I've just read a most enlightening and thought-provoking book, Arrival City:How the Largest Migration in History is Changing our World by Doug Saunders. Saunders is an English journalist who writes for the Globe and Mail, the kind of journalist who looks beyond the headlines for the social trends and idea that lie behind day to day events. If I was journalist, that's the sort I'd like to be.
Our world, he says, is going through the largest and most rapid process of urbanisation in human history. Millions of people in developing nations are leaving their villages and heading to the major cities, most of them never to return. By the end of this century approximately two to three billion people - a third of the world's population - will have made the shift and most of the world will be as urbanised as the wealthy nations are now.
At the centre of this movement is what Saunders calls the 'Arrival City' - those communities on the edge of major cities that are the first destination for rural migrants. These destinations may be in their own country, or in a wealthy country far from home. Wherever they are, they are not the most attractive or secure places. Housing is often substandard, land tenure is insecure and occupation often illegal, infrastructure may be absent, or obtained at inflated costs from illegal diversions from "official" water or power supplies, and work may be hard, dangerous and poorly paid.
Why do people migrate to such places? There are two reasons. The first is that the places they are leaving are even worse. Village life may seem peaceful and idyllic to outsiders, but developing nation villages are by far the poorest places on earth. Farming is generally subsistence only, the risk of famine is never far away and there is little or no opportunity to supplement farm produce with non-farm work. By contrast, the city presents opportunities to work and earn money, some of which can be sent back to struggling relatives back home.
The second reason is that arrival cities represent future hope. They are a stepping stone to a fuller integration into city life, with opportunity for education (either for them or their children), for progress from menial work to more lucrative jobs or self-employment as they move up the social scale. Ultimately they present the hope of leaving a life of poverty and joining the urban middle class.
Saunders approaches this issue through the lives of a number of urban migrants, using each as a window into both the community they have arrived in, and into the village they have left. The Chinese arrival cities of Liu Gong Li and Shenzen are linked to the village of Shuilin. Tower Hamlets on the edge of London is linked with the village of Biswanath in Bangladesh. The successful May 1 Neighbourhood on the edge of Istanbul is contrasted with the troubled German community of Slotervaart as destinations for Turkish villagers.
Life is inherently difficult for the residents of arrival cities, but it is often made more difficult by the hostility or bungling of government authorities. Sometimes they are actively hostile. The May 1 Neighbourhood was established as a well-organised act of protest by left-wing former villagers who built it in a single night on a piece of vacant government land on the edge of the city. The police attempted to demolish it several times, seeing it as a hotbed of dissent and trouble. Not only did they meet with determined armed resistance, what they destroyed was quickly rebuilt once they left. Eventually the government gave up and changed tack, granting the residents title to the land, supplying infrastructure and incorporating them into the city.
Interestingly, the political movement that finally emerged from these communities, and ones like it founded by radical Islamists and Fascists on the edges of major Turkish cities, was not extreme at all, but the moderately conservative "Welfare Party" of Recep Tayyip Erdogan which currently controls the Turkish government (although recent events suggest Erdogan may not be quite as moderate or benign as Saunders suggests!). Saunders attributes this eventual moderation to the process of legitimising land titles in the urban fringe communities, which turned radical settlers into petty capitalists through the right to convert their quickly-erected stone houses into three-story apartment buildings. Even his left-wing radical informant has to sheepishly admit that he has converted his own house into a block of units and now lives off the rents.
Other arrival cities, however, are not so fortunate. Slotervaart in Germany is also home to Turkish rural migrants, but unlike in their home country, they have no hope of permanence. They enter Germany as "guest workers" and neither they nor their children are able by law to become German citizens. The result is that thousands of young men and women who have only ever been to Turkey on holiday and who speak German better than they speak Turkish are nonetheless seen as foreigners, restricted in where they can live, what kind of work they can do and barred from access to German higher education. They can neither return to Turkey nor become fully German. The community becomes a hotbed of crime and dissent.
The suburb of Les Pyramides on the outskirts of Paris is similar. Here, migrants from France's former African colonies rent beautifully designed housing but find themselves unable to start businesses in this fully residential suburb or to be licensed to do so elsewhere, forced to travel long distances to apply for scarce, poorly paid jobs, and locked out of a highly restricted university system. The result was a series of wild riots in 2005, and many other examples of unrest since. Such communities are among the biggest sources of "home grown terrorists" in Europe. Blocked from a European identity, young men and women turn instead to a radical Islamic one which promises revenge on the countries which have rejected them.
So why do some communities work, and others don't? Saunders identifies a number of elements that are needed for success. New arrivals have to have access to the basics of life - basic housing and utilities, work that pays enough for them to live off, a reasonable level of safety. Then they need the possibility of progress - the chance to own title on a piece of land, however small, the opportunity to better themselves either by improving their skills so they can move up the employment ladder, or by starting their own businesses. Most importantly, they need the hope of permanence in their new communities and the chance to get an education for their children, so that the next generation will not face their parents' poverty.
This last point highlights something we frequently overlook in our debates about migration - it is an act of delayed gratification on a grand scale. If migrants have the hope of future betterment for themselves or their children, they will put up with years of hardship. When residents leave Shuilin Village for the city, they often go first to Shenzen because of the high wages on offer in its booming factories. Yet in the end many choose to move on to Liu Gong Li because although wages are far higher in Shenzen it offers no hope of permanent residence, without which children can't be enrolled in school and housing must always be rented. Liu Gong Li, for all its hardship, offers a brighter future.
It is the same story in Tower Hamlets, on the edge London. Here, Bengali village families live in tiny Council flats and the parents toil at menial jobs, but their children go to school, study hard, and end up with university degrees and a ticket to the middle class, leaving Tower Hamlets for more desirable suburbs. Official statistics often fail to capture this, because Tower Hamlets itself remains poor.
Indeed, remaining poor can be a sign of success in these communities, because rural to urban migration is not an individual thing. The first migrants to a city will set up and work hard, sending as much money as they can to their family in the village. As soon as they have the means they will help someone else to follow in their footsteps - a sibling, cousin or neighbour who they will employ in their new business, or get their employer to take on. A young man might bring his wife and child, or marry. In wealthy countries marriage will be used as a way to sponsor new migrants from home. As one family leaves the poor community to buy a home in a better location, a new poor villager will fill their place.
The energy and enterprise of these migrants, if well harnessed, can transform and reinvigorate the urban economy. At the same time, the process can also revive poor village economies. At first it is the money sent home which helps improve housing and infrastructure, educates children and tides families over crop failures and food shortages. Over time, as the city becomes home, remittances tend to decrease but the infrastructure remains, and the outflow of village populations allows for those who remain to expand their land holdings to a size where it is worth investing in modern farming methods, dramatically increasing yields and shifting from subsistence to commercial farming. If it works as it should, both communities win.
If. This book is, in the end, a big question mark. It is big on stories but short on data. How many people escape to the middle class? How many remain in multi-generational poverty? How many arrival cities become thriving economic hubs? How many remain slums? How many communities do governments embrace and resource, and how many continue to be subject to neglect or slum clearance? Is it possible for third world governments, mired in debt and corruption, to adequately resource the migration of millions?
One thing is clear, though. Urbanisation is happening. People are on the move, and we will not be able to stop them. The relevant question is not, "is this urbanisation a good thing?" It is with us whether we like it or not. The only question is, will we handle it well or will we stuff it up?