‘Housing is the most significant vehicle for social mobility’
Doug Saunders is one of the ISHF Opening Event keynote speakers. He is a Toronto based journalist and author of the acclaimed book ‘Arrival City’, addressing the final migration to cities. We called Doug Saunders and asked him to share some news regarding his involvement in the festival.
Why are you giving a keynote speech at ISHF’s Opening Event, and what can we expect?
In my work on the integration of migrants, which has involved research in almost 100 cities on five continents, I have increasingly found that housing is the most significant vehicle for social mobility — and also the most significant obstacle to integration, if there are problems in the housing system.
The spatial and geographic design of housing, the connection of housing to transportation and established communities, the mix of economic and cultural functions in housing, the form of tenure and the residents’ stake in the housing community, the ability of residents to change and diversify the use of land and property upon which they live — these are all crucial components in the inclusion of newcomers in an established society.
I would like to talk about both good and bad examples I’ve seen of housing and integration — including established social-housing initiatives, and some of the new initiatives designed in the 2015 European refugee crisis.
In your book, ‘Arrival City,’ you describe migration to cities as a global phenomenon that relates to economics, geography, sociology and spatial planning. It has become a best seller. When did you develop the idea to write this book, and what was your motivation?
It was something that emerged slowly. First of all, I have been living close to people with a migrant background all my life. In Toronto, LA, and London. So I experienced the struggles and successes of migrants closely.
Then, as a journalist, I travelled around the world and saw the same migration patterns and newcomers’ behavior in each city that I visited regardless where I was, but in particular in cities in developing countries, like Teherhan, Mexico City, and Mumbai.
I experienced my ‘ Eureka’ moment when I was in Istanbul, back in 2006. There, while researching a neighborhood that I would later call an ‘ Arrival city’, I suddenly saw the pattern of people moving to cities, sending money back to their families in the countryside, while investing in their future in the city. This was a key moment.
Finally, my motivation to write the book was to draw public attention to an important phenomenon that radically affects society, economy, and the city and to start solving problems.
You describe migration to cities as a global phenomenon with an enormous impact on how people will live and how cities will develop. Do you feel that the importance of the subject is being recognized among governments and municipalities?
In general, I am positive about what I have seen in the past decade. The majority of cities realize that migrant neighborhoods are an asset, or at least shouldn’t be neglected as they might become places where bad things like terrorist networks emerge. Cities in Europe, China, and Brazil made big progress. Meanwhile, I still see big problems in cities in India.
Next to this there is another phenomena that I hadn’t foreseen. This is conflict migration, like from Syria to Europe. These refugees are different than the migrants that I described, their challenges are much bigger. First of all, they have fewer resources, and secondly, they see themselves as temporary. They might return when the war is over. Meanwhile, this influx of refugees changed the discourse on migration to cities radically, which influences the integration process too.
In many European countries, like the Netherlands, migrants arrive in social housing. What do you think is the role of social housing in the process of integration of newcomers to the city?
To answer this question, I would like to distinguish the two main systems to organize a housing market. In the model of the English speaking world (and Belgium), migrants have easy access to home ownership. They need this ownership for social security, so they buy a house as soon as they can. Buying a house is a necessity, even though it’s very expensive.
In continental Europe, migrants have less access to home ownership, but they do have access to social housing. They don’t need the ownership because they get social security in other ways. This provision of affordable housing helps them taking the first steps. If they become successful, they will leave social housing and buy a house or rent a house in the private market. If they don’t, they get stuck there. That’s a bad thing. So, for a migrant, social housing plays a double role. It’s both an asset, due to its affordability, and a hindrance, a place to get stuck if you fail.
What are you expecting of the International Social Housing Festival?
I have big expectations. While in Amsterdam, I hope to attend as many events as possible, as I have a considerable interest in the ideas and examples being presented here. I hope to learn far more than I contribute!