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Arrival City
Arrival City
How the largest migration in history is re-shaping our world
Submitted by Francesca R
3rd August 2017
Arrival City

Arrival City is Doug Saunders' own term. Others that are used to describe the same places include slum, shantytown, favela, banlieue, ghetto, ethnic enclave and plattenbau, which Mr Saunders believes mostly misunderstand and misrepresent their true nature. This book is a fix for that, as well as a brilliantly colourful tour of several of these places, usually located as close as they can get (given market or policy constraints) to large urban centres both in the developing world and the rich west. One of the most enduringly successful arrival cities according to the (Canadian) author is around Bethnal Green in London, 3km from where this reviewer lives, less than one from where she works and quite often where she can be found running on early weekday mornings.

The arrival city is properly regarded as a transit point for social change. Mr Saunders believes that this change is the last wave of mass urbanisation that will approximately end subsistence farming, finally stop world population growth, and will move about a third of the people on earth from rural to urban surroundings (where over half of them already are) by the end of the century. As long as it is not mismanaged, that is. Since there appeared to be more examples of (at least partial) failure in this regard in the text, the last point is probably not assured.

Very few people achieve the transition from sleeping on dirt floors to arranging mortgages in shopping malls in one generation. Several hundred million have achieved something like this in two or three though, since WW2. Many of the ancestors of today's Europeans and Americans did it a century or three ago. And nobody sets out to swap one kind of poverty for another, it is always, everywhere about upward social mobility, which is or should be a positive sum game. The arrival city absorbs rural migrants, typically initially a single family member, later joined by others, driven by inexhaustible desire to get a toe-hold on entry into what is generally termed middle class (possession of the financial means to save/invest in sufficient measure to upgrade one's future). A statement that makes much sense is that these folks are among the most highly motivated people on the planet, or else they simply wouldn't be doing what they are doing. In the cities of poor countries they often build their own lodging. They take jobs at the bottom end of the income spectrum (riches compared to the village), or more often start their own business frequently oriented to the "arrival sector" of which they are part. Families and children may not join them until years later, all the while they remit much of their income back to the originating village (sums that in aggregate dwarf domestic government spending, foreign exchange and overseas aid in many cases). Some eventually return to rural living, most do not (except maybe to help with the annual harvest)--especially those who have crossed international borders. The next generation, born in the arrival city, is more likely to identify as urban not villager, get educated and maybe move out of the slums and transform into full contributing dwellers of where they now belong.

This dynamic aspect of arrival cities as places of transition means that they always look poor. In fact, the better they are able to function as facilitators of mobility, the lower will be the average income of their inhabitants at any point in time. Something that often looks like permanent, irredeemable deprivation and suffering--to policy makers and to both well- and ill-meaning affluent neighbouring populations--is actually its polar opposite. Small wonder that so many responses to the phenomenon worldwide are adverse: ranging from quite barbaric slum demolition programs through to ostensibly benevolent but wrong headed building of single use high rise neighbourhoods planned by nobody who ever lived in an arrival city or asked one of its residents.

Conditions in arrival city enclaves are poor, but these places are not a poverty trap unless the things are mismanaged; they are a stepping stone. It is rural peasantry which is the biggest killer of people, and which is the rock bottom below which there is nothing really. Yet management and the lack thereof implies policy involvement, Mr Saunders notes, not merely free-market influences which are also very necessary but insufficient. Grand designs such as some of Paris's "banlieues difficiles" (which were actually intended to house ex-urbanising middle class folks but instead caught rural migrants going the other way) and even many of inner London's Victorian terraces (built in anticipation of well-heeled single family occupancy that never came, divided up among immigrants and rural migrants in their place) show that over-planning goes wrong. So does Shenzhen in China, Deng Xiaoping's first special economic zone, which is great for the country's high earners but useless for urbanising countryside dwellers.

But government (municipal and central) is both legitimate and needed to help this all-round beneficial migration trend work. Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, sewage, road paving and street lights rank above water and electricity supply (though many arrival cities steal the latter). Low rise dwellings with commercial use at street level are far far better than high rises (which need elevators and thus infrastructure that is harder to install in size) And zoning laws (much loved by planners, wholly counterproductive to arrivers who wish to earn income from their own trade, which is the norm not the exception) kill arrival neighbourhoods. The key is to facilitate spontaneity. But equally important is property ownership, particularly title to the land one's home is on; this brings security in housing (particularly relative to the fear of having your community bulldozed at dawn) as well as a source of equity.

The ability to join the destination city's (and country's) ranks as full fledged citizens is also essential. Without a few of these foregoing desiderata arrival cities can either perish (Mr Saunders believes there should be far larger middle classes in the world already and that the chances of many have been wrecked by absent or bad policy) or they can explode (France's original Bastille Day was apparently born of a tipping point in the rural migrant population, so was Iran's 1979 purging of Shah Pahlavi which was not until the last minute a religious movement. Not that these events ended up benefitting those who initially drove them. The Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia can be traced to countryside to city migration and its inhibitors. The Chavez regime in Venezuela used arrival city populations, such as Petare in Caracas, to gain power by buying votes but thereafter did nothing for them. Germany's late and inadequate accommodation of its ethnic Turks allegedly prevented the Kreuzberg district of Berlin from being the type of arrival city success that is Manhattan's lower east side or London's Tower Hamlets borough. Poland's government's desire to keep its rural subsistence farms in place in the 1990s which prevented arrival cities forming in its metro areas, was alleviated eventually by mass migration to Britain after the country joined the EU. From there, many poles have now made the move back to Warsaw, Wroclaw and Gdansk--an extra stop on the journey did not ultimately stop it being essentially the same journey. Most countries have recorded instances of doing this wrong as well as doing it right by the way.

Immigration curbs, including clamping down on the admission of family members, is frequently both counterproductive to its aim as well as costly to the host country. The author argues that such are the internal demographics of rich nations already, that they will in the non-distant future not only be welcoming unskilled poor ex rural immigrants, they will be competing against other countries to get them. This idea is so very far from the consciousness of governments and voters in rich nations who still tend to see arrival cities as manifestations of failure and hopelessness (plus crime and terrorism) with insufficiently controlled immigration as their main culprit. Accounts like this book could help correct many misapprehensions, if only it was read. Your reviewer is, however, inclined to agree with the author that economically and politically this great "final" migration is inevitable in any case.
Doug Saunders
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