Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the World
by Jeb Brugmann
An excerpt from Chapter 3
The Great Migration: The Rise of Homo Urbanis
When Arum wakes to another morning, he plans his revolution anew. His eyes open in a makeshift, one-room shack in Madurai, a city of one million located deep in the agricultural regions of southern India. The dirt floor that is his bed emits an earthy smell evocative of his village home. But this shack of scrap wood, metal, and fabric is clustered with others against the high, thick wall of a brick-making compound. A few feet away, through the compound wall, a city is coming to life.
Arum listens to the sounds of the brick makers as they work across the dusty, hard-packed compound yard. He listens to their movements to judge the time of day. They work in small family groups, a father and mother and one or two teenaged sons, beginning at one o’clock in the morning. For three hours, while the city sleeps, they dig, wet, and knead the soil. From four to ten o’clock, as the sun rises and heats their backs, and as morning birdsongs give way to the traffic noise outside the compound, each team hand-molds a daily output of two thousand to three thousand bricks. Later in the afternoon, with the city’s heat and dust bearing down on them, they work three more hours to clean and stack their day’s production for the kiln. This twelve-hour process earns them a shared daily wage of less than $10 for a three-to-four person crew, or an average of 17 cents an hour for each worker.
For the brick makers, this is an impressive sum. It is three times the earnings that they could make for off-season agricultural labor back in their villages. Each year during the dry months from March to September, when the region’s rural harvest season gives way to its urban construction season, these families migrate back to Madurai. Here each family unit reclaims its residence in a shack or simple canvas tent, producing another four hundred thousand bricks over the course of six months to build the offices, temples, walls, and homes of this growing city.
Madurai and the region that surrounds it have been defined for centuries by seasonal migrations between rural and urban areas, binding village and city into a single economy and culture…For twenty-two years, Arum’s father has migrated back and forth between his village and this brickyard. While he and his wife have raised their family by the seasonal cycle of brick making and agricultural labor, they have invested their savings not into home improvements or better appliances but into Arum’s schooling in Madurai. Today the aging father makes fewer bricks and less money. He has also had to save dowries for Arum’s two sisters, so there is not enough to continue Arum’s schooling. But the parents are using what savings remain to rent the crude brickyard shack for Arum so that he can surmount the annual rhythm of seasonal labor that has defined their family’s life for generations. When the dry season is over and Arum’s parents return to work in the fields, Arum will not go to the village. He will stay in the city to search for permanent work.
“He should not lead a life like us,” his father says in an austere, loving manner. This decision does not require elaboration. It reflects a new regional logic that his family has come to accept as self-evident. Arum is not permitted to make bricks or to join his buddies as laborers in construction jobs. He must discover a new path for himself, and for his family’s future, in the world of cities…
…When he emerges from the shack, he is wearing Western trousers and a tucked-in shirt. The morning sun is getting high. I can see him approaching us from the shaded area of the workers’ encampment. I’m speaking with the brick makers who are resting in the middle of the compound yard. Arum has an easy, alert gait that is different from the deliberate, sparing walk of his father. It is the walk of a different culture…
An excerpt from Chapter 6
What We Can Learn from the Way that Migrants Build Their Cities: Buildings, City Models, and Citysystems
Imagine what would happen if nearly a million poor people came to your city and settled in one place together…What would happen if they were left to their own devices in this city for thirty to forty years without legal status or investment, but also undisturbed by the kinds of harassment, destruction of their settlements, and forced relocations that have driven similar communities to rebellion in other parts of the world?
…Some years ago, during routine visits to Mumbai on business trips, I started interspersing business meetings in corporate offices and hotels of the booming formal economy with an exploration of Dharavi’s informal economic life. Dharavi, [Mumbai’s largest migrant city] , was a Rosetta Stone for understanding the workings of urban advantage free of imported ideas and plans, foreign capital, government regulation, and investment schemes. Here in Dharavi the basic logic of city building was laid bare.
Arum’s father, the seasonal brick maker in Madurai nearly one thousand miles away, was the first to tell me about the opportunities for migrant laborers in Mumbai. “The boys come back from Bombay and they talk about the nice climate and work opportunities,” he said on that hot day in the open brickyard. “So two or three go back with them each time to find work.” In [the Mumbai migrant city called] Dharavi, one could see the migrant pathway that might soon take Arum to a life across the City…
…Assadulah Rubena migrated to Dharavi in 1991, in his early twenties, encouraged by his older brother who migrated before him. He now runs a business selling appliances and cookware on consignment. Each month, he sends half his income back to his family in rural Tamil Nadu—an amount equal to the monthly income of a Madurai brick maker who produces sixty thousand bricks.
Sitting next to Rubena is Inayat Allah. He is from the same district that sent the original Tamil tannery workers to Dharavi. After moving to Mumbai, he found cash opportunities abroad via labor contracts in Saudi Arabia for agricultural and kitchen work. Then he came back and entered the labor recruiting business himself. Now he goes to the villages of his home district a few times each year and recruits youth for positions in the Gulf region. From the villagers’ perspective, the migration of a resident on a foreign labor contract is an investment scheme. The young migrant has to borrow some $1,500 from family members and neighbors—more than a year’s household income—to pay visa, travel and middle man costs. Then, by working twelve hours a day, seven days in a week on a two-year contract, he earns $125 to $200 more per month than he could earn in the village. He lives expense free abroad. His savings, sent home each month via the expanding global migrant remittances system, are his families’ primary route to capital accumulation and investment. Inayat Allah earns $75 from a Mumbai travel agency for each worker he sends overseas. While the visas and contracts for these recruits are being settled, they stay at this Dharavi hostel and explore the other business opportunities available to them in this migrant city upon their return.
Dharavi is no longer a slum. It has a population equivalent to Nashville, Edmonton, Gdansk, or Leeds. Its gross domestic product (GDP) is far lower, but its economy is every bit as diverse and vibrant as these Western cities’—if not more so. In a matter of decades it has matured into a global manufacturing and trading city built by hundredfold chains of migration from all over India. To use the jargon of Western development, Dharavi has a number of export-oriented industry clusters. It has strong secondary and tertiary economic sectors. Primary industries are supported by networks of secondary suppliers and service businesses, many of which are also located in Dharavi itself. On a walk through the area, one finds a full range of retail shops, warehousing, goods transport, lawyers, accountants, expediters, hotel and entertainment businesses, health clinics, religious institutions, and local political organizations. Altogether, Dharavi has an estimated GDP of $1.5 billion each year. In spite of its remittances to villages across India, its continued growth, without significant external finance, suggests a very positive balance of trade…
An excerpt from Chapter 9
Great Opportunities Cities: Stuck In Negotiation
…As the central city of Toronto wrestled with split jurisdictions, divided power, and querulous civic divisions, the investors, builders, and pioneer settlers of the emerging global City sought advantage in Canada’s largest urban region. The migrant pioneers have been arriving by the hundreds of thousands every decade. In the 1990s, more than seven hundred thousand new immigrants settled in the greater Toronto region. Girish is one of them.
Now in his late forties, Girish is a first-generation urbanite. He was born to a land-owning farming caste in a coffee-growing region 150 miles west of Bangalore. When he was a teenager, he lobbied to go to school in the city, where his father had studied before him. He took his first degree in accounting from a small regional college and then went back home to start a small plantation. But his educational ambition was hardly sated. In 1986, he completed his second degree, in law, at a more prestigious Bangalore university. This was during the early years of Bangalore’s development into a global IT center. In the spirit of the time, Girish turned away from the more traditional career path of staff accountant at an established firm and joined forces with a local software entrepreneur. This man had secured exclusive license from a British firm to develop one of the first off-the-shelf accounting software packages for the Indian market. When this venture sputtered, Girish stuck to his entrepreneurial path, starting an accounting practice with a colleague. But this proved too small for his ambitions.
“Since a child, I was fascinated by the Western world,” he tells me over coffee at the most convenient and convivial meeting place we could find between our respective inner- and edge-city homes—a labyrinthine IKEA store located off an expressway exit. “I knew someone who had gone to Sydney, Australia, who had gotten a job there. He had done very well,” he says. This man introduced him to a business that sought an accountant for an Australian start-up, building a credit card payment system for taxicabs. He applied and was hired on a temporary visa.
In Sydney, Girish overcame the loneliness of separation from his wife and two children by spending weekends with a close-knit community of young south Indian bachelors in the city’s Liverpool area. Liverpool, a settlement of Serbian, Fijian, Vietnamese, and Italian immigrants, “is the best place,” he recalls. The south Indians he met there weren’t professionals like him; they were printers, builders, and fitters. “But they were good cooks and they used to do house parties,” Girish says. “Four of them would share a one-bedroom apartment and take turns sleeping on shifts, and would share the same car.” The men networked endlessly about jobs and plans for further immigration. “It was a lucrative thing,” Girish called it, describing the unique association of such an immigrant neighborhood, “to go to that area and talk to everybody and learn what was happening.” Through these networking practices, Girish secured a job with Oracle, and then with Compaq.
These advances emboldened Girish, and when his temporary visa expired, he faced a choice: to return home to rejoin the rise of software companies there, or to permanently emigrate with his family to Australia or to a city that one of his Sydney contacts had explored before him: Toronto. He tried Australia first, but under the country’s strict immigration rules, which prequalify people for certain occupations, he failed to get a visa. He returned to Bangalore in 2001. The economy there was in a slump due to the burst of the dot-com bubble. Salaries were falling, and younger professionals were taking the available jobs. “I applied to Canada on the spur of the moment, and paid my $500,” he recalls. “Five months later I was called for an interview. It was as casual as you and me talking here. I was approved in a few weeks.”
Girish and his family moved to an apartment in Mississauga, a sprawling edge city that proudly tries to rival Toronto and hosts the region’s largest Indian community. He soon discovered that his Indian education would not be recognized by the provincial institute that has a near monopoly on chartered accounts, so he applied for more junior positions. “I applied for 150 jobs. I think I was a great fit for some, but I didn’t get a single interview,” he explains, the enthusiasm of his Sydney stories waning as he characterized these early Toronto years as “a sinking ship” mentality. “I went to the settlement assistance organizations, but they were not that helpful. They’d say ‘here is a course you can join’ or ‘why don’t you upgrade your skills to a Canadian CPA,’ but six, seven, eight months had passed and I was depleting my savings.”
“It was too frustrating just applying and waiting, so finally I went to a temporary employment agency and got a job on a production line assembling barbeques. It was OK. At least it paid me at the end of the week. Everyone on that line had a profession. There was an engineer from Gujarat. Another was a technician from the Philippines, and another a retired major from the Indian Army. I think,” he says, recovering his wit, “that I was the only certified accountant. Then, with one day’s notice, thirty or forty of us were laid off.”
By the time I met Girish in 2006, he had been a taxi driver for years. “One guy at the factory,” he relates, “had a friend who had been a systems analyst in the UK. In Toronto he was a taxi driver. So he told me how to go to city hall in Mississauga and get a taxi driver’s license. Then one day I was taking a class to be an income tax preparer. I met a man there who had an airport limousine. He walked me into the airport holding my hand to get me a job there. Otherwise it’s very hard to get in. That’s a Punjabi-controlled business,” he explained, describing the particularly successful chain migration of that ethnic community.
In the course of getting to know Girish, I was helped by a friend, himself an immigrant professional turned taxi driver, to interview a series of airport drivers. They had found their way from India, Pakistan and African countries via stints at schools and jobs around the world. One had a masters degree in computer engineering, another had been a management consultant, and another a factory manager. Uniformly, their engineering and accounting educations were not recognized by Toronto’s professional institutes. They had worked as security guards, factory workers, or warehousemen. One told me about a prominent Indian astrophysicist who was working on a factory line.
Their stories are reflected in larger statistics. Recent census data show that so-called visible minorities in Canada are 20 percent more likely to have a university degree than White Canadians, but that immigrant unemployment rates are two to three times higher. Recent immigrants with degrees made less than half the salary of their Canadian-born counterparts. The average income of an immigrant with a university degree in 2005 was $24,636—in Toronto more than half of this would be needed just to rent an apartment. The gap between the educated immigrant and Canadian-born citizen has been widening for more than a decade.
The problems that immigrants face in their personal development in Toronto have exacerbated the widening spatial gap in the urban region as well. The central city’s recovering neighborhood citysystems have been less and less able to serve them. Historically, central Toronto was the landing point for the region’s, and indeed for most of Canada’s, immigrants. First-generation immigrants still make up half of central Toronto’s population and more than a million immigrants have established residence there since 1980. But increasing numbers, unable to find jobs and affordable housing, have settled in the edge suburbs. Now three of greater Toronto’s edge cities have a higher concentration of immigrants than Toronto itself.
Toronto’s traditional neighborhoods, lacking their local employment base, have lost their potency as vehicles for the immigrant’s advancement. Immigrants with lower incomes and skill levels still concentrate in central city neighborhoods, where crowded, extended family living is accepted or subsidized housing is available. They also crowd into the 1950-1960s urban renewal projects like Thorncliffe Park. Originally planned for 12,500 residents, today Thorncliffe Park is home to 30,000 people, more than two thirds of whom are immigrants. They often live at the margins and depend on ethnic networks to find work. Informal labor and commerce are an important part of the economic equation in such places. But those who seek homeownership and less crowded conditions have increasingly had to hedge their opportunities in the suburbs’ residential subdivisions, shopping complexes, and industrial-office parks. Here they join the city of flows and a social ecology less of neighborhood building than of extended families and ethnic networks and institutions.
The political impact of this new social geography is concerning for Toronto. The good news is that Toronto’s place-based living makes for a more stable society than new suburbs. Census data show that people in the central city change addresses infrequently; they settle in. But central city immigrants don’t seem to be the fighting owner-citizens of old. Today, the city’s lowest voter participation is in areas with the highest concentrations of immigrants. The strongest predictor of voter participation in central Toronto is the concentration of immigrants in a neighborhood—not education, income, racial background, or form of tenancy. In the 2003 elections, participation in high immigrant areas was ten to twenty percent less than in the areas with the lowest concentrations of immigrants. In the same elections, immigrant communities in the suburbs were electing their own candidates to office. Toronto’s neighborhood-based urbanism doesn’t seem to be working the same way for immigrants any more. The citizen-practice of Toronto neighborhood building appears less viable to them than the consumer-practice of suburban home ownership, which offers an appreciating personal asset even if it fails to offer efficient living and community.
In the absence of a renewed urbanism, Toronto has been conceding growth to the suburbs. For forty years, its urbanists failed to offer designs for new neighborhoods and districts that were commercially robust and politically understood enough to compete against the city models. Between 1960 and 2000, more than a million migrants like Girish transformed large swaths of suburbia into global migrant suburbs. But the political activism of identity-based immigrant communities in the suburbs also reflects frustration about hours spent in traffic congestion, about the lack of facilities, about their “ghettoization,” “lack of proper planning,” and “crazy expansion,” expressed by the participants in our interviews. When I asked Girish and other taxi drivers to tell me their favorite places to visit in the greater Toronto area, they all but unanimously mentioned downtown places. Girish savored a walk in the atrium lobby of a particular skyscraper. Another liked the atmosphere of a particular downtown restaurant; another talked about the liveliness of the downtown waterfront in summertime. They still aspire to be fully urban people, even as they feel the city has rejected them…
© 2009 James E. Brugmann. All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Bloomsbury Press (May 2009): http:// www.bloomsburypress.com/books/catalog/welcome_to_the_urban_revolution
Published in Canada by Penguin/Viking Canada (May 2009): http://www.penguin.ca/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780670068050,00.html?WELCOME_TO_THE_URBAN_REVOLUTION_Jeb_Brugmann
Published in Australia by University of Queensland Press (August 2009): http://www.penguin.com.au/lookinside/spotlight.cfm?SBN=9780702236969
Also in India (HarperCollins India), China (Mandarin translation by Cheers Books/China Renmin University Press), the Netherlands (Dutch translation by Business Contact).