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Examining Toronto’s arrival cities

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Within the last 50 years, a vast portion of the world’s population has moved from rural areas to urban dwellings. As people participate in these ongoing global migrations, humanity experiences success, disruption, and a shifting perception of home.

Doug Saunders is a Toronto-raised journalist and European bureau chief for The Globe and Mail. His weekly column explores key background concepts behind international events. In September, Saunders’ first book was published.

Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World is a manifesto that combines scholarly work, data trends, and personal encounters. The book focuses on people migrating from a village to an “arrival city;” a transitive place where families temporarily settle to establish themselves economically and socially before integrating into the mainstream population.

Saunders studies migration across the globe and finds patterns in whether people successfully establish themselves and how they affect the countries they live in.

The Varsity spoke with Saunders by phone from his London office on the day of Toronto’s mayoral election about universities, Toronto’s arrival cities, and the changing meaning of home.

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The Varsity: Why did you write Arrival City?

Doug Saunders: I’d begun to notice in my travels a pattern among the neighbourhoods usually beyond the end of the transit lines, where people were arriving from other places, mostly from rural or village migration. And I realized that these neighbourhoods were where the really important transformations are occurring in many countries around the world.

The large force of population transition is an abstract concept that we know is happening this century. It’s manifesting itself in a certain type of neighbourhood. And I realized that you can strip these neighbourhoods down to their economic and social functions and there’s a great similarity between them.

Whether they’re a slum shack in Mumbai or an immigrant community in Los Angeles or in Toronto, if you take away some of the cosmetic aspects of them, you can find a set of functions. If you can strip it down to those functions, you can find out that when things go wrong in those neighbourhoods, it’s usually because one of these functions has been impeded in some way.

I realized there was no instruction manual for these sorts of neighbourhoods, there’s nothing explaining how this works. There’s some excellent work in scholarly literature, in social sciences, in economics, and so on, that explains parts of it. But I realized there was a need to write a guidebook that explained how these places are supposed to work and how to make them work.

TV: Have you been following the mayoral election?

DS: I’m not allowed to vote at this point because I’ve lived out of Canada for too long, but I’ve been following it with some frustration.

TV: How well do you think the candidates understand arrival cities?

DS: There’s an understanding in some branches of Toronto’s administration of how to make these neighbourhoods work. The redevelopment of Regent Park, using value-capture models where you move in middle-class condominium buyers and supermarkets and so on in order to create a revenue stream that pays for the redevelopment of social housing, is an excellent way to do things.

I spend a chapter in the book visiting Thorncliffe Park in eastern Toronto, which I looked at as an imperfect, fairly rough place, but in many ways a model for how to make a transitional city work in ways that understands itself as an arrival city.

Toronto’s biggest arrival cities are not within Toronto as such. They tend to be in Peel region, sometimes in York region — in the great suburban expanses, in the west and north of Toronto. The amalgamation process fifteen or so years ago didn’t go far enough. There needs to be a government that incorporates York and Peel.

Peel is probably the largest receptor of immigrants in all of North America. You could even point to sort of the high-rise neighbourhoods that encircle Pearson Airport as being the greatest landing pad neighbourhood in North America, not in quality but volume.

This is tragic because, with some exceptions, Peel and York regions are not places that understand themselves as arrival cities. They don’t want to understand themselves like this, and they don’t cater to voters who come from that constituency. I think a lot of Toronto’s problems come from the fact that it can’t govern its most important arrival cities.

It didn’t help in this election to have a candidate [Rob Ford] going on that immigration was something they could stop, as if they could build a moat around Toronto or something. Toronto will be the second-largest immigrant city of North America after Los Angeles for the next twenty to forty years. That’s a very safe assumption based on any possible circumstances.

So it will continue to be a city of arrival cities and I think there was a failure during the election campaign to discuss it on that level, although I suspect some of the candidates had a lesser degree of understanding.

TV: You mention Thorncliffe Park in your book as an ideal arrival city —

DS: It’s actually not ideal. It has some things going for it. It’s not a beautiful neighbourhood, and it’s not entirely peaceful.

There are [metal detectors] when you go through the doors at an elementary school. It’s sort of what you’d expect in a transitional neighbourhood. It has some model things in it in terms of how a neighbourhood can improve itself by understanding itself as an arrival city.

TV: So, it’s relatively well-managed.

DS: Yes.

TV: And what other arrival city areas in Toronto are well-managed?

DS: The classic example is the first-generation arrival cities of the decades immediately after the Second World War when the final waves of Europeans, mostly from the South and East of Europe came in, and then large numbers of Chinese. Those are all immensely successful arrival cities without having any policy designed to do them that way.

Canada was lucky for many decades. Toronto just got lucky with arrival cities because it had a huge base of low-cost housing that was undesirable to the mainstream populace i.e. the Victorian rural-houses. Keep in mind [that] in the early 1970s, Victorian housing was considered disgusting and vulgar among the white middle-class of Canada. So it was left to poor immigrants.

This base of cheap housing was located perfectly for the economic and social interconnection with the larger economy of the city. It had quick transit links already built into it. It was sort of the ideal arrangements for an arrival city already set up. And also the business and citizenship part that was easy to get at least until the mid-’70s. You could easily start a business, even within your own house. The zoning laws were not terribly prohibitive, and you could get away with ignoring them. Citizenship was generally available.

None of those circumstances now exist with the current wave of arrival cities that have popped up during the last twenty years. Those first-generation ones like Chinatown, Little India, and Little Portugal just don’t have the capacity left in them, and the property values are beyond the range of the latest wave of immigrants. The latest wave of new arrival city immigrants tend to be on outskirts of Toronto.

Thorncliffe Park is a good example of a working solution. There are others, but it really stands out. There are places like Malton and Jane and Finch that didn’t work. A large part is because of few physical connections to the larger city.

TV: How well do you think Canadian universities accommodate arrival city families?

DS: The university remains the main target for arrival cities. Much of the capital stored up in any neighbourhood is to get the first Canadian-born generation into university, often at an incredible cost. Certainly, the proportion of people in Canadian universities, specifically Toronto universities, whose parents came from a village somewhere else without a university education is quite high. It is a big target. Could we do better on that? Are our educational funding policies properly oriented towards that? Do we understand that university is so important to first-generation communities? I think Canada’s much better than other places but there might be more that could be done.

I think the mistake the government’s making is that because neighbourhoods are poor, that that’s their nature, without realizing that there are neighbourhoods that are poor because a lot of people pass through them. In fact they’re sending a third of their youths into university and into the middle-class and taking new people in from the village at an equivalent rate. That makes these neighbourhoods look like they’re poor and government always assumes they’re poor. But if you track any one family you’ll see they’re having a great degree of social mobility and that new poor people are moving in.

There needs to be an understanding that, rather than social work and welfare, what these neighbourhoods often need is help with university, small business formation. Things like this that give social mobility rather than things that relegate poverty.

TV: Your paper underwent a major redesign last month. The Globe is gearing itself to university-educated sons and daughters of immigrants. Is this a good idea for corporations, and how can they be effective?

DS: I hope so. I think that’s a group of people who want to be tied into the institutions of the core of Toronto society and Canadian society. The newspaper I work for is part of that, as are financial institutions, political institutions, and so on.

I think the success or failure of Canada in the next generations will depend on whether the people who are coming through these arrival city neighbourhoods are able to link themselves into the Canadian establishment in the way that previous generations have been able to do.

So, I think it’s an acute understanding that a newspaper like this, just like a political party, or a bank, or any business institution of Canada, needs to be helping lift themselves into this up-and-coming generation of new arrivals as we’ve done in the past, mostly by luck — and as we may have to do in the future through skill and strategy.

TV: How do you define home?

DS: [long pause]

TV: You can collect your thoughts.

DS: [laughs] I wrestle with that question a lot. I’m not going to be so shallow as to say that home is wherever I lay my hat. I do keep attachments to all the places I’ve lived before.

On a personal basis, I find it hard not to consider Toronto home. Because it is where I lived the most and I still have a home there. And because my understanding of the world, in many ways, is forged by my understanding in what took place around Toronto during important years there.

But you can have more than one home. I don’t think people need to be worried about people who arrive in Canada having a sense of origin related to some place elsewhere. Canada got away for many years with having a sense that Britain was its home.

During the World Wars you could print headlines referring to Britain as home and everyone would know what you were talking about. It took about two or three generations until a generation of Anglo-Canadians didn’t instinctively think of Britain as home. I’m far enough in from British immigrants that I’ve come to live here and this is one of the more alien places in the world. The English are an ethnic group, but despite supposedly being my ancestors, they are often opaque and incomprehensible to me. [laughs]

I think that eventually happens with anyone from anywhere. I think [it’s a] larger problem when people’s ties to an originating country become their only link to anything. With my chapter on Slotervaart, on the outskirts of Amsterdam, the Moroccan immigrants had every desire to become fully integrated Dutch citizens.

But the physical, infrastructural, and political and bureaucratic barriers meant it was much easier for them to form linkages via satellite to Morocco, which they fled, than it was to form any kind of economic linkages to Amsterdam, which was only a few kilometres away from them.

You have to be very careful not to be putting into place supposedly temporary immigration programs that force people to make linkages back to an originating country more strongly than a place they now live. People have a sense of home when they have networks linking them into it.

You can live in a site for forty years, like the Turks did in Berlin, without considering it home because the place is not allowing you to buy the land under your feet, start a small business, send your kids to university, and so on. All those things were forbidden to the Turks and so of course they weren’t able to see Germany as home, in spite of wanting to do so.

Governments telling people to integrate is missing the point that people do integrate culturally if they have the citizenship and the economic and bureaucratic ability to connect themselves physically and economically. I’m convinced culture simply follows after physical and economic conditions.

TV: How do you think notions of home shift during the migration process?

DS: The important thing to understand is that the transitional culture in the arrival city is sometimes more intense than the village. The first generation born in the arrival city develops strong connections to their parents’ culture of origin; it’s not uncommon and it’s documented worldwide.

There is a transitional culture for the first few generations where people have a divided sense of where home is. But we don’t need to get too pinned down on specifically what home is. If conditions on the ground are favourable to people, then it will become home to them.

TV: Your book focuses on humanity’s imminent and permanent migration from predominately rural to urban. How will this change our perception of home?

DS: There are ties to the village that people maintain for a very, very long time. In Canada you have a huge number of people who identify with a village somewhere. I know Italians in Canada who, after sixty years, still visit once every two years or something. There are lasting senses that there’s a real home elsewhere. It’s the natural human quest for authenticity and it does die away after a few generations.

As we become more urbanized, I think the village will become a place that’s sort of a repository for romantic connection rather than a place of mere survival. As the rural space becomes more productive and is used more as a place for producing nutrients for the world, then suddenly the life-and-death survival aspect of those places can be replaced with a romantic idea.

Certainly in France, which is completely urbanized now, the romantic attachment to the village is key. Once you’re fully urbanized you get a population who gets use of the village as a choice and not out of means to survive and produce agriculture.