Prior to the twentieth century, the level of urban disease was so high that cities were demographic sinks. That is, mortality was high, with more people dying than being born. I first read about this situation in William McNeill's 1976 book, Plagues and Peoples, a very readable book that is still valuable and fascinating today. The only way that premodern cities could maintain their population (or grow) was through migration from the countryside. Thus migration was the lifeline of premodern cities--without it, they would shrink and die.
Although urban migration has always been with us, it first came to world attention in the mid-twentieth century. Throughout the developing world, a combination of global and local economic forces led to population growth and increasing poverty in the countryside. Peasant families moved into cities in large numbers. This led to the creation of large shantytowns around most of the big cities in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. At first, governments, the media, and even scholars decried these places as settings for crime, violence, poverty, and the breakdown of families and social values. But ethnographic fieldwork by urban anthropologists (pioneered by Oscar Lewis and William Mangin) showed that these shantytowns were full of hard-working poor people who hustled to make a living while maintaining the family structure and value system (see Mangin 1970; Turner 1991).
This massive exodus from rural to urban never ceased. Now more than half of the human species lives in cities, and all over the world rural peoples continue to migrate to shantytowns and other urban settlements. In his new book, Arrival City, journalist Doug Saunders (2011) describes this migration process around the world, from Africa to China to the United States. His findings echo the results of the urban anthropologists from fifty years ago: most migrants work hard to make a living, creating vibrant and dynamic urban neighborhoods in the process. Like their cousins two generations ago, these migrants maintain contact with their villages of origin, regularly sending money back home. Like premodern cities all over the world, people can live, work and relax in their own neighborhood. If the authorities provide key services (buses most of all, but also street lighting and other infrastructural features like paved roads, sewage systems and water), these urban villages become successful and sustainable neighborhoods.
Doug Saunders has a website on the book, "Arrival City" and a nice photo essay in the magazine Foreign Policy. There are excellent and insightful reviews in The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. In the latter review, Fred Pearce says,
This may be the best popular book on cities since Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities half a century ago. Certainly it shares the same optimism about human aspiration amid overcrowded buildings and unplanned urban jungles, and the same plea for planners to help rather than stifle those dreams.
The picture painted by Saunders is vivid and contemporary, but the phenomenon of Arrival Cities -- those places where the migrants end up -- is quite ancient. If the ancient Sumerian scribes had been inclined to inscribe their cuneiform tablets with stories of urban migrants rather than accounts of the temple's herds of sheep or stories of the great deeds of kings and gods, this book might have been written five thousand years ago. Migration is absolutely crucial to urban dynamics, a regular pattern in the wide urban world.
|Early Sumerian cuneiform text.|
Mangin, William (editor)
1970 Peasants in Cities: Readings in the Anthropology of Urbanization. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
McNeill, William H.
1976 Plagues and Peoples. Academic Press, New York.
2011 Arrival City: How the Largest Migration in History is Reshaping our World. Pantheon, New York.
Turner, John F. C.
1991 Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments. Marion Boyars, London.