The first book by The Globe and Mail’s European correspondent promises a vivid globetrotting trip to urban neighbourhoods filled with rural migrants, a demographic reality that, Doug Saunders argues persuasively, is shaping the current century. Though his premise is well argued, the book is a bit of a slog because it relies too heavily on the social science that forms the backbone of his weekly column.
Each section is composed of a visit to a different “arrival city” – usually situated on the edge of established urban centres such as Toronto or Mumbai, where rural migrants congregate – and each one starts by introducing us to an individual resident. This overly schematic structure gets quite repetitive, and many of the vignettes are brief and seem almost tacked on, having little purpose other than putting a human face on Saunders’ data and research. This book is ultimately about people, but the only truly memorable characters are the ones that Saunders takes the time to introduce us to in detpth and whose stories are fully integrated into the narratives of their particular arrival cities.
Because of its fragmented and episodic structure, Arrival City reads like a collection of newspaper stories clumsily jammed together. This is especially unfortunate because the topic is so important. The way governments and societies respond to the issue of urban migration has an effect on everything from the poverty rate to religious and political extremism.
Saunders’ prescription for dealing with urbanization – “you need to have both a free market in widely held private property and a strong and assertive government willing to spend heavily on this transition” – is eminently reasonable, and it is mostly borne out by the findings presented in the book. But readers will have to persevere to make it to this conclusion.