Social integration of young migrants in urban contexts through cultural place-making.

Art of Belonging



The aim of the Art of Belonging project was to understand how to lessen the impact of social isolation experienced by young forced migrants who have newly arrived in cities in different European contexts. It brought together city leaders, artists, and researchers from two European cities: Nottingham in the UK and Lund in Sweden. Their interest was in understanding how to enable young refugees and migrants to build connections with their new place such that they could go on to lead lives of meaningful engagement in their city.

Working with arts and cultural organizations within these urban spaces is a proven way of integrating disenfranchised groups. While forced migrants are unable to bring physical artefacts from their past with them, they can carry memories and associations of arts and cultural practices. Socially inclusive city arts and cultural institutions can powerfully utilize these. They are also therapeutic and social spaces where past trauma can be safely explored. Art provides a connection to place, but also provides opportunities for social connections that enable the formation of a sense of community in a place. In so doing, participation in arts and cultural activities which acknowledge and build on the experiences and skills of the new arrivals acknowledges that through the arts, integration can become a two-way process between the incomer and the host community.

Research Question

How can place-specific arts and cultural initiatives help young refugees to develop a sense of belonging, and increase participation in the civic, social and cultural life of their new cities?

Research Approach

This concern relates to identity formation, but is also coupled with the development of skills, social connections and cultural capital that young people are able to mobilise as they become cultural citizens in their new cities.

A central feature of the project design was the concept of the Cultural Rucksack, a programme for arts and culture for young people (Christophersen et al 2015) in which participants are invited to visit and participate in a variety of activities and metaphorically ‘fill’ the rucksack with place-significant cultural experiences. The AoB project extended the conceptual understanding and application of the Cultural Rucksack to support the integration of young forced migrants within their new urban spaces and create opportunities for dialogue with local residents. The aim being reciprocal change for the young person, the community and the arts and cultural institutional base of the city. Arts practitioners made use of multiple arts and cultural forms to engage participants over a 10 week period alongside visits to culturally significant places within the city. This included arts spaces and places that become meaningful because of their popularity for residents who have grown up in the area.

Project Aims

The goals of the research were to facilitate integration through cultural participation by:

  • deepening understanding of the role of arts and cultural place-making in fostering social belonging for new arrivals
  • establishing a set of principles for city municipalities to draw upon when working with arts and cultural institutions in programmes intended to foster social belonging and connectedness
  • extending the concept of the Cultural Rucksack as a mechanism for framing social and cultural engagement for new arrivals in urban spaces and generating affordances that recognize their capabilities and aspirations
  • developing virtual exhibition spaces to enact the digital right to the city across cities
  • exploring comparatively what ideas can or cannot be transferred across contexts
  • portfolios that enable migrants to articulate their aspirations and demonstrate their capability to enhance future work/learning and citizenship
  • connecting problem holders, local actors and researchers within and across urban localities
  • establishing infrastructure that enables sustainable on-going knowledge sharing across the three cities and beyond to other urban migration destinations in Europe.

It was based on the premise that participation in the arts can enhance place-making and encourage social belonging.

The Nottingham strand of the project culminated in The Art of Belonging exhibition at the New Art Exchange gallery in Nottingham. The Lund strand of the project culminated in The Art of Belonging exhibition at the museum Kulturen. The young participants, many of them unaccompanied children, worked with artists and the city’s cultural venues to consider what it is to ‘belong’ in their new city.

Research Findings

Findings speak to issues of integration, representation of youth, and the role arts and culture can play in individual and collective mental wellbeing.
The research discovered a distinctive signature pedagogy underpinning the ways in which artists work successfully with young new arrivals who face considerable challenges as they try to learn to adapt to life in their new context. It also revealed that much of the existing support for new arrivals in our cities is dependent upon a network of often unseen and unrecognised connections within our communities.

Members of the public were overwhelmingly positive about the potential attributes and contributions of young new arrivals when they were given the opportunity to meet and engage with them in their visits to cultural venues in the city and in the final public exhibitions.

In conclusion, the cost-effective programme reduced social isolation, increased positive mental health, and broke down barriers between new arrivals and their host communities.

Art of Belonging