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The University of Southampton
Geography and Environmental Science

Southampton geographer reveals the benefits of immigrant diversity in cities

Published: 1 October 2015

A greater mix of immigrants is raising pay for workers, according to new research led by an academic from Geography and Environment at the University of Southampton.

Thomas Kemeny, a Lecturer in Human Geography, worked with colleague Abigail Cooke, Assistant Professor at the University of Buffalo in New York, to explore how changes in the quantity and mix of immigrants in US cities and workplaces related to changes in the wages workers earn.

Their research, funded by the US National Science Foundation, revealed that urban workers’ pay increases in response to growth in the likelihood that they will encounter people born in a wide range of countries, both on their city streets, and in their workplaces.

Tom explains: “Having a diverse group of immigrants in one’s midst offers the average worker tangible economic benefits. Many city residents enjoy the consumption benefits that come along with diversity such as good choices of where to eat out and a breadth of other cultural amenities.

“But we are far less aware of how immigrant diversity can affect our bottom line. Our research builds on the idea that diversity represents a vital asset that opens up new possibilities, better solutions and innovations.

“After accounting for a very wide range of tangible and intangible factors that shape productivity, immigrant diversity exerts an independent positive effect. These kinds of benefits have already been shown in relation to education: we all perform better when surrounded by better-educated peers. Our research shows that these benefits also emerge from being surrounded by workers from a diverse mix of birthplaces.

“Immigration is a perennial hot-button issue and often has a profound impact on national and local politics in managing or confronting the perceived negative impacts of immigrations. Our work represents one way to reframe the immigration issue as a win-win for natives and immigrants alike.”

Tom recently joined the University of Southampton as part of significant investment in the Human Geography team. He was previously a Senior Fellow in Economic Geography at the London School of Economics, as well as a Research Assistant Professor in Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

He said: “My research focuses on what makes some cities prosper and others languish and I am enjoying being at Southampton and working in a dynamic and diverse Geography department.”

Tom’s research has been published in geography, economics, and urban planning journals, and in the media. He has also advised governments and non-governmental organisations on issues of regional and international development, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the US Economic Development Administration, and the World Bank. He has recently published a book The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies that aims to solve the mystery about why San Francisco has so strongly outperformed Los Angeles in terms of economic development.

More detail on Tom’s immigration research can be found here

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