“Three million people move to cities every week”: so how can cities plan for migrants?

Rio's Rocinha shantytown: informal settlements like this are booming as developing countries urbanise. Image: Getty.

The world’s population is becoming increasingly urban. Sometime in 2007 is usually reckoned to be the turning point when city dwellers formed the majority of the global population for the first time in history.

Today, the trend toward urbanisation continues: as of 2014, it’s thought that 54 per cent of the world’s population lives in cities – and it’s expected to reach 66 per cent by 2050. Migration forms a significant, and often controversial, part of this urban population growth.

In fact, cities grow in three ways, which can be difficult to distinguish: through migration (whether it’s internal migration from rural to urban areas, or international migration between countries); the natural growth of the city’s population; and the reclassification of nearby non-urban districts. Although migration is only responsible for one share of this growth, it varies widely from country to country.


In some places, particularly in poorer countries, migration is the main driver of urbanisation. In 2009, UN Habitat estimated that 3m people were moving to cities every week.

In global gateway cities such as Sydney, London and New York, migrants make up over a third of the population. The proportion in Brussels and Dubai is even greater, with migrants accounting for more than half of the population.

The 2015 World Migration Report (WMR) by the International Organisation for Migration argued that this mass movement of people is widely overlooked amid the global concern about urbanisation. And the report considers the widespread challenges, in terms of service provision, for the growing numbers of people moving into cities around the world.

Boon or burden?

Where the significance of migration to cities is recognised, it is widely seen as a problem. In 2013, a UN study of all 193 UN member states found that 80 per cent had policies to reduce rural to urban migration. This figure has risen substantially in recent decades, up from only 38 per cent in 1996. It is also more pronounced in poorer countries: 88 per cent of the least developed countries reported policies to reduce migration to urban areas.

But this negative attitude towards migration to cities may well be mistaken. The WMR argues that problems of access to services – such as housing, sanitation, education or employment – that result from rural to urban migration, are not inevitable. Rather, they are caused by poor planning. Although all socio-economic classes are reflected in migration to cities, migrants from rural areas are disproportionately poor, and inadequate planning is often a result of a weak political will to support them.

Yet, as the report pointed out, migrants are especially motivated individuals. It is not only the sheer numbers of people involved that makes migration worthy of attention. All around the world, populations of cities are now more diverse than surrounding rural areas.

In this way, migrants who come to cities can help diversify the networks that the city can draw upon – for instance, by linking cities to broader global networks. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Eastleigh in Nairobi. Known as “Little Mogadishu”, this neighbourhood has become a vibrant, global commercial hub, powered by enterprising members of the Somali, Ethiopian and Kenyan diasporas.

Changing with the times

So how are cities coping and changing with this influx of both internal and external migrants? While the vast majority of migration policies are set on a national basis, it is increasingly common for cities to develop their own approach to integrating people who come to settle.

For example, in the US, many cities support legislation calling for city police forces not to cooperate with certain forms of federal immigration control, which are deemed to be prejudiced against migrant groups. In 2012, the cities of Los Angeles and Chicago passed non-cooperation measures, and in 2014, New York City became the largest city to do so.

Yet much of the research into the impact of migrants on cities concerns international migrants in wealthier countries. A key contribution of the 2015 WMR has been to turn the focus of migration to cities in poorer countries. This migration is often shorter distance, from rural areas that are relatively close.

Slums spread close to the city of Mumbai. Image: liquidcrash/Flickr, CC BY-SA.

Rural to city migration is a much larger movement of people, at a global scale, and is accompanied by a very different set of issues. Adequate housing is probably the most significant of these. Although informal settlements exist all around the world, 97 per cent of slum dwellers live in poor countries.

My own research in Sri Lanka has shown that poor households in urban areas are more likely to be headed by women, and household members are more likely to be employed than the city’s average – this indicates that unemployment is not a key issue. Rather, problems tend to arise as a result of poor planning and forced behaviour change – particularly forced relocation.


These issues are exacerbated when informal settlements develop outside the administrative boundary of the city. For instance, in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, as many as 60,000 people are being relocated due to redevelopment of under-served, informal areas of the city.

The project I worked on examined the impact of violence on migrants in the city. Through the surveys conducted with groups of these relocated households, we witnessed the enormous contribution that local community and neighbourhood organisations can make to help those coping with forced relocation and the disintegration of migrant communities.

Migration to cities significantly contributes to urbanisation. And if well planned, migration can enhance the dynamism of cities making them healthier, more profitable and more interesting places to live.

Michael Collyer is a reader in geography at the University of Sussex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.