ones, but also international ones—are a very important pattern. For instance, in most southern Mediterranean cities, the role and the function of international organisations to work together with the cities are also a way for the cities to build their autonomy in front of a centralist state, that consider cities and even the mayor as state representative. During my visiting stay in Türkiye, I am discovering that most cities are working with international organizations that provide them new space of actions, and supporting decisions towards refugees and migrants. This is also happening in Tunisia, Morocco, and I would even say Egypt. I think this kind of alliance between cities and international civil society organisations is becoming key for most cities holding confidential information on migrants for instance, but also developing assistance and first aid to their new residents. This is also a clear example of this city turn.

The “local turn” reveals that cities are increasingly important agents, rather than mere state administrative units in the governance of migration. This underscores the growing need for deeper interdisciplinary engagement between migration studies and urban studies. This is one of the main departure points of our BROAD-ER project, of which you are also a part.

How would you describe emerging efforts in linking migration and urban studies? What kind of research lines does the current agenda involve?

I have already introduced some issues in my previous answer, but maybe this gives me the opportunity to go into much more conceptual, theoretical and even methodological dimensions. Of course, I would say that migration studies is by definition an interdisciplinary field, which means that migration studies could be seen as a platform of dialogue between different disciplines talking about common concerns but with distinct methodological tools, concepts, and views. These differences between disciplines sharing the same concern on migration are what make migration studies and research meaningful. This also means from a methodological point of view that it is only through interdisciplinary dialogue that social science can be innovative and contribute to social and political change. It is only through interdisciplinary dialogue that we can co-produce and develop innovative knowledge. Taking that into account, probably we can say the same from the point of view of urban studies. Then, to put in dialogue—bridging, as BROAD-ER says—two studies is to bridge two interdisciplinary internal conversations together. From this point of view, we are probably doing something that needs to be better articulated, “multi-interdisciplinary” debates from two viewpoints: migration and urban. There is probably a need for a new collective book on how migration studies are entering into dialogue with other studies to strengthen research. In this case, we have urban studies, but we can include mobility studies, citizenship studies, cultural studies, health studies, and so forth—other studies that are, by definition, themselves also interdisciplinary. In my opinion, now is the time for the deepening of this second level of reflection since we are entering in a new phase of scientific dialogue in terms of knowledge production, methodologies, and research development, and witnessing (and participating) in how several interdisciplinary studies enter in fruitful conversations. I would say BROAD-ER belongs to this new pattern, once we have all contributed to make migration studies visible and shape its own place in scientific research. The difficulty of doing that is probably that the views, concerns, and the way each study tends to problematise current dynamics are different. This also makes the conversation sometimes difficult from a methodological and conceptual standpoint. But this, I would say, belongs to the rules of the game, and makes it more challenging and attractive. This is the main value of BROAD-ER project.

Cities are capable of developing their own migration agenda autonomously from the state. However, their governance capacities can be limited by several factors, from the complexities of international migration to the ongoing importance of state regulations. In your recent work [4], you underline the need to move from addressing constraints to addressing strategies cities develop to respond to these challenges. You suggest the concept of “resilience” as a key lens for understanding and theorising the challenges in the governance of urban migration.

Could you tell us more about how “urban resilience” offers a new theoretical framework for the debate on the local turn and urban migration governance?

I was just thinking that probably my two previous answers are the framework where I developed my research. Now we are properly entering into what I am “cooking,” what I am trying to offer to migration and urban studies. Urban resilience, as you say, is a category of analysis that I have tried to bring into the debate. This was first done during my Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) Distinguished Visiting Scholarship at the Graduate Center of CUNY University (New York). Urban resilience is not only a category of analysis, but also an approach and a way of thinking, a way of bridging urban and migration studies. Of course, I cannot avoid that my perspective is always from the point of view of urban governance, urban politics. Being within this position, one of the observations that we can make, and that is obviously evidence-based, is that cities have many difficulties to develop their own ways of governing migration because they are full of constraints that stress their own urban system. Here we enter directly into the debate of governance capacity building. We cannot overlook that today most of the cities have a problem of capacity building, some probably more than others. For instance, I just came from Gaziantep, at the border of Syria, and I saw how border cities are much more challenged about this governance capacity building. When cities become aware of these constraints, and the tension they must manage between what they want to do (sovereignty) and what they can do (constraints), and incorporate into their own agenda these pressures and stresses, and begin to devise strategies to overcome and solve these challenges, cities become resilient. This is my working descriptive definition, without including functionalities, as is often the case. Functionalities in terms of sustainability of the urban system, conservatism (to restore the situation before the stressful factor (for instance huge arrival of migrants in the city), but also social and political change, claiming stronger institutions and infrastructures, as the multiple effects of resilience building. Of course, in framing this research programme, I have entered in conversation (again linking studies) with the already existing urban resilience debate. I discovered that most of the debate is concentrated on climate change, I would say almost 70% of the literature on urban resilience. Then, my first question and most of my first readings were to question “what can bring the debate between urban resilience and migration governance?” What is the added value? How could migration contribute to the urban resilience debate, but also the other way around, how could the urban resilience debate also contribute to migration studies? Of course, engaging in this kind of reasoning could be very ambitious and pretentious because one is always considering this relationship from the perspective of one’s own position, and my position is migration studies. We must be careful of this and always remember that we are approaching it from our own position, which is migration studies. Considering these one-sided difficulties, I think I managed to do so through different writings and some of them that will come now combining theoretical and empirical analysis. I have been analysing urban resilience in Barcelona, Marseille, and Tunisian cities. Probably, I will incorporate Gaziantep after my first visit there. From these previous works, I tried to bring two kinds of novelties. On the one hand, urban resilience has been addressing capacity building without values and debates that for us are very important, such as urban justice, the right to the city, and equality, because the main driver of urban resilience or urban migration resilience is that we want to develop autonomy building, in spite of and sometimes against the state, because we have various convictions that human rights come first whatever national considerations, for instance, and that human security comes first than national security. Urban resilience has to do with this when the topic is migration governance.

Another added value of bridging urban resilience and migration governance is that urban resilience is an opportunity to go into what we call innovation in policy and governance terms. I also like—and this statement came from an interview I did with policymakers—that policymakers are really “artists” because they must innovate and build strategies within normative convictions. Dealing with the pressures that come, and that are often provoked by state institutional structure, requires a lot of policy imagination. Policy innovation and change, instead of conservation, becomes very important in urban resilience and migration governance. Urban resilience tends to be a very conservative debate since the devise of resilience is always to restore the situation before the stressful situation. This conservative view is present in most initial definitions. Taken broadly, the World Bank (2015, p. 19) [5] describes resilience as the ability of a system to adapt to a variety of changing conditions and to withstand shocks while maintaining its essential functions. I am much more interested in, and this is also what migration studies provide to the urban resilience debate, the transformative function of cities, able even to claim for more decentralisation to the same state and also new strategies that try to solve the restrictions from the state. When we speak about state restrictions and resources-claiming which could be legal, regulatory, economic and institutional, sometimes the state doesn’t allow the cities to do things because it is “illegal,” and the cities manage to do so in spite of the state. One key example of that is France. France is decentralising some competences of migration because cities are resilient and claiming to decide by themselves and need legal and economic resources to do that. The state is forced to sometimes innovate incorporating new regulations that make the cities with more resources to develop their governance capacities. I think, from what I have learned, Gaziantep is one key example of that. Working in cooperation with the state, they are managing that the state allows them to do things that were previously considered illegal. These process of decentralisation because of urban resilience is a key focus of my research today. We can even link decentralisation with democratization processes.

Your research agenda on urban migration governance has a specific focus on the Mediterranean region. In your recent works [6] in the Mediterranean context, you show how cities’ relationships with other cities, civil society organisations, and nongovernmental organisations create new regional domains, which you term as “regional cities.” Additionally, you actively participate in regional research networks, including the Euro-Mediterranean Research Network on Migration (EuroMedMig), and the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed).

Could you elaborate more on your work and research agenda regarding Mediterranean cities and migration?

This belongs to multi-scale or scale thinking. Of course, here, there are different efforts that I am trying to do in different research paths, but also within an effort to develop Mediterranean thinking in migration studies. Maybe it is a bit long to explain what I am doing there, but the basic idea, taking into account the city and the local turn, is to focus on the impact of these new patterns of the cities. We have mentioned three key patterns: autonomy building/sovereignty building, external affairs/diplomacy, and also relations with civil society, and mainly international ones. If we combine these three patterns in one region, which is the Mediterranean, then the Mediterranean becomes a laboratory of this local turn. In doing that, most of the cities, by being active, are not only becoming geopolitical actors in the Mediterranean, but contributing to thinking the Mediterranean differently, and this is the city-region nexus that concentrates also my attention. This is what I categorise as “regional cities,” the cities shaping by their actions, new spaces of region-building. The cities are becoming agents of Mediterranean region-building. It means that in adopting these new patterns, the cities in the Mediterranean are contributing first to decentralising the Mediterranean, which is monopolised by the states. That’s clear. The Mediterranean is also trapped by this methodological nationalism. Now we can think of the Mediterranean differently from the point of view of the cities.

Here I had the opportunity to enter into most of the literature on region-building, basically dominated by geographers and international relations. They are trying to understand “what are the strategies of region-building.” Of course, the Mediterranean as a region-building is quite exceptional because it is not continental. It puts in contact three continents, and this is unique. Some people even say that the Mediterranean is fake, that it doesn’t exist as a concept, it is just a geographical location. Of course, there are many historical and current patterns that say “no”. EuroMed is there as a policy framework, the first regional one of the European Union (EU), that helps to construct this geographical location in social and political, in cultural and economic terms. From this point of view, the EU creates, in one way or another, this region-building process in the Mediterranean, but from the state point of view. My idea is that we can connect two scales, that is, on the one hand, the cities, and on the other hand, Mediterranean region-building without the interference of the state; that’s unique. This is, in one way or another, what I am trying to articulate from a theoretical and conceptual point of view, but also providing evidence that we are moving towards that. This may have very serious consequences not only in terms of decentralising Mediterranean region-building, which has been the monopoly of the state, but also in new ways of thinking about the values of the Mediterranean. I don’t like to speak about identity building in the Mediterranean, because there are some difficulties, and I myself am reluctant to think in terms of Mediterranean identity building. I think the Mediterranean is much more about building values than identity, values of living together and sharing the same space of relations. How can we build a new identity based on that? But there are so many commonalities among different religions, cultures, ethnicities, etc. in terms of values that, from this point of view, the cities can contribute to this kind of thinking of the Mediterranean differently. Let’s put it like that.

Finally, I would like to conclude with your most recent research concerning urban memories and migration in the context of the Mediterranean.

Could you explain your interest in this topic? What potential research tracks do you think would shape a future agenda? Could you describe your study of collective memories of cities as another pathway to bridging migration and urban studies?

We enter here into “my kitchen” where I am collecting the different ingredients that I need, but I have not yet cooked. I am in the process of “cooking” at this moment, and the lecture that I will give this afternoon is part of this cooking process [7]. I will show you my menu, my meals on that, but basically, the idea will be to discuss the different ingredients I have before cooking. I cannot incorporate too many things, but what I can say is that this also belongs to my effort to connect different studies. Being myself from migration studies, I put in contact urban studies, I put in contact Mediterranean studies, I put in contact resilience studies, and now it is the turn of memory studies. Here, I am discovering many things, many interesting debates within memory studies, but also many gaps. I will try to fill these gaps, or at least to propose some ways of filling these gaps. What are the main gaps that memory studies and migration studies have not been in conversation about? There is not a debate about that. A three-party debate, I would say, between migration, memories, and urban. There is no debate. Of course, there are urban memories, but not urban migration memories, which means how cities incorporate migration and diversity within their own collective memory. This is not done. This is in part one of the main factors of problems that we have today because building memory is what the populist and xenophobic parties are doing very well. We need to build tools with alternative narratives of urban memories of migration, because this gap between narratives is what concentrates my concerns today.

We need to build an inclusive collective memory, incorporating migration and diversity. I would say not as an exception because exceptionality is constructed by others, but as the normal path of cities. If there is so much evidence that cities are built by migrants and that we can say that most of the city’s population are migrant populations, and if we consider this from a generational point of view and ask people, “Who and where did your grandfather or even your great-grandfather come from?” then in the end, we will discover that the city is a city of migrants, there are not national homogeneous cities. The problem is how we can incorporate these evidences within the urban collective memory. I think this is very important because collective memory is also a way to raise awareness. What we need is migration consciousness. This is what we need in society because we are in what I call the “ideological turn” today [8], where diversity is problematised. There is even what they call “mixophobia”. It is a phobia not against foreigners, but against diversity. There are some narratives that they call “toxic narratives” that create reluctance towards mixicity, or as the French say, “creolisation.” This is the basic idea, and my main effort to incorporate collective memory is precisely to try to make this kind of, I would say, urgent reflection that we need to do. Because the power of history or the power of imagined and invented history influences behaviours, racism, discrimination, and phobias against migrants and diversity. We cannot stay observing this without doing anything. This is my main motivation.

It sounds very interesting. Are you mainly interested in deconstructing dominant narratives on migration?

Completely, deconstructing state-dominant narratives. If this is one of the conclusions of what I have been saying from the beginning, I will say, yes, I accept this idea that the process of deconstruction and reconstruction is very important. This is the main issue. I prefer to say, instead of deconstructing, de-problematising, de-essentialising, which means that problematising are always political construction, ethnocentric I would even add, and from this point of view, we can think about the world differently. This is one of the important issues. Then I will perfectly accept as a summary that the process of de-problematising and de-construction, looking at alternative ways of thinking, belongs to my perspective and efforts, yes. I am very cosmopolitan, and cities can here contribute to this way of thinking.

[1] Zapata-Barrero, R., Caponio, T., & Scholten, P. (Eds.). (2017). Symposium on Theorizing ‘the local turn’ in the governance of immigrant policies: A multi-level approach [Special Issue]. International Review of Administrative Science, 83(2).

[2] Zapata-Barrero, R., Caponio, T., & Scholten, P. (2017). Theorizing the ‘local turn’ in a multi-level governance framework of analysis. International Review of Administrative Science, 83(2), 241-246. See also: Caponio, T., Scholten, P., & Zapata-Barrero, R. (Eds.). (2019). The Routledge handbook of the governance of migration and diversity in cities. Routledge.

[3] Zapata-Barrero, R. (2024). De-bordering policies at the city scale: Strategies for building resilience in Barcelona’s migration governance. Comparative Migration Studies, 12(2).

[4] Zapata-Barrero, R. (2023). Urban migration governance under the resilience lens: Conceptual and empirical insights. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 46(13), 2833-2862.

[5] World Bank. (2015). Investing in urban resilience: Protecting and promoting development in a changing world. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/ International Development Association. Retrieved from default/files/publication/Investing%20in%20Urban%20Resilience%20Final.pdf

[6] Zapata-Barrero, R. (2022). New scales of migration governance in the Mediterranean: Regional cities in the spotlight. European Urban and Regional Studies, 30(2), 121-134, and Zapata-Barrero, R. (2020). Rescaling Mediterranean migration governance: Setting a research agenda that establishes the centrality of cities for region making. EuroMedMig Working Paper Series, no. 3 (June): See also: Zapata-Barrero, R., & Awad, I. (Eds.). (2024). Migrations in the Mediterranean: IMISCOE Regional Reader. Springer Cham.

[7] Prof. Zapata-Barrero’s lecture “Cities, migration, memories in the context of the Mediterranean” will be available at the BROAD-ER website:

[8] Zapata-Barrero, R. (2023). Interculturalism and the ‘ideological turn’ of diversity politics. Journal of Intercultural Studies, DOI: 10.1080/07256868.2023.2293190.