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This page last updated 18 June 2012  

A review for Anglicans Online
by Bishop Terry Brown

A review of
Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping Our World
By Doug Saunders, ISBN 978-0307388568, Vintage, 2010.

Arrival City, I believe, should be required reading for anyone, including church leaders, concerned with urban migration, both domestic and international; so-called "squatter settlements", and the integration, or otherwise, of recently-arrived minority populations into countries and societies who themselves often have strong identities and long histories.

Saunders assumes and regards as irreversible the global urbanization that has taken place for centuries but with even greater intensity in the past few decades. He argues that absolute poverty is most often rural and that parents migrate to urban areas (most often from a remote rural village directly to a large city) seeking to improve their material circumstances and the educational and economic prospects of their children.

They arrive often at an "arrival city" – a "squatter settlement", a favela (there are many local names), often a huge growing settlement on the edge (less often in the center) of an urban area, be it London, Paris, Mumbai, Istanbul, Caracas, Nairobi, Washington D.C., Toronto, Los Angeles, Dhaka or wherever. These are intensely vibrant places with constantly changing populations and offering a major challenge to the surrounding more established cities.

Saunders' view of these communities is basically a positive one, though, he argues, some "work" and some do not. At best, they eventually become stable communities, legal entities with landowning citizens, a positive part of the city and nation. At worst, they are centers of frustrated hopes, extreme poverty, violence, crime, and political and religious extremism. Saunders teases out the issues that divide the successes from the failures.

Saunders discusses arrival cities that have worked: Tower Hamlets, London; communities of south Los Angeles; Jardim Angela, São Paulo; Wheaton, Maryland; Parla, Spain; Thorncliffe Park, Toronto. He argues that where communities and the state embrace the arrival city (rather than just bulldozing or under-resourcing it), there are benefits all around, both to its residents and to the greater community, not just social but also economic.

He also looks at arrival cities that have failed: Les Pyramides, Paris; Kreuzberg, Berlin; Herndon, Virginia; Petare, Caracas; Shuilin, China, and others. He points out that most urban migration is directly from the most rural areas of the global south to the most urban areas of the global north (without an intervening urban experience in the global south) and that urban design, social services and development of infrastructure must take this reality into account. Some of the most fascinating stories Saunders presents are about reversing failed arrival cities and making them successful ones, for example, Slotervaart, Amsterdam.

Saunders steps on ideological toes, left and right. For example, he is highly critical of President Hugo Chávez's programs of social improvement of the Petare settlement of Caracas. He argues that millions were wasted on unsustainable improvements because such programs refused to give landownership to the people, keeping them dependent on the largesse of the state; apparently the fear was that landownership would lead to entrepreneurship and capitalism. Saunders argues that it is often secure landownership that allows people to increase their prosperity, providing collateral for loans or through developing the land. Saunders has impressive examples from the huge "arrival" settlements around Istanbul the last thirty years.

On the other hand, Saunders argues that governments must spend money on infrastructure and social services for these communities if they want them to prosper, for example, providing them with safe water supplies, accessible electricity, good roads and public transport, and rubbish collection, etc. Conservative and Neo-liberal ideological restrictions on public expenditure have locked many of these communities into permanent poverty and alienation; they have also even harmed the middle class who would benefit from the employment such public expenditure would produce. Often the Conservative and Neo-Liberal approach to these communities is outright hostility, bringing in the bulldozers; such an approach, Saunders argues, fails to recognize the economic and political contribution (both actual and potential) of these communities; that the settled, peaceful, tax-paying urban areas of Toronto, New York and London today were once chaotic but thriving arrival cities less than a century ago.

Recent national immigration policies are also sometimes quite hostile to the arrival city; hence, greater restrictions by Canada and the U.K. on sponsored family members who may be relatively "uneducated" in favour of "highly qualified" immigrants. But Saunders points out that there is often more employment available for the former than the latter and often (he argues in the majority of cases) the former make a go of things economically while the latter often fail. We trust the "uneducated" Bangladeshi proprietor of a curry restaurant and patronize the restaurant; he or she succeeds and moves to a more prosperous enterprise. But we may not trust the Bangladeshi doctor or engineer and eventually he or she has difficulty finding work. As I was reading this book, BBC broadcast a program about unemployed English youths being trained to cook chicken tikka and run curry restaurants because the potential Bangladeshi immigrants who did it authentically in the past are now no longer welcome immigrants.

How does all this affect the church? Many residents of arrival cities are Christians, yea, even Anglicans. Yet, too, Christians often make up the elites that make decisions for these arrival cities, whatever these cities' religious beliefs – whether to provide infrastructure and social services or not. Many a Christian government official simply regards these communities with disdain or even fear – as hotbeds of crime, violence, uncontrollable economic activities, freeloaders on the infrastructure (e.g., illegal water and electricity connections), centers of religious extremism – and responds with the bulldozer or reductions in the budget.

I live in Honiara, Solomon Islands, surely an "arrival city" if there ever was one. Thousands (out of a national population of only 515,000) move each year to the city to find work. They settle with their relatives ("wantoks") in "squatter settlements" throughout the city, engaging in whatever economic activities they can find – selling betel nuts, hand-rolled cigarettes or home-cooked ring cakes by the roadside, running small family stores ("canteens"), pursuing family businesses (for example, women dye lava lavas, wrap around cloths), driving taxis, working as bus conductors or as casual labour, etc. Of course some of the activities are illegal, for example, "black market" alcohol and resale of stolen goods. People do not usually own the land on which their houses are located and often have limited water, electricity and other social services.

The Honiara City Council, for whom this arrival city votes, is less than sympathetic to it, bulldozing local ad hoc markets and unauthorized houses on city land or "wasteland", arresting street vendors, demanding even the smallest economic enterprise pay a business tax, not extending or improving infrastructure (water, electricity, rubbish collection), not noticeably improving clinics and schools, not extending recreational facilities to neighbourhoods, not repairing roads. Police services are a case in point. Often these neighbourhoods are regarded as "hot spots", to be avoided at night even by the police.

This shortsighted view has perhaps come from having seen the bright and shining streets of Brisbane or Sydney and wanting Honiara to be the same; or sheer ignorance of the economic benefits the "arrival city" brings to the city and nation at large; or from political corruption, trying to find some way to make money off the arrival city rather than helping it develop.

Church buildings and church schools are also a part of the "arrival city" in Solomon Islands. In communities with names like White River, Koa Hill, Koa Valley, Soap Factory, Gilbert Camp, Burns Creek, Lungga and Hell's Point, arrival communities struggle to build permanent church buildings and establish church schools. Some have succeeded; others have a long way to go.

Yet, more often than not, surrounding middle- or upper-class parishes, church leaders and, indeed, even overseas partners look askance at spending money on these permanent church buildings and church schools in so-called squatter communities.

But this attitude misses the point. These buildings and institutions are part of the process towards permanence that these communities need. Sometimes secular aid donors, for example, are wiser on this issue than mission funders, when, for example, they channel funding to these communities and their related governments to allow their residents to own and register their land, now occupied only under temporary occupancy licenses.

Arrival City is global in its scope and thus stimulating to a discussion of any local situation; it is both current and historical (and there is a lot of history in the book). One might question what at times seems to be an economic determinism behind Saunders' view of the inevitability of global urban migration; certainly in rural resource-rich societies of the South Pacific, continued rural living is both viable and a necessary safety net. The pervasive economism of the book also sometimes ignores the basic issue of rule by law. For example, Saunders often writes of and endorses amnesties for "illegal" settlers, allowing "squatters" to become landowners. Yes, but... Too many amnesties undercut the rule of law and some of this land may have more proper indigenous owners whose rights must be respected. But, reservations aside, this is a book in the tradition of Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which he references, but on a global scale and for the 21st century.

The Right Reverend Terry Brown is retired Bishop of Malaita in the Anglican Church of Melanesia.