When I started university, one of my majors was urban studies. After a couple years I formally transferred to economics (which had made up part of my interdisciplinary curriculum) mostly out of frustration with the discipline. The study of cities, outside of geography departments, is pretty new. In many ways, that’s great for young people, because there are so many opportunities for original work.
But I felt like the tone of the discipline was set. While I learned a lot about rigorous qualitative research (it exists!) the mediocre qualitative work, and lack of quantitative rigour, drove me crazy. It seemed telling that my major didn’t require a single methods course. I couldn’t help but notice how much of the discipline was lifted more or less entirely from Jane Jacobs‘ work. We seemed to have only one intellectual giant, and academia couldn’t claim any credit for her work.
Thank god for Jacobs, though, for having the good sense to take on slum clearance, Le Corbusier, and half a dozen other destructive urban fads. And thank god for her latest successor, Doug Saunders.* Saunders’ new Arrival City builds on Jacobs’ work (it even includes an interview with her) by placing neighbourhoods like the ones she observed in a global context:
What will be remembered about our century, more than anything except perhaps changes to the climate, is the final shift of human populations from agricultural life to cities, the effects of which are being felt around the world. Arrival City gives us an on-the-ground view of this phenomenon—from Maryland to Shenzhen, from the favelas of Rio to the shanty towns of Mumbai, from Los Angeles to Nairobi. Doug Saunders […] makes clear that the cities and nations that provide citizenship and opportunity to migrants stand to benefit as the migrant class evolves into a middle class, and he explains why those that ignore these people will see increased social unrest, poverty, and religious fundamentalism.
More than that, I think Arrival City is this decade’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (I’ve been saying this to everyone, and now the Guardian agrees with me.) Like Jacobs, Saunders has depended primarily on thoughtful observation. In retrospect, his insights seem so simple, so self-evidently correct, that it’s hard to imagine that no one has made exactly this case before.
Since reading the book, I see support for its thesis everywhere. I find myself thinking and referring back to it often, which, let’s face it, doesn’t happen with most trade nonfiction. If you’re interested in cities, migration, equity, or social policy, you should be reading this book. If there’s any justice in publishing, it will sell more copies than The Tipping Point. Saunders’ Canadian book tour starts today; events are listed here.
* Regular readers will know that I’ve done a little bit of work for Saunders, but it was in no way related to the book.