What are invisible borders?

3 min readJun 14, 2024


What do we mean by invisible borders? They refer to the psychological, social, and cultural barriers that people face to participating in the community, with a particular focus on newcomers and identifyingpeople using unusual behaviours to break down those borders.

As globalisation breaks down geographic, cultural, and economic borders, it impacts our lives, creating new opportunities but also new insecurities.

Not knowing how to navigate a constantly redefined world, many people become tempted to re-create cultural and psychological borders to protect themselves from what they can’t control or understand.

Despite the opportunities that globalisation creates, only some have the capabilities to reshape borders and redraw the social and cultural maps of how we should live.

Even we, as citizens, can take our social codes for granted & find it difficult to perceive how they exclude others from public spaces.

These spaces are regulated by invisible codes that convey whom a particular space is for and what behaviour is allowed. But there are other codes we want to learn from that people use to break down these borders between practices & cultures.

How would you define “invisible borders”?

“All boundaries, whether national, global or street names on a road map, are socially constructed. They are as much the products of society as are other social relations that mark the landscape. They construct our sense of identity in the places we inhabit and organise our social space through geographies of power. Geographies of power are less easy to determine than physical marks. A street map can tell us where we are concerning other physical markers, but itcannot tell us how the people who operate in it classify street space.”(Karen Malone)

“Border is what separates and at the same time connects cultures. The less successful we are in keeping intact the borders we have drawn, the more obsessive we become in drawing them repeatedly…Because we have drawn the border, we activelyseek differences and become acutely aware of their presence. Differences are products of borders, of the activity of separation.” (Zygmunt Bauman)

What comes to mind when you think of “invisible borders.”

Socio-economic: the kind of neighbourhood, rich/poor, whether it/there is a community, activities, work/jobs, (school going) children, status, (dealing/interaction with) newcomers

Invisible borders between the opportunities to make a living in new ways and the reality of precarity. Invisible borders between communities and the corporate powers who asset strip our natural, digital and economic resources.

Cultural: language, religion, ethnicity (origin), segregation, history (of the neighbourhood, e.g. Jewish), tourism

There are invisible borders between those of us who take our social codes for granted and the newcomers to our cities who bring in and use other codes, like travellers, migrants, or even nomads and vagabonds.

Invisible borders between gangs. For them, geography symbolises power and threat — many young people are scaredof crossing into different postcodes.

All kinds of (not-so) subtle, invisible borders that hinder people from equal participation in social life or use of public spaces because of their gender, race, religion, class, and sexual identity: legal or practical exclusion of women wearing the hijab, unreflected gendered urbanism (for instance through a focus on sport dedicated outdoor areas, poorly lighten spaces at night, urban sprawl, the urban/suburban divide…), exclusion of public displays of affection in same-gender relationships, unequal participation to and representation in debates, discussions or generally public sphere based on gender/race/religion/sexual identity, discrimination while hiring, glass ceilings, between younger and older people where one group might be scared of the other

Psychological: ‘Everything’ is :) Asking questions/help from others, segregation, fear of entering somewhere/places, shame or fear of speaking up/saying anything, security (crime?)

Physical: handicaps, walls (literally), fences, water, busy roads/streets, on the borders of neighbourhoods (and e.g. street names that symbolise areas), proximity to public transport/cars/bikes/supermarket/shops/square, presence of community centre, shopping mall, parks, restaurants/cafés, market, sports club, the architecture in the neighbourhood, the condition of buildings etc., the way the municipality (city council?) deals with the area.

Invisible borders when and where international borders are re-established in other places but concern only specific populations.

Invisible borders are where some people’s mobility is encouraged and sponsored while others are monitored and restricted.




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese