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Speaker Events - Wednesday, November 13, 2013

From Mud Floor to Middle Class: Doug Saunders Discusses the Rise of Urbanites

On November 13, Canadian-British author and journalist Doug Saunders spoke at IPI’s Vienna Office about the challenges of sustainable urbanization. Drawing on observations made in his book Arrival City (2011), Saunders—an international affairs columnist with the Globe and Mail and five-time winner of the Canadian National Newspaper Award—pointed out that 25 million people become urbanites every week. This trend is expected to increase, particularly in Africa and Asia, to the point that, by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities.

Based on first-hand experiences from more than twenty cities on five continents, Mr. Saunders explained the impact of a new mass migration from rural to urban areas. He described how certain neighborhoods quickly evolve into crucibles for either urban opportunity or urban failure. These transitional spaces, usually on the margins of big cities, are “the places where the next great economic and cultural boom will be born, or where the next great explosion of violence will occur.” In these so-called “arrival cities,” new immigrants eke out an existence at all costs. While their lives are hard, Mr. Saunders pointed out that the majority of rural incomes are derived from remittances sent from people living on the fringes of cities, usually in shanty towns or slums.

Mr. Saunders noted that the mismanagement of arrival cities can create new opportunities for parallel forms of governance, for example, from religious or criminal groups. He also described the mismanagement of urbanization as a contributing factor to recent social discontent in large Egyptian cities. Mr. Saunders said that most migration happens within countries. However, he said, what differentiates this “largest migration in history” from previous waves of migration is that millions of people are moving from the developing to the developed world. He pointed out that in most cases, migration was limited to particular clusters of communities: from a specific set of villages in the country of origin to a specific set of urban districts in the country of destination.

Mr. Saunders identified factors that can increase the likelihood of arrival cities becoming sustainable. These include effective urban planning, a high population density, availability of capital, affordable housing, zoning laws and a sense of ownership that enable easy start-up of small businesses, public transport, security, and pro-active municipal investment in education within the arrival cities.

While life can be hard for people moving from rural to urban communities, Mr. Saunders stressed that the advantages of urbanization far outweigh the disadvantages. He observed that by moving to arrival cities, poor rural dwellers have been able to transform their lives “from the mud floor to middle class” within a generation.

Mr. Saunders, who is author of The Myth of the Muslim Tide (2012), also talked about the challenges of integrating diversity in multi-cultural societies.

The event was co-organized with the Canadian embassy in Austria.

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