Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History Is Reshaping Our World 
Doug Saunders
Pantheon Books
1745 Broadway,
New York, NY 10019;
2011. 356 pages. $27.95, hardcover.

It begins on Île de la Cité and near the Hotel de Ville in the center of Paris, and out beyond the old walls in the suburb of Faubourgs. In barely a year, Paris swells by 126,000 impoverished inhabitants sleeping as many as 20 per room in suffocating slums. The year 1789 marks the beginning of a great western European and New World rural-to-urban migration and the dawn of the French and Industrial revolutions.

Then, as today, the receptor communities for those fleeing the crushing subsistence of a farm economy are stereotyped as dead-end zones of entrapment and crime, places with no prospect of change or up–ward mobility. Not so, writes veteran British journalist Doug Saunders in this thought-provoking, painstakingly researched, and gripping commentary of what he calls “arrival cities.” Such communities have been and continue to be dynamic places of transition, he asserts, playing a major role in shaping the destiny of their parent cities. Moreover, what transpires in coming decades of migration will have enormous global consequences—economic, social, and political. By the mid-21st century. human population is predicted to stabilize at 9 billion, signaling the closing chapter to all great migrations. But how it all ends is the unanswered question posed by this book.

Saunders’s research, the product of three years of globetrotting with his support team, has fostered the hope, albeit cautionary, that today’s arrival city can continue to fulfill its inherent mission as a legitimate and special kind of urban place. The text poignantly captures the dreams and fears of everyday residents in as many as 30 cities and villages in 16 countries: favelas, bustees, kampongs, gecekondulars, barrios, and banlieues difficiles, mostly clustered in or near megacities like Mumbai, Shenzhen, Istanbul, or the northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C.

The disturbing reality that Saunders and his team witnessed was that life in such settlements, indeed the residents’ very hopes for survival, can change almost overnight. Sudden oscillations from shock to awe, explosion to stabilization, make it extraordinarily difficult for researchers to frame conclusive assessments. Witness Slotervaart, the Le Corbusier–inspired Cartesian settlement near Amsterdam, originally a bland grid of single-use buildings and districts built after World War II. Reality there was shattered in late 2004 when a second-generation dropout and radical Islamic, Mohammed Bouyeri, brutally murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh, shooting him eight times and slashing his throat. Or the Santa Marta favela high above Rio de Janeiro, which in 2008 was stormed by military police who shot to death all the members of the traficantes Red Command drug army, the climax of many such raids.

Hopeful responses occurred in both settings, and in short order. In Slotervaart, despite severe political backlash, Amsterdam’s Jewish mayor Job Cohen joined forces with a local politician and immigrant Moroccan, Ahmed Marcouch, to undertake an ambitious redevelopment plan. In just three years, Slotervaart was rebuilt on the Jane Jacobs model of mixed-use intensity, diversity, and flexibility with apartments above businesses on bustling streets and sidewalks, plus larger police and security patrols and a bicycle-borne truancy force to keep teenagers in school.

At Santa Marta, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, himself a product of an arrival city, announced a series of physical changes, including a funicular rail connection, a daycare facility, a lighted football field, and street lighting. But equally if not more important was the granting of birth certificates and assignment of street addresses to all residents. Even in the face of such promising interventions, Saunders admits that these settlements are still works in progress.

The evolving situation in Poland represents an ironic twist, what observers have called a “J-turn” of arrival-city returnees. Due to a complex overlap involving failed government policy, admission to the European Union, the realities of daily economic logic, and a dose of sheer happenstance, legions of Poles who had settled as far away as London and New York City are now occupying arrival destinations, not on farms, but in Gdansk, Warsaw, and Krakow. Perhaps this is the signal of long-term success, an indicator of a growing stability and prosperity, as also found in Los Angeles, Istanbul, and London.

What concerns Saunders most is that “the larger message is lost to many citizens and leaders. These transitional spaces . . . are . . . where the next great economic and cultural boom will be born or the next explosion of violence will occur,” he writes. “The difference depends on our ability to notice and our willingness to engage.” Read, ponder, and absorb the complex and far-reaching issues posed by this book. They are of a transformative nature.