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Arrival City: how life on the fringe is shaping the world

I seem to move around at an ever-increasing pace these days, at last count having stayed in 38 places over the last 4 months, packing/unpacking 39 times, and closing or reconfiguring storage in three countries. Shedding weighty items like books, which I adore buying but have little time to read and no place to keep, has become a swift and brutal exercise.

Ironic, then, that one book I couldn’t leave behind was Doug Saunders’s Arrival City, about the immense migration from villages to cities taking place around the world. Having started reading in the great arrival city of Los Angeles and got through most of the book in small-town Vermont, I forgot I’d posted it ahead to London (past home to wave after wave of immigration), and was happy to see it anchoring a pile of junk mail.

The phenomenon of rural-to-urban migration is millennia old. The movement has been charted and often lamented through the centuries, especially in recent decades, as the world’s population slid past the halfway point toward what Saunders anticipates as a “wholly urban species” by the 22nd century. To map it, experts talk about melting pots v. mosaics, one-way shifts, self-sufficient slums, etc. To manage it, governments do everything from bulldoze shantytowns to flood favelas with money (at least temporarily).

Saunders doesn’t say all past efforts are wrong, per se, but he does say they’ve missed a trick: that successful arrival cities are not the grim backwaters they’re often depicted as, even if they are chaotic and hard on residents. Rather, he presents these transition zones as crucibles where arrivals are able to build quality of life on an individual and societal scale.

First, they allow people to escape the poverty and malnutrition prevalent in rural areas around the world – hardships often downplayed in favour of a romantic image of village life. Second, functional arrival cities help migrants build networks, earn a wage, start a business and sometimes buy property; improve their home villages; and infuse the urban cores that host them with entrepreneurial energy.

Of course it can all go wrong. Let alone government oppression or demolition, Saunders says there must be a way in to the host society over time. For instance, he argues that exclusion, rather than ethnic or immigrant dislocation, is what underpins ongoing banlieue unrest in France.

To make his points, Saunders combines engagingly-presented research with personal stories from 30 towns and cities on five continents. In comparing the experience of people and places, he explores why some thrive and how others are destined to fail.

An all-around fascinating read, Arrival City had me re-thinking what urban success looks like, and how we might foster it in widely differing contexts. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “Arrival City presents an optimistic and humane view of global urbanization. Let’s hope urban planners and politicians pay attention.”

You can see an interview with Saunders, a documentary about London, Amsterdam and Istanbul, and multi-media show about Chinese arrival city Lui Gong Li here – but buy the book anyway. It’s worth the space in your carry-on.



2 thoughts on “Arrival City: how life on the fringe is shaping the world

  1. That was well put. – I’ve got this one on my list of books – (currently my longest media list). But now – I’ll move it up the ranks a bit. It sounds like a kindred lecture, and my intrest in the urban is insatiable. You, by similar composition, sound nomadic almost to the edge of crisis – that is alot of places! Slow … is good too.

    Posted by Andrew | August 27, 2012, 17:59

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