Sunday, March 04, 2012

Book #2: Arrival City

Arrival City is a book written by Doug Saunders, a writer for the Globe and Mail, by far the best newspaper in Canada. From what I knew about the book before I bought it, I imagined it to be a rather standard look into how cities around the world, particularly the developing world, are growing at a tremendous rate.

However, it turned out to be a very well-researched and written book about development, immigration, economics and cities. Calling it the best book about cities since Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, as one review on the cover did, might be too much, but the book is certainly very insightful. As such, it is well worth the $15-18 it might cost you.

First, when Saunders uses the term 'arrival city', he is referring to a city or a neighbourhood within a city that is used by migrants to launch their lives in that city. The prototypical example would be the immigrant-heavy neighbourhoods of cities in northeastern North America from a century ago, but more salient examples today might be the Chinese cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, where migrants from rural China come to gain a foothold in the city.

The characteristics of a successful arrival city are somewhat counter-intuitive. It is okay, Saunders writes, that an immigrant-heavy neighbourhood is poor, because it is likely that it is a revolving door, with immigrants who have established themselves moving out to other neighbourhoods, to be replaced by new migrants. A classic example might be the Toronto suburb of Malton, where I'm from. I regularly meet people who used to live there, or know someone who used to live there, but now live elsewhere, which is usually a more prosperous second-ring suburb. Malton continues to struggle, but as long as people don't live there permanently, it is fulfilling its function as an arrival city.

In many ways, though, Saunders would consider Malton to be a failure. The downtown immigrant slums of a century ago worked better as arrival cities because their density allowed for greater business and the development of networks and communities that led to establishment and success within mainstream Canadian society. Malton, by contrast, is more like the Parisian suburb of Les Pyramides in this sense. Les Pyramides, which played its role in the 2005 immigrant riots in France, is a low-density post-war suburb that stifles the sort of mingling and networking that arrival cities hopefully foster.

On the other hand, the exodus of chain stores from Malton has led to the establishment of independent South Asian businesses, the establishment of which is a typical hallmark of success. Stores selling Indian clothes, Pakistani kebabs and Chinese groceries are certainly a more hopeful sign than those same immigrants working for minimum wage in somebody else's business.

Toronto's immigrant-heavy suburbs are an anomaly not just for their low density, but also because most of those who live there come from cities. The typical immigrant, according to Arrival City, is actually somebody from a village, not a city. It is also true that countries rarely immigrate, but rather villages, regions and provinces. Consider that about 1% of Canada speaks Punjabi, but only about 2% of India, thanks to the large number of Sikhs who have come to Canada. Consider that Westerners constantly differentiate between Cantonese and Mandarin thanks to the heavy migration of Hong Kongers around the world, even though there are about 15-20 speakers of Mandarin for every speaker of Cantonese.

By far the most interesting and the most significnat argument Saunders makes is that the shift in the world's population from a mostly rural one to a mostly urban one is inevitable, dramatic and highly desirable. In 1950, 70% of the world lived in villages. A few years ago, this was reduced to 50%. By 2050, only about 30% of the world will be rural, meaning that an extra 2-3 billion people will live in the world's cities. While this presents images of horrendously polluted, over-crowded cities, the reality is that life in the city is better in just about every way.

Saunders is, of course, not talking about having great Thai restaurants and independent bookstores, but rather, things like poverty, food security, life expectancy and virtually every indicator of human wellness. While governments, academics and international organizations have spend decades romanticizing rural existence, it is a grinding, brutal, and dangerous existence to which sharing a tiny apartment with a dozen other people is preferable (and we know this because people vote with their feet).

The fact that China went from being about 25% urban to being 50% urban in the last 20 years probably has something to do with the fact that more than half a billion people have climbed out of poverty in that same period. The problems of life in Chinese cities are as immense as they are well-documented, even in English, but then, the 150 million rural migrants in China have clearly shown that it is a life worth living.

The lesson to be learned by the world is how to help urban migrants establish themselves in the city, China's crisis is due to its hukou system, not how to improve rural life or how to encourage people to stay there. As I learned from reading about why coffee farmers make so little even though coffee is expensive, there are simply too many people growing too much coffee; the answer is for far fewer people to farm and for the rest to do something else.

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