Experiencing a host city for the first time

Moving to a new city can be a life-changing experience. In some cases, it could be compared with how brown bears must feel at the beach or colorful amazonic parrots in the Sahara Desert. We humans face enormous challenges when finding ourselves living in a different city than the one we were born or settled for a long time. Tips and advice for all brave individuals experiencing it can be as multi-faceted as the reasons why people move to a different city. Let’s construct two hypotheses that influence the experience of moving to a new city:

  • Firstly, moving to a new city is better when it is the consequence of a voluntary decision for a change in personal life or as a family decision. In comparison, moving to another city as a last resource due to an insecure or non-viable situation that pushes people to abandon their home cities and frequently their countries, entails a completely different set of “arrival experiences”.
  • Secondly, the experience is presumably better when there is a clear plan on how one will spend his/her time productively, studying or working for example, than when there is not certain plan on how life will look like in the new place.

Many scholars and policy-makers have conceptualized groups of cities such as “destination cities” or “host cities”, “arrival cities”, “refugee cities” or “sanctuary cities” due to the large migration they received or are receiving presently. But in general terms, any city can be a destination or a welcoming city. The way its administrations, businesses and residents act as hosts can make the way a new-comer experiences a city for the first time either a nightmare or an enriching and inspiring experience.

Are you a longtime resident of your city? Do you consider yourself a local or a fully adapted and integrated long-term migrant? Or do you perceive yourself, on the other hand, as temporary or permanent “guest” in a new city? Regardless of your answer, you might possibly be interested in the following  examples which we use to reflect on the framework in host cities and to understand the challenges newcomers likely face in any city.

Arrival City: “Cedrizuela” – The case of Bogota, Colombia

A group of Venezuelans, in Cedritos, Bogota/ Source: El Tiempo: https://www.eltiempo.com/bogota/barrio-de-bogota-donde-estan-migrantes-venezolanos-72840

Unlike other South American countries, Colombian cities did not receive large migration waves from Western European countries (as occurred in Chile, Argentina and Brazil), Middle Eastern countries (as occurred in Brazil or Venezuela) or Asian countries (as occurred in Peru). However, Bogota – the capital of Colombia – has been for decades been the main host city for internally displaced population from the rural areas, escaping the long-lasting armed conflict with the FARC guerilla and paramilitary groups. Then, since 2014, it has become the new home of 442,362[1] Venezuelans, Colombia’s neighbor with which it shares the longest border.

It is not the focus of this blog post to examine the complicated political, economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Although, being very complex, the origin of the Venezuelan refugee situation is crisis caused by years of political control of an autocratic regime. For Bogota, the role as arrival city for international newcomers is new.

An interesting phenomenon in Bogota – experienced similarly by many other cities in the world – is the concentration of a large number of Venezuelan migrants in specific  neighborhoods and transforming it in various ways. One example is the change of the commerce in neighborhoods such as “Cedritos”. “Cedritos” is a traditional middle-income neighborhood in north Bogota that has recently been informally acquired the name “Cedrizuela” (a mix of the original name and “Venezuela”). The new neighbors had arrived, and with them, more and more traditional Venezuelan restaurants and products can be found. Similar experiences that resulted in widely known nicknames are “Chinatown” in central London or “Little Italy” in New York City.

“Chinatown” in central London / Source: Wikimedia Commons

These “hubs” become a chance for newcomers to feel welcomed in a new city. Likewise, they are a chance to stimulate the local economy. The new commerce establishments can become meeting points not only for migrants exclusively, but more so encourage interaction with the local population, who can enjoy the new culinary and cultural offer. There is, however, also a different side of this phenomena: the potential resistance from locals and an iso

Cedritos in Bogota/ Source: Wikimedia Commons

lation of the newcomers in a “bubble” that instead of allowing the new spaces of integration and exchange becomes the single enclave for newcomers who prefer not to experience the rest of the city or enjoy the ease of familiarity and comfort.

The challenge for Bogota’s administration, its citizens, its private sector (especially the commerce) and, of course, the new Venezuelan residents, is to approach these changes as a chance to find more commonalities among locals and newcomers, to create new – joint – experiences, to recognize and enhance the common interests, and to give less importance to the differences. Most new shops owned or operated by Venezuelans in Cedritos are food services. Food has proved to be a low-barrier and “easy-to-reach” way to unite inhabitants and win over each other’s hearts.   Could food do it again?


Arrival City: The case of Leipzig, Germany

Wave-Gothic treffen/ Source: Wikimedia Commons

Leipzig has an astonishing history, from being an important medieval trade city to become an often cited example of a shrinking city facing the challenges of a declining population. After stabilization in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the city has witnessed constantly growing population figures since 2010, placing it among the fast growing cities in Germany in recent years. During this last decades, Leipzig has welcomed new residents. Most of them were Germans from other parts of the country, of course. An increasing number, however, are international newcomers from a plethora of countries – most of them from within the European Union. 

There are plenty of reasons why people decide to move to Leipzig. Some might move for their academic education, others might move here for a new job. Some might even enjoy the quality of life and amenities such as inner-city green areas or the 14 lakes that surround the city. Being more affordable than other large European cities, and boasting cultural events, such as the Buchmesse or the Wave – Gothic Treffen, it is interesting to reflect on the cultural offer the city has for its international residents. Is the German language a barrier to enjoying the events? What about the means of transportation to the venues and around the city?


Buchmesse, Leipzig /Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cultural events have the potential to raise interest in different types of individuals. The challenge of Leipzig as a host city for internationals goes further than offering language courses and work opportunities, it also encompassed the offer of activities and events for people’s free time.

There are interesting initiatives just as Leipzig Glocal, that focus on targeted information for internationals residing in Leipzig. The platform also organizes events such as Job Fairs and publishes all sorts of cultural events. There are other institutions such as Werk 2, that can be of interest to newcomers. It is possible to find concerts of international artists, an offer of workshops and clubs. However, most of the information is in German; thus, making the access more challenging for the non-German public. Luckily, the variety of events covers different languages. Last year’s exhibition in Halle 14, called “Forgotten Enlightenments” in the Spinnerei mapped the significance of the Islamic Heritage and tackled populism and nationalism threatening diversity[2]. With an artistic perspective, the exhibition allowed newcomers also recognize the importance the local society gives to not accepting hate speech or xenophobic remarks without creating spaces for debate and counter arguments.

A low level of German language knowledge can make life a little harder for guests and newly arriving residents. A challenge most people will face is using the public transport system. However, improvements have been made: the ticket machines can be used in different languages and at some inner-city tram stations, information is also given in English. Nevertheless, the length of the names of some stations requires abbreviations in some cases, making it a little harder for non-German speakers to find their way. An efficient, affordable and friendly alternative to public transport is the bicycle. The multiple green areas of Leipzig can be easily accessed by bike, offering plenty of outdoor experiences.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now, what can a city administration and the society do to improve the experience of newcomers? And what can newcomers do to improve their own experience?  Out of these two very different cases, Bogota and Leipzig, I will try to conclude some ideas.  As the case of Bogota shows, familiarity is an asset. Giving chances and promoting businesses offering products and especially food from other places has proven to not only to help migrants to lessen home sickness, but to proudly show and share their traditions and to find spaces to meet the locals. These can be enhanced by the positive impact in the neighborhood economy that the opening of new businesses can bring.

The case of Leipzig provides an additional approach through its rich cultural offer. The experience of a city goes way beyond understanding the language, finding a job or a school. It happens also in people’s free time. Offering cultural activities that can raise interests in different cultures, topics and languages can highlight the face of the city that is open to diversity, debate and a high quality of life.

As for the  newcomers wanting to  improve their own experiences, these cases show that with some openness, entrepreneurial spirit, and disposition for spending the free time engaging in the variety of activities cities offer, can be a good addition to the much needed language learning and job finding steps.


Author: Diana Maria Ramirez Daza


[1] https://www.eltiempo.com/colombia/otras-ciudades/la-inmigracion-de-venezolanos-a-colombia-en-cifras-73006

[2] Based on the description of the art exhibition, published at: http://www.halle14.org/aktuelle-ausstellungen/ausstellungsarchiv/archiv/forgotten-enlightenments-en.html