Planet of Slums or Arrival Cities?

April 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

It was with great anticipation that I opened Douglas Saunders‘ recent book, Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World. The reviews I’d read of the book praised its brilliance and Saunders’ regular column for The Globe & Mail suggested this was a book anyone who thinks and writes about cities themselves had to read. It is rare I have been so disappointed in a book.

I will write in greater detail about Arrival City on my blog at Current Intelligence in the next month or so, but for now, let me just say that this book is a massive disappointment. Saunders does little more than re-hash neo-liberal, whiggish arguments about progress and the city and how the city is the panacea to all that threatens humanity and the environment.  The problems begin with what Saunders calls an “arrival city,” which is never properly defined. Could be a city, could be a neighbourhood, could be a slum, could be all kinds of things. But the rest of the book more or less dismisses the problem of the slum in the developing world. Saunders acknowledges that they exist, but then goes on to suggest they are just temporary dwellings for people on the rise into the middle-classes.  He picks up Hernando de Soto’s argument that all slum-dwellers in the developing world need is security of tenure, to own their own homes and property. This is the solution to poverty in slums. To prove his point, Saunders, a journalist, puts a human face on the residents of the slums, but he tends to pick people who are successful, who do get out of the slums. He champions the spread of middle-class North American culture (and its attendant free-trade) around the globe as the solution to urban poverty. Of course, this proves his point, about how these arrival cities are just that, a sort of purgatory for migrants from the countryside, a way-station on their way to respectability and security in the city.

I read Arrival City in conjunction with Mike DavisPlanet of Slums. The contrast between the two studies could not be more shocking. Whereas Davis has often been criticised as being too harsh in his arguments about the problem of slums and development globally, the problem with Saunders is the exact opposite: he’s far too wide-eyed to the point where he seems to be ignoring the harsh realities of life in slums of cities in the developing world.

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§ 2 Responses to Planet of Slums or Arrival Cities?

  • Mike says:

    I partly agree.

    Saunders does mention two crucial conditions for a slum to be successful: it shoud give access to credit as well as to land.

  • John Matthew Barlow says:

    Thanks for reading.

    Yes, he does mention that, and gives plenty of examples of successful attempts, but he also ignores many failures and also doesn’t go into much detail about the enormous obstacles to such conditions.

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