Geographies in Depth

Why migrants are our cities’ untapped potential

Jonathan Hursh
Founding Partner, Utopia
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Which two cities in the world do you most associate with immigration? And which two cities would you say are the most powerful in the world? Usually, whichever of these questions I ask people, the answers are the same: New York and London.

It shows that most of us recognize, however unconsciously, that migration can be a powerful force for good in cities. And yet, as urbanization pulls in rural dwellers in emerging economies, this is not an insight we’re making nearly enough effort to act on. Internal migrants find that the fast-growing cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America are not set up to harness their individual determination to build a better life, and use it to build a better city.

Typically, the experience of a migrant from a rural area goes like this: they move to the city hoping to work hard, earn money and give their children a better start. But they struggle to find a steady job, and gravitate to a migrant slum on the periphery. There they live a life characterized by informality: informal housing, informal work, informal education for their children.

This is already an extremely common phenomenon. One in six people in the world now lives in an urban slum. Within a few decades, that will be one in three. Whether we can provide a framework that gives urban migrants outlets for their energy and aspiration is set to become a defining issue of the 21st century. Will the sons and daughters of today’s migrants grow up to become doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs, or a febrile mass of disenfranchised and disaffected youth?

The organization I founded, INCLUDED, started out on a small scale in Beijing in 2006. We opened a community centre providing basic services such as vocational and life-skills training, after-school clubs and early childhood development. We and our affiliates now have 14 of those centres, operating in Beijing, Shanghai, Dhaka and Kathmandu and are on track to build out a network of 10 strategic cities and 100 community centres worldwide.

We sought to gain the trust of governments and to work with businesses to be able to provide other services, such as health and legal awareness. Building inclusive cities requires all stakeholders to work together: businesses are gradually realizing the long-term potential of offering services at accessible prices in slums; government’s role, in shaping policies and urban plans, is the linchpin; civil society can inspire and bring tested models to the table.

As the experiences of rural-urban migrants are similar the world over, we’re building a global network to pull together a picture of what works and what doesn’t, and package it in simple ways.

Entrepreneurship is not lacking: slums are full of creativity, ambition and drive. Mumbai’s Dharavi slum is estimated to have a billion-dollar informal economy. What we need is to bring slum activity into the formal economy: taxing that turnover is a controversial idea, but it would fund investment in the basic services that in turn would fuel further economic growth, and help legitimize migrants’ role and contributions in the city.

Along with formality, migrants need stability. In 2009, we experienced first-hand the instability of slum existence when our very first community centre was demolished – along with the houses of 30,000 people in the neighbourhood – with just three weeks’ notice. We need to give slum dwellers the sense of security and belonging, the sense of feeling at home in the city, that will incentivize them to invest and build. If we are to grow, we need them included.

This experience brought home to us why there are so few examples of quality architecture in urban slums. We engaged with leading architects to think about this problem, and together designed new community centres made from recycled shipping containers – a solution that is durable, creative and practical but also moveable if the need arises. As good design is a profound source of dignity, we need urgently to inspire and mobilize a new generation of urban planners, architects and industrial designers to design with slums in mind. Careful design can significantly increase the quality of life for what will become one-third of humanity.

More fundamentally, we need to shift mindsets to tackle the stigmatization that too often surrounds migrants. We need to provide hope and long-term solutions, to bring about integration into the formal city. We need to say to migrants: you are included.

Author: A migrant construction worker at a residential construction site in Shanghai REUTERS/Aly Song 

Image: A girl carries water pots in a Mumbai slum, 24 May 2005. REUTERS/STR New

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Related topics:
Geographies in DepthFinancial and Monetary SystemsEconomic Growth
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