“Places change and so do we” – how intergroup encounter can help create empathy

by Anna Faustmann and Albert Kraler

Danube University Krems

Guided city walks can be a tool to foster emotional connections to places and facilitate intergroup encounters, encouraging empathy among community members. Whole-COMM organized four city tours during the Spring of 2023, namely in Dessau (Germany), Trelleborg (Sweden), Cuneo (Italy), and St. Pölten (Austria). In this blog, Anna Faustmann and Albert Kraler share their insights from the St. Pölten experience, a town characterized by significant immigration, particularly driven by guest-worker migration from Turkey and Tunisia. The city walk in St. Pölten explored the entangled histories of the city and the Glanzstoff Austria factory, highlighting the impact of labor migration. The city tour was also a way to experience how spatial development plays a crucial role in social integration and the establishment of a sense of belonging among residents.

Experiences from the guided city walk in St. Pölten, Austria

Guided city walks: encounter as a starting point for more (positive) intergroup interactions

Guided city walks have become an increasingly important tool both for learning and engaging with citizens and other stakeholders and thus as a space for social learning, awareness raising and participation. Originally mainly used for touristic purposes, city walks thus constitute a method of “stakeholder involvement in which participants, usually local citizens, are guided through a walk in the site with experts explaining their ideas and collecting remarks from the participants” as a  recent paper argues. As the Manifesto of Migrantours, an initiative launched in 2009 and promoting intercultural tours in 20 cities across six European countries writes, city walks foster an emotional engagement with places, making sense of concrete places and placemaking while engendering connections between  tour participants by providing a powerful immersive experience. 

With this potential of city-walks in mind, Whole-COMM has hosted guided city walks throughout spring 2023 in four selected localities with the active engagement of local stakeholders. In the city walks, migration has been framed in the broader context of socio-economic change. The walks were designed to enable intergroup encounter, engage community members in discussion, and, eventually, create more empathy between community members. Following the example of Migrantour, personal stories were used as tool for creating meaningful bonds between people. 

Whole-COMM city walks have been organized in small towns in the four countries that have received the highest number of post-2014 migrants, namely in Dessau (Germany), Trelleborg (Sweden), Cuneo (Italy), and St. Pölten (Austria), with the smallest town (Trelleborg) having around 30,000 and the largest (Dessau) some 80,000 inhabitants. 

St. Pölten: a city characterized by economic and social change

In Austria, we decided to organize the city walk in St. Pölten, the provincial capital of Lower Austria with almost 56,000 inhabitants (2021) and a long tradition as an industrial and working-class town. St. Pölten has seen considerable immigration in the past two decades, with the share of foreign residents increasing from about 10% to approximately 18.5% in 2021, which is slightly above the national average of 17.1%. Recent migration dynamics have also ended a long period of demographic stagnation between the early 1970s and the early 2000s and has contributed to modest increase of the city’s population since.   

Post-War migration dynamics in St. Pölten have been largely shaped by guest-worker migration, which in turn was to a significant degree driven by one major industrial company, Glanzstoff Austria. Established in 1906, Glanzstoff Austria was one of the world’s largest viscose fiber producer before it closed down in 2008.  

The walk was organised in cooperation with the local civil society initiative “Diversity Café”, a meeting place for interpersonal exchange between different groups of migrants and natives established in 2016 and implementing various activities such as language courses. Altogether, 25 persons with different backgrounds – refugees who have arrived after 2014, former guest-workers and natives – participated in the city walk.

The entangled history of Glanzstoff Austria and St. Pölten

The city walk provided a vivid experience of the entangled histories of the city of St. Pölten and the Glanzstoff Austria factory. During the 1960s and 1970s, Glanzstoff Austria recruited guest-workers especially from Turkey (the majority) and Tunisia, which historically has been the first country with which a recruitment agreement has been forged but which, compared to the agreements with Turkey and Yugoslavia, had brought very few migrants to Austria. Glanzstoff previously already had employed migrants from Czechoslovakia who have already been living in St. Pölten at that time, highlighting the longstanding influence of labour migration on the history of St. Pölten.

The walk led through the areas where guest-workers have been accommodated, at least initially. Newly-arrived guest-workers tended to live under the worst housing conditions in the area close to the Glanzstoff factory.

Some of the refugees who arrived after 2014 were also accommodated  in this area, thus characterising the area as an arrival area. While refugees found accommodation in these specific areas, they were never accommodated in collective accommodation, which also helped to defuse opposition to their arrival, while facilitating their integration.    

When Glanzstoff Austria closed down its production in 2008 shortly after a major fire had forced an initially temporary closure many former guest-workers from Turkey and Tunisia, who had worked at Glanzstoff Austria already for decades, found work in other industries, notably at the City of St. Pölten and at the hospital. One of the tourguides noted the difficulty of re-skilling and reorientation of staff of Turkish origin, who were hampered by poor language skills, related to the way shifts had been organised at Glanzstoff (shifts of co-nationals/co-ethnics, with the foreman being the main interlocutor for superiors). Turkish work bands were also separated by ethnicity (Kurds vs. ethnic Turks), further promoting monolingualism in migrants home language and at the workplace. This was not the case, according to participants, in the case of Tunisians who were fewer (about 60-70 workers at Glanzstoff) and partly were also skilled workers.  While the factory has closed down, most of the buildings are still there, some of which have seen new uses. For example, the former family residence of the owner of the factory in its initial period which hosted the factory kindergarten from the 1950s until the factory’s closure is now used as mosque, attended, amongst others, by former factory workers.    

Postindustrial transformations

Concurrently with the decline of Glanzstoff – the company had experienced difficulties since the 1980s – the city has undergone a major postindustrial transformation partly linked to the re-location of the provincial government from Vienna to St. Pölten in the mid-1990s. This went along with the major investments into the physical, economic and social infrastructure of the city. Thus, a whole new quarter with buildings for the provincial government was created, faster train connections along the main line connecting Vienna to the West of Austria were established, St.Pölten’s main  station and the surrounding area  redeveloped, and other major investments into the cultural and educational sector made, including the creation of a city campus for the newly created University of Applied Sciences.  Longstanding residents of St.Pölten participating in the tour exemplified some of these changes, explaining for example the transformation of the provincial hospital from a poorly equipped and resourced city hospital with many of its departments housed in barracks to a modern centre for state-of-the-art medical treatment, or how the redirection of a road away from the station transformed it to a place to be rather to just pass through, all of which changed the face and the experience of the city. 

Spaces for encounter as driver for integration – important role of spatial development

The city walk has provided a direct experience of the changing uses and meaning  of places in St. Pölten’s recent history. Tracing this, it also became clear that social change in general and change of social positions at the individual level is closely connected to spatial development. This, furthermore, shows the importance of infrastructural aspects for integration and inclusion.

A sense of belonging results mainly from the possibility to establish social relations and contacts. Opportunities, including spaces, for encounter are decisive for social integration, which is perceived as main driver for developing a sense of belonging. Furthermore, it is also decisive to foster establishment of relationships between people (newly-arrived migrants, long-term residents, natives), which needs to be supported by the engagement and commitment of individuals and civil society organizations.

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