Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On arrival cities

Tonight, I was lucky enough to see Canadian journalist Doug Saunders present his new book Arrival City here in Toronto. This book, examining the global phenomenon of rural-to-urban migration--in low-, middle-, and high-income countries, within countries and between countries--makes the case, as summarized by Mark Kingwell in his recent review, that rural-to-urban migration is a very good thing for human beings.

In the terms of economics, cities are full of externalities – spillovers to market transactions. I might hate the noise created by the cafés and bars on the busy street near my house, but I welcome the romantic opportunities created by the very same nightspots.

Both positive and negative externalities are everywhere in urban life, and that’s one clear reason humans have been, for centuries now, progressively abandoning other ways of life and migrating to large, sometimes very large, conurbations.

Another reason, as Doug Saunders argues in this timely contribution to the discourse on global cities, is the simple desire of parents to offer their children a better time than they had.

Indeed, Saunders argues the cultivation of what he calls arrival cities--places where immigrants can find niches, residential, occupational, and otherwise, with as few restraints on all kinds of mobility as possible--is key. What is the arrival city?

The arrival city can be distinguished readily from other urban neighbourhoods, not only by its rural-immigrant population, improvised appearance and ever-changing nature, but also by the constant linkages it makes, in two directions, from every street, house and workplace.

It is linked in a lasting, intensive way to its far-off, originating villages, constantly sending people, money and knowledge back and forth. It finances improvements in the village, the care of older generations and the education of younger ones, while also making possible the next wave of migrations.

It is also deeply engaged with the nearby, established city. Its political institutions, business relationships, social networks and transactions are all footholds intended to give new village arrivals a purchase, however fragile, on the larger society.

The arrival city gives them a place to push themselves and their children further into the centre, into acceptability and connectedness.

The ex-villager enclave located on the periphery of our vision and beyond the tourist maps has become the setting of the world's next chapter – driven by exertion and promise, battered by violence and death, strangled by neglect and misunderstanding.

The first chapter is excerpted here; you'll have to buy the book for more. The concept of the arrival city does strike me as a very strong one. My own biography has connections of a sort to the concept of the arrival city: my parents left easternmost Prince Edward Island for the provincial capital of Charlottetown, where they enjoyed far more educational and occupational and other opportunities that their would have in their home district, settling in a suburb on the fringes of the city. That was an example of a well-regulated arrival city in a high-income countries; a century ago in Toronto, up to one-third of the housing stock was built pell-mell, shantytowns mostly on the fringes of the city. And in the metropoli of the world--Paris, Sao Paulo, Tehran, Mumbai--the same phenomenon that hit Toronto a century ago is being repeated now.

Saunders' key element for successful arrival cities lies in their openness, in their ability to let immigrants join the labour market, find homes and neighbourhoods where they can build useful social networks, assimilate however they do into the host culture, and do so with as little hindrances as possible. China's hukou system, which limits the possibility of rural migrants' settling in cities, is an example of what not to do (although the forced savings of isolated workers plays the useful role of providing the Chinese government with the money necessary to prop up state-own ed enterprises); Turkey and Brazil, which have regularized slums and are now actively trying to support the creation of civil society there, are doing much better. Even in the developed world, there are huge contrasts between a Germany that has let its Turkish population remain culturally and socially isolated, a France that has absorbed its immigrants culturally but left them on the edges of the economy and society, a Spain that had the luxury of planning the integration of its immigrants, and a Canada that was very very lucky.

I'm going on at length, I know. Suffice it to say that Arrival City is easily one of the more important books on migration recently published, and that this blog's readers would do well to pick up a copy for themselves.


Colin Reid said...

Another reason to favour rural-to-urban migration is the environment: per person, densely-populated cities are by far the least polluting form of habitation (assuming comparable income levels and so on): there are substantial resource savings on transport and heating, among other things, and the simple fact of concentrating people in a small corner of land means that larger stretches of wilderness can be preserved elsewhere. The previous UK government started building 'eco-towns', each of about 10 000 people. No matter how 'sustainably' they're designed, I'd be very surprised if towns of that size ever achieved a carbon footprint per capita below that of London.

Scott said...

Cities that receive many migrants from rural or poorer areas need to make sure that land use and zoning regulations allow for construction of inexpensive housing. That way the migrants could have decent housing built to some standard, instead of thrown together shacks squatting on the private property of third parties.