• By: Don MacLean

Arrival City: The Final Migration and our Next World


In his new book, Arrival City: The Final Migration and our Next World, Doug Saunders attempts to re-conceptualize the urban process, particularly as it occurs in developing countries. It is there that we find the most troubling features of the urban experience, most especially in slums. The common wisdom, especially among a certain breed of academics, is to conceive of slums (or favelas or shantytowns) as dead ends. People living in them struggle to survive, mostly in jobs most of us living outside such places would feel are beneath us. The money earned is, of course, tiny and most residents live in hopelessness and quiet desperation. According to this view, such places are also the perfect breeding ground for the type of social and political dissent that can ultimately lead to revolutionary fervour and the forms of government crackdown that often follow. In short, they are one of the more dramatic symptoms of an unsustainable world order.

However, Saunders takes aim at this view. Although he is not so optimistic as to ignore the issues of grinding poverty and poor quality of life many rightly associate with urban slums, Saunders insists they are also the world’s most important engines of social mobility. Slums, then, are not necessarily dead ends. On the contrary, when properly managed, they are places of transition to a better life. The key is for governments to strategically invest in urban areas while simultaneously allowing for dwellings to be privately owned. When managed in this spirit, even the most desperately poor slums become sources of human ingenuity and wealth creation. Over time they lift people out of poverty and help to restore a more appropriate balance between the country and the city. An underlying effect of the urban process is thus to reduce the world’s overall birth rate. In fact, the world’s population is expected to stabilize by 2050, largely because of urbanization. For this reason, urbanization remains one of our greatest hopes for creating a more sustainable planet.

Arrival City has many strengths. Saunders expertly traces the dynamic relationship between the rural and the urban. He has, moreover, traveled all over the world, immersing himself in the heart of urban slums about which he writes. He documents the hopes and aspirations of people in places as far flung as Liu Gong Li, China, Mumbai, India, Kibera, Kenya and Tehran, Iran. The reader is given moving glimpses into the lives of people in all these places who struggling to raise themselves and their families out of poverty. In the process, he upends the conventional wisdom that hopelessness is the prevailing sentiment in such communities. Many people are in fact hopeful and prepared to make sacrifices to improve their children’s chances of having a better life. No matter what the hardship, many insist life in these urban areas is better than it would ever be in the countryside. Thus, although he cites academic literature, no one can accuse him of living in an ivory tower.

The book is often most interesting when Saunders skillfully links the urban process to larger questions of national politics. In developing countries especially, the relationship between the rural and urban is often the source of restlessness and agitation. Larger political movements and organizations thus focus their mobilization efforts on those migrants making up the bulk of arrival city populations. But the role of unsustainable forms of urbanization fuelling revolutionary sentiment is often ignored. It is often assumed, for example, that the most vital feature of the Iranian revolution was its Islamic orientation. But as Saunders points out, initially, Islam had very little to do with the revolution. Opposition to the Shah did not stem from his regime’s secular orientation. The mass discontent was due to a model of development that simultaneously deprived peasants the opportunity to make a living either in rural areas or the cities to which they were migrating. Masses of people thus remained landless and hopeless. Ruhollah Khomeini understood better than most that this was the source of the revolutionary fervour that was about to lead to the Shah’s overthrow. In his mobilization efforts, Khomeini said very little about the role of Islam in Iran. He instead promised land. It was only after the revolution that he explicitly married state power and Islamic fundamentalism.

As insightful as Saunders is, there remains something disquieting about the notion that the proliferation of shantytowns, favelas and other types of urban slums are a necessary feature of any large scale transition to a more sustainable world. And although he is surely right to promote strategic forms of government investment in such places, he ignores the structural reasons why this is sometimes not so easy. The lack of investment in clean water, sanitation and homes is not always due to government incompetence or corruption. It is often because governments simply do not have the resources. For these reasons, one legitimately feels that in celebrating the promise of slums we are perhaps setting the bar too low. Yet, in the end, Saunders shows how there are few alternatives to urbanization as a vital source of sustainability, transition and hope for much of the world’s population.