Exploring Large Human Migrations In 'Arrival City'

Originally published on July 14, 2011 8:57 pm

You've probably heard the statistics: Over the next two decades, the number of city-dwellers in Africa and Asia is expected to double. Rural populations will drop, and as people abandon the countryside, average birth rates and family size will fall accordingly. By 2050, the U.N. projects, the global population will peak at 9 billion, and that same year, more than 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities.

Ours is an age of urbanization, but unlike previous booms, this one is unique: We're currently living through the largest rural-to-urban migration that the world has ever known, or for that matter, is likely to see.

In Planet of Slums, Mike Davis tells this story as one of decline. "Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven," he writes with Dickensian ardor, "much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay."

When popular culture pays attention to peripheries, it's Davis' vision we usually see. In the public imagination, so-called slums are war zones of ethnic and class tension, breeding grounds for poverty and violence, and antithetical to upward mobility found further downtown. They're places to be avoided, or at least driven through with locked doors.

This somewhat monolithic interpretation is the target of Arrival City, Doug Saunders' excellent account of how urban immigrant centers function in increasingly subtle ways, and how governments succeed and fail in managing them.

Saunders, the European bureau chief for Canada's Globe and Mail, coined the term "arrival city" in response to what he felt was a semantic lack. He believed the existing phrases — "immigrant gateway" and the clumsier "community of primary settlement" — underplayed these areas' dynamism, and misrepresented them as "cancerous growths on an otherwise healthy city."

Saunders begins Arrival City by making the very reasonable point that "nobody invests their entire life, and a generation's income and peace, simply to move from one form of poverty to another." Arrival cities are not uniformly traps, and their residents aren't the dregs of outside societies, but "successful urbanites who happen to be passing through a period of poverty, perhaps for a generation."

However, Saunders says, good transitions depend on good cities. In thriving arrival cities, immigrants often catch up economically and socially with natives in less than a decade; in failed ones, torched cars and extremist politics reflect — and create — grim expectations.

Through his travels across four continents and dozens of cities, Saunders identifies certain elements as key to arrival cities' success. On a structural level, these include access to citizenship and land ownership, welfare services and employment assistance. If immigrants can buy land, whether or not they can leverage its value — i.e., gentrify their neighborhoods — plays a significant role in urban inclusion. Rio de Janeiro's Santa Marta favela has prospered under this rubric, as have Salvadoran corridors of Los Angeles. Other arrival cities — like Shenzhen in China and Emamzadeh 'Isa in Tehran — have not.

Finally, urban networks and city design also matter — Slotervaart, a bedroom community on the outskirts of Amsterdam, built up its downtown after its alienating layout began to facilitate cultural conservatism, and eventually produced filmmaker Theo Van Gogh's assassin.

Successful arrival cities often end up folded into the host city, but when they don't, Saunders notes, a paradox emerges: The more upwardly mobile the residents, the sooner they leave. As a result, the most efficient arrival cities often have the highest rates of poverty and seem to be doing the worst.

The flip side of this story is set in the countryside. In the Bangladeshi town of Biswanth, visitors who make it past rice paddies and tin roof huts encounter an apparent mirage of Western capitalism: an urbanized downtown with malls and real-estate agencies, Anglophone fast-food joints, and beyond this, elaborate 'Londoni' mansions paid for by Bangladeshi emigrants. This is remittance money at work — U.K. pounds propping up the economy in the absence of effective government.

Bridging the global synapse, Saunders travels to the Tower Hamlets neighborhood of East London, where 90 percent of all Bangladeshi immigrants (and there are 300,000 of them) hail from Biswanth's home district of Sylhet. "Nations do not migrate, but rather regions and villages do," Saunders writes, noting that Tower Hamlets is responsible for sending the largest percentage of the $11 billion that ends up in rural Bangladesh every year.

Just as there's no single model for arrival cities, rural areas tend to live or die based on relationships with urban counterparts. Urging readers to abandon romantic notions of peasant living, Saunders travels to a village in China where grandparents raise their children's children as adults seek factory work; and later, to a village in India that is literally for sale. These are models of 21st century life outside of arrival cities, and as rural populations shrink, they're ones that will become increasing rare.

Whether good or bad, it's simply inevitable. Arrival City asks that we take a closer look at urbanization before its mismanagement is further mistaken for the thing itself, and to recognize that a citified future is not necessarily a doomed one.

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