Friday, September 24, 2010
Arrival Cities and green tenants
Last month, I finally read Arrival City: the final migration and our next world. It's a book I've been eagerly awaiting since it was first announced a few years ago. In it, Doug Saunders travels the slums of the world to discover what works and what doesn't, as the developing world's largely rural population rapidly urbanizes.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should state up front that Doug is my brother. I've watched, sometimes jealously, sometimes with concern, as he spent recent years travelling to some of the most interesting, most dangerous and most innovative places on Earth.
The book concept appealed to me from the beginning, as it seeks out the roots of much of the cultural conflict we've witnessed in suburban fringes in recent years. The riots in Clichy-sous-Bois are an obvious flashpoint.
But what does all this have to do with rental housing and the environment? Lots.
To begin with, most new arrivals from the remaining rural parts of the world will rent their housing, at least at first. And the viability of home ownership is one of the important factors in arrival city success that Doug discusses in the book. While, in the privileged west, many people choose to rent for the sake of convenience, most people still want to own their homes. The land we occupy isn't just a home, it's a potential place of business and a source of capital that can be used to develop those businesses.
Giving these migrants the resources and support they need to successfully build their urban future is absolutely vital to future peace. When we fail the migrants, we tend to create the conditions that breed dangerous extremist populations. Access to housing, education, capital, jobs and, vitally, citizenship is essential to the success of our cities. While the risk of failure is dire, the rewards for getting it right are huge. The poor migrants of today create the middle class of tomorrow. In other words, from a strictly financial standpoint, the investments in infrastructure and social programs will pay off in spades.
Obviously, there are questions about the environmental effect of mass urbanization. Really, this is not the issue. People living in dense urban areas tend to require fewer resources per capita than do rural dwellers. But we also see a rise in standard of living as people urbanize, and with that comes new consumption of electronic goods, electricity and so forth.
Some groups, particularly in the United States, have suggested that the answer is to close down borders and prevent people in the developing world from attaining our western standard of living.
That's utter nonsense. We've already seen that it won't work, and the sort of restrictions on citizenship and immigration they promote have had terrible results where they've been attempted.
It's also ridiculous because it would require the sort of national isolation that causes economies to stagnate. Oh, and there's also increasing demand for unskilled labour in most western countries, and successful economies have always been built on the strong backs of new arrivals looking for a path to a better life for their families.
What we need to do is provide a platform for success.
That means creating the framework for communities. In some cases, it will mean relaxing some of our licensing and permitting regulations to allow for businesses in places we haven't been allowing them. That will bring us to communities that blend residential and commercial (perhaps light industrial) uses. Environmentally speaking, that's a good idea, as it allows more people to live near their work.
We need to create the framework for communities where people who rent can see a way to home ownership. It is true that homeowners tend to invest in and improve their properties more than tenants do.
Right now, we have the opportunity to work on making the gateway communities ones that will work for the people who will live in them, while at the same time building in ways that will make them resource-efficient. In doing so, however, we will need to keep in mind that cost is extremely important. The migrants will not have the capital to make the sort of environmental investments we need. But many of those investments, in good insulation, energy efficient appliances, lighting, etc., will bring the operating cost of apartments down, making them ultimately more accessible. In the shorter term, however, we need governments to invest in infrastructure with a view to the long-term payoffs (through a growing middle class of taxpayers and business owners).
I have, of course, in this post moved from the book's content into my own thoughts on the subject. But Arrival City is, for me at least, a book about exploring a huge geographical phenomenon and the ways to adapt to it. It's my favourite kind of book: one that gives us a framework for discussion and the exploration of new ideas.