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In Karail, on a swampy lake on the edge of the wealthiest neighbourhood in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, a village-born boy plays while his parents build. (Munem Wasif for The Globe and Mail)
In Karail, on a swampy lake on the edge of the wealthiest neighbourhood in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, a village-born boy plays while his parents build. (Munem Wasif for The Globe and Mail)

Doug Saunders

How slums can save the world Add to ...

The scene inside Iqbal's market might be mistaken for the main street of a prosperous rural village in the Indian subcontinent.

Beneath sparse, fluorescent-tube lighting are big sacks of rice and grain and racks of raw spices; men chew betel and women cover their heads in all manner of fabrics; the air rings with Dari, Urdu, Hindi and Bengali, peppered with tokens of the now-universal English argot of arrival: mortgage, visa, university.

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Most people here on the unseen concrete fringe of Toronto's core started as Asian villagers. But theirs is not a village culture, nor is it yet fully urban.

It is a culture of transition – a culture both entrepreneurial and conservative that can be found on the edges of cities around the world, in the slums of Dhaka and Sao Paulo and in the migrant neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Paris and Amsterdam.

Here, it's Thorncliffe Park, a cluster of apartment buildings and one-storey plazas built around the oval of a former racetrack in a lost, central-east corner of the city.

What kind of neighbourhood is Thorncliffe Park? It certainly is one of the poorest in Toronto: Family incomes average $20,000 and the poverty rate is estimated at 44 per cent.

It is also ethnically concentrated, with as much as 51 per cent of its population speaking an Asian language at home and only a small minority of pink-skinned Euro-Canadians in its buildings.

It could be described as an impoverished ethnic ghetto. Yet Thorncliffe Park is not seen that way – not by its residents, by the agencies and businesses within it, by the scholars who have studied it, nor by the city beyond it.

It's a popular place with vacancy rates close to zero despite unusually high rents; in fact, there are long waiting lists for apartments.

The ex-villagers here have an amazingly consistent record of entering the middle-class, urban mainstream within a generation. They launch small shops and other businesses and send their children into postsecondary education.

The area's poverty is not a sign of failure: It means that Thorncliffe Park, like many such neighbourhoods, is functioning as a highly successful engine of economic and social integration, churning people out as fast as it takes them in, constantly renewing itself with fresh arrivals.

This is one paradox of such places: The higher their apparent poverty rate, the more successful they are.

For much of the past century, Canada has been built on successful arrival cities – more by luck than by intent. But increasingly few are like Thorncliffe Park: There are too many like the isolated, violence-plagued Flemingdon Park in Toronto, or the destitute high-rise voids of Richmond and Surrey around Vancouver, or Peel Region adjoining Toronto.

In those neglected neighbourhoods, people are poor because they are trapped. In a thriving arrival city like Thorncliffe Park, they are moving onward.

The trick is to look not at the wealth of the residents but at their trajectories.

“Everyone in Thorncliffe, all are beginners, all are struggling,” says Seema Khatri, 42, who recently moved out of the neighbourhood to buy a house in suburban Don Mills.

She came from a village in Haryana in northern India. She spent several years in Thorncliffe, working at rudimentary jobs in a cosmetics factory and struggling to get her Indian educational credentials recognized.

The neighbourhood's networks of arrivals, she says, helped her make her way.

“In Thorncliffe, when you go out, you meet with people who are also struggling. You talk to your neighbours at the deli. They exchange information.”

This is how it works in the arrival city.

DOUBLE TIES THAT BIND: OVERSEAS AND DOWNTOWN

The arrival city can be distinguished readily from other urban neighbourhoods, not only by its rural-immigrant population, improvised appearance and ever-changing nature, but also by the constant linkages it makes, in two directions, from every street, house and workplace.

It is linked in a lasting, intensive way to its far-off, originating villages, constantly sending people, money and knowledge back and forth. It finances improvements in the village, the care of older generations and the education of younger ones, while also making possible the next wave of migrations.

It is also deeply engaged with the nearby, established city. Its political institutions, business relationships, social networks and transactions are all footholds intended to give new village arrivals a purchase, however fragile, on the larger society.

The arrival city gives them a place to push themselves and their children further into the centre, into acceptability and connectedness.

The ex-villager enclave located on the periphery of our vision and beyond the tourist maps has become the setting of the world's next chapter – driven by exertion and promise, battered by violence and death, strangled by neglect and misunderstanding.

History is being written, though largely ignored, in places such as Liu Gong Li, on the edge of Chongqing, China; Clichy-sous-Bois, on the outskirts of Paris; Dharavi, the almost million-strong arrival city in Mumbai; or the Latino arrival city of Compton on the edge of Los Angeles.

Arrival cities are known by many names. They are the favelas, bustees, bidonvilles, ashwaiyyat, shantytowns, kampongs, gecekondulars and barrios of the developing world. But they are also the immigrant areas, ethnic districts, slums, banlieues difficiles, Plattenbau developments, Chinatowns, Little Indias and Hispanic quarters of wealthier countries.

The modern arrival city is the product of the most recent, and perhaps final, great human migration. The world's population has been on the move from village to city since shortly after the Second World War, when old empires crumbled and South American and Middle Eastern villagers left their homes to build new enclaves on the urban outskirts.

The transfer is entering its most intense phase now, with 200 million Chinese peasants “floating” between village and city, vast shifts under way in India and Bangladesh, and huge numbers of Africans and Southeast Asians joining the exodus. In 1950, 309 million people in the developing world lived in cities; by 2030, 3.9 billion will.

At the moment, only 41 per cent of Asians and 38 per cent of Africans live in cities – leaving a population of villagers mainly farming for their own survival. They are on the land not because it is a better life, but because they are trapped.

This is changing fast. Between 2007 and 2050, the world's cities will have absorbed an additional 3.1 billion people. The population of the world's countryside will stop growing around 2019, and by 2050 it will have fallen by 600 million.

Between 2000 and 2030, the urban populations of Asia and Africa will have doubled, adding as many city-dwellers in one generation as these continents accumulated during their entire histories.

By the end of 2025, 60 per cent of the world will live in cities; by 2050, more than 70 per cent; and by century's end, even the poor nations of sub-Saharan Africa will be at least three-quarters urban.

URBANIZATION: ALMOST A MIRACLE CURE

And that's good news. There is no romance in rural life. Rural living is the largest single killer today – the greatest source of malnutrition, infant mortality and reduced lifespans.

According to the World Food Program, three-quarters of the world's billion people living in hunger are subsistence farmers. Urban incomes everywhere are higher, often by large multiples; access to education, health, water and sanitation as well as communications and culture are always better in the city. The move to cities also reduces ecological damage and carbon emissions, by decreasing distances and increasing shared technologies.

The dramatic declines in the number of very poor people in the world around the turn of this century – with the world poverty rate falling from 34 per cent in 1999 to 25 per cent in 2009 – were caused entirely by urbanization.

It doesn't just improve the lives of those who move to the city; it improves conditions in the countryside too, as emigrants send villages back the money they need to turn agriculture into a business with salaried jobs and stable incomes.

In spite of its huge scope, rural-to-urban migration is not the main cause of urban growth. For each 60 million new city dwellers in the developing world, 36 million are born to established city dwellers. Only 24 million come from villages, and only half of these have actually migrated – the rest become urbanites because the city has expanded to incorporate their village.

In fact, arrival cities are putting an end to population growth. Some time around 2050, according to the most recent United Nations projections, the population of the world will plateau at nine billion. After that, for the first time in history, humans will stop being more numerous each year.

We have already seen this in quickly urbanizing countries such as Iran, where both rural and urban birth rates have shot down into negative territory.

Average family sizes around the world will fall below 2.1 children, and the problems of crowding and competition for resources will be replaced with the much more sustainable (though still challenging) problems of non-growing population.

Arrival cities accomplish the things that bring fertility rates down – educating girls and women, improving health and creating physical and financial security.

The arrival city is a machine that transforms humans. If allowed to flourish, it will be the instrument to create a permanently sustainable world.

CAUTION: IF NEGLECTED, MAY EXPLODE

When an arrival city's natural functions are blocked or interrupted, however – when its existence is challenged, threatened or ignored – it becomes a place of pent-up frustration. The inevitable conservatism of its transitional culture turns into the furious politics of lost opportunity or the religious extremism of the perpetually excluded.

We have seen terrible explosions out of arrival cities, from the French Revolution to the present: the 1979 Iranian revolution, a pure product of arrival-city neglect; the Hindu-nationalist extremism of Mumbai, born of a political vacuum in migrant slums; the menacing violence of Rio de Janeiro's rural-migrant favelas, where drug gangs took the place of an absent and hostile government.

In Europe, the arrival city has been the centre of conflict – in the flaming outskirts of Paris, the extremist fringes of Amsterdam and the impoverished, backward Turkish enclaves of Berlin.

In France and the Netherlands, these explosions were the results of physical and economic disconnections between the arrival city and the core economy; in Germany and elsewhere, they were caused by a lack of pathways to full citizenship. In both cases, new arrivals were driven into isolation.

By contrast, Canada's arrival cities have been great successes historically, as millions of rural migrants from the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Asia bought up unwanted row-housing stock in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto and set up classic networks of small business and property speculation.

But Canada got lucky: We had the right housing and the right economy at the right time, and we made citizenship easy, so our governments didn't really need to try.

Today, luck alone will not be enough: Our arrival cities have moved to the far outskirts of cities, where buildings weren't constructed with incoming villagers in mind and links to the core city, both physical and cultural, are scarce.

These high-rise nests of villagers could erupt into trouble if we allow ourselves to repeat Europe's mistakes – or to believe that arrival cities aren't necessary.

IT TAKES A VILLAGER (TO DO OUR DIRTY WORK)

In this age of border controls, high-technology information economies and selective immigration policies, it is too easy for citizens and governments to believe that there should be no reason to have large masses of the developing world's rural poor camped on our urban fringes. This is a dangerous mistake.

It may be politically desirable to slow the influx of arrivals for brief periods, but in the longer term, the arrival city will be a major phenomenon in the West, and its citizens will be the same people who occupy the arrival cities of the developing world. We ought to be planning for and investing in this reality.

The first reason is economic: Countries such as Canada will experience severe labour shortages in the coming decades, especially in unskilled work.

According to a 2009 study by the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, the U.S. will require 35 million more workers than its working-age population can provide by 2030, Japan 17 million by 2050, the European Union 80 million by 2050.

Canada, even if it continues to take in 250,000 to 300,000 immigrants a year, will be short a million workers by the end of this decade.

The economic downturn has barely affected this trend. In Canada, 14 per cent of businesses at the end of crisis-plagued 2009 were reporting “shortage of un/semi-skilled labour” as their main business constraint.

The second reason is political. Immigrants, and their children and grandchildren, become citizens, voters, politicians and leaders – and they will be united across partisan and ideological lines by the desire to have access to their former villages and families. Those bonds cannot be broken easily.

And this is just as well, because what our economy demands is not just X-ray technicians and geologists, but also huge numbers of hotel-desk clerks and cleaners.

In Canada in 2008, an extraordinary 60.1 per cent of immigrants with university degrees were working in occupations that required an apprenticeship or less – 1.5 times the overqualification rate of Canadian-born workers.

So it is just as well that our immigration system, despite its claims, is still bringing in large numbers of villagers.

Officially, 57 per cent of Canada's 250,000 annual immigrants are “economic class” – mainly highly skilled workers and business immigrants. But of the 133,746 immigrants in this category, only 55,179 are principal applicants – that is, those with the skills or money. The remaining 78,567 are their children, spouses, parents or other dependents.

An additional 62,246 immigrants every year – more than the total of professional and entrepreneurial entrants – are “family class” immigrants: parents, spouses and other relatives of settled immigrants. Anecdotally, a high percentage of these have rural backgrounds. An additional 39,832 immigrants are refugees or other humanitarian cases, themselves often rural.

And in the future, not only will Canada be forced to continue admitting large numbers of low-skilled immigrants, we may well have to start competing for them.

MAKING A HOME FOR THE WORKERS WE'LL NEED

Demographics are fast reducing the global supply of labour in all categories.

Eastern and central Europe have sub-replacement birth rates. India's rapid economic growth and fast-shrinking fertility mean that it will cease to be a reliable supplier of workers. China has already initiated programs to import workers from sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent, putting it in competition with the Gulf states and the West.

Rather than trying to stem a flood, North American and European countries may well find themselves engaged in active recruitment.

Places such as Thorncliffe Park will become increasingly important. We ought to learn from this particular reinforced-concrete enclave, which has integrated waves of Greeks and Macedonians, then Ismaili East Africans, then Colombians and Chileans, then Indians and Pakistanis and, since Canada went to war, Afghans.

Jehad Aliweiwi is a Palestinian-born Canadian who runs the Thorncliffe neighbourhood office – a suite of integration and entrepreneur-

support services that sadly lacks for equivalents in most newer Canadian arrival cities.

“Historically,” he says, “Thorncliffe has been a spring-board or gateway community, where people settle for a couple years while they get a job, and then they move on. They go to another area where they can buy a house or a larger apartment.

“This is not a place where people feel stuck. It's a place where they feel very comfortable. You don't just pass through it – you go to it.”

The arrival city will remain a feature on our urban landscape. The question is whether it will be a place of anger, isolation, conservative cultural beliefs and desperation, or a place of social mobility and integration – a trap or a toehold.

It all depends on how we treat them. It is important that the passageways remain open.

Doug Saunders is a member of The Globe and Mail's European bureau, and the author of the new book Arrival City.

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