Urban Magnets

Book review of Arrival City by Doug Saunders

Wall Street Journal
March 19, 2011

by Melanie Kirkpatrick

Somewhere in the not-so-distant past of most Americans is an ancestor who made the journey from village to city. He might have been a sharecropper who left Alabama for Chicago. Or a potato farmer who dropped his hoe in County Clare and headed to Boston. Or a peasant from the Pale of Settlement or the Guangdong River Delta who arrived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side or in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Fast forward a generation to these migrants’ descendants, who were almost always better off than their country cousins. Life wasn’t easy in the city for the original rural migrant, who often lived in squalid quarters in the city, toiled long hours and was separated from his family for years before he could afford to have them join him. But in most cases he was able to climb the economic ladder and provide a better life for his children and his children’s children.

Today this pattern is being replicated world-wide in what Doug Saunders, in “Arrival City,” calls the greatest migration the world has ever known. In the 21st century, two or three billion people will make the shift from rural, agricultural life into cities, he says. If managed correctly, this massive movement of people will be for Africans, Asians and South Americans what it was for past generations of Europeans and North Americans: a shift from poverty to prosperity. If not, it could create the breeding ground for economic marginalization, political discontent and even violent revolt.

Like the men and women who migrated to the great European and North American cities in the 19th century, migrants today head for the “arrival cities” of Mr. Saunders’s title. These are the urban enclaves usually on the outskirts of cities—slums, barrios, shantytowns in popular parlance—where newcomers get their start. In this book he visits more than 20 such urban spaces on five continents and describes what works, and what doesn’t.

These urban enclaves are not mere locations, Mr. Saunders argues. It is more accurate to define the arrival city by its functions. It is home to tight social networks, usually of people from the same geographic region, that provide essential services such as cheap housing and assistance in finding entry-level jobs. A well-functioning arrival city connects new arrivals to the villages they left behind, providing ways for them to send money back home and to line up jobs for villagers who follow them to the cities in what is known as chain migration. The arrival city also supports mechanisms that allow the migrant to save, buy a house, start a small business, or get an education. And it provides a “social-mobility path” into the middle class or the upper reaches of the working class.

That said, the arrival city’s success also depends heavily on the proper arrangement of the physical space, according to Mr. Saunders. Just as the most dynamic parts of Manhattan, London and Paris are high-density, mixed-use districts, so too the most successful arrival cities are those where residents are able to live, work and relax in close proximity. Slotervaart, a district outside Amsterdam that today is home to many Moroccans and Turks, was transformed in the mid-1990s and 2000s, when the strict zoning laws were lifted, allowing shops and factories to exist side by side with residences. Slotervaart had been designed in the 1960s, when urban planners favored distinct working, living and relaxation areas. The migrants felt isolated and trapped.

Property rights is another essential ingredient. The violent squatter communities on the outskirts of Istanbul were revolutionized in the 1980s by the late Turkish president Turgut Özal, who introduced a law that gave squatters formal ownership of their makeshift houses and title deeds to the land under them. Almost literally overnight, millions of Turkish citizens became property owners with a stake in the economy.

Ozal recognized that this new private property would be used as seed capital, Mr. Saunders notes, allowing poor peasants to start small businesses, build up savings and earn rental incomes. In giving squatters property rights, Ozal both created the beginnings of a new Turkish middle class and defused the political threat of the rootless people who populate the country’s arrival cities. In contrast, the banlieus of France and the Turkish ghettoes of Germany are often pathways to failure, where migrants can’t fully participate in their new countries as citizens and are prevented by local laws from forming businesses.

Arrival cities can’t succeed without the help of government, Mr. Saunders says, not so surprisingly. What’s surprising is his hierarchy of essential government services. At the top of his list are buses. Affordable and regular bus service from the arrival city on the outskirts of town to the metropolitan center can make the difference between a “thriving enclave and a destitute ghetto,” he writes. Next on his list is street lighting, which provides security and increases property values. (It also has the advantage of being cheap.) Sewage, garbage collection and paved roads are all important, for obvious reasons. Electricity and running water are way down on his list since residents typically have already arranged for their own utilities on the gray or black markets.

In North America and Australia, the arrival city has been suburbanized, and in the U.S. more immigrants now live in the suburbs than in the central cities. Call it the “cousin syndrome,” as one U.S. official did. A Central American or Mexican immigrant finds a job in construction, landscaping or the service industry in an affordable suburb and sends word to his relatives back home, who soon follow.

“Arrival City” is a pastiche of personal narratives, academic research and social commentary. It is well organized and readable, but the wealth of material is sometimes overwhelming. Mr. Saunders, the European bureau chief for the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper, has traveled the world and emptied his notebooks into this work.

The tales he recounts of individuals who are struggling to succeed in the expanding metropolises of Mumbai, Sao Paulo, Chongqing and elsewhere will resonate with stories that have been passed down through our own families. Life in the arrival city can be fragile, precarious and lonely. It can also be liberating, empowering and the path to economic success and personal fulfillment. “Arrival City” presents an optimistic and humane view of global urbanization. Let’s hope urban planners and politicians pay attention.

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