CH 4: The urbanization of the village

TanzeelTanzeel Merchant is Executive Director of the Ryerson City Building Institute, a non-partisan centre focused on urban issues relevant to city regions nationally and globally. Prior to this role, as a Manager at the Province’s Ontario Growth Secretariat, Tanzeel led the development and implementation of the award-winning Places to Grow initiative. Tanzeel was featured in the Toronto Star as one of 24 Canadians nationally with ideas that would shape the future of the country. He also sits on the board of Heritage Toronto, the Friends of the Pan Am Path, and the Canadian Urban Institute. Read more about Tanzeel here.

Tanzeel Merchant on Arrival City Chapter 4: The urbanization of the village

In this very interesting fourth chapter, Saunders, through an incisive analysis, highlights the often heartbreaking relationships between rural and urban life. Through short narratives on four largely-agricultural, rural communities in countries as diverse as Poland, China, India and Bangladesh, he elegantly holds up and traces the tenuous familial and economic strands that hold these two solitudes in balance. The impact of this dramatic rural and urban flux will in a single generation alter the very notions of family and culture that have held strong for centuries, creating something new, possibly frightening, possibly refreshing, in its wake….

It is important to note that these narratives capture a snapshot in time of lives being lived, albeit in a moment of rapid change. As young students of architecture, over two decades ago, we travelled through such rural communities, eager to understand their lives and ways of living. The contrasts then were already striking. The differences were not only about wealth and economic attainment, but about access to education and healthcare. I can only imagine how much sharper they are now. While the majority (almost 80%) of the developed world’s population live in cities, only a minority of the developing world live in urban surrounds. In South Asia, almost 70% of the population live outside of cities. These complexities are far darker when one adds issues of caste, religion and race to the mix. As we read this one chapter of ten, it’s important to remember that these stories are not those of a minority, but often a majority in the countries that are being lived and written in each day.

Us urban dwellers in the first world often romanticise about what rural and agrarian life must be like. Just the other day, I was telling my partner Daniel about an article I read in The Economist on the topic. It mentioned how Dutch researchers in 2010 had found that “city dwellers have a 21% higher risk of developing anxiety disorders than do their calmer rural countrymen, and a 39% higher risk of developing mood disorders.” Many of us city dweller think that life must be better (and saner) where the grass is greener.


Cities build illusory, romantic associations with rural life. Most urban adults who grew up in cities in India, who often populate the corridors of academia, and in turn hold the levers of policy power, know the rural landscape through movies like Mother India (pictured right). This epic film from the 50s heroicizes a poverty-stricken village woman named Radha. In the absence of her husband, she struggles to raise her sons and bests a cunning money-lender amidst many other troubles. Despite her hardship, she sets a goddess-like moral example of an ideal Indian woman. Saunder’s real-life stories, including the one from Dorli in India, paint a tragic picture of abject poverty, indebtedness and suicide– far removed from the romantic imagery of the countryside that many of us in cities harbour.

At the heart of the problems that many of these atrophying rural communities face, are well-meaning policies that have had disastrous consequences. Saunders brilliantly calls them out. Policies meant to sustain agricultural production to increase food self-sufficiency by preserving land pay no attention to increasing productivity and profitability. This leads to withered dreams and wasted capital. These are problems not unique to the developing world. In Canada, even as the rural landscape ages demographically, the policy mandarins and their political masters diddle without acknowledging or responding to the inevitability of this paradigm shift. The rural populace often feel disenfranchised for good reason– The people who make decisions for them often live in cities. Hindustan Unilever, the Indian subsidiary of the global consumer goods multinational, was very aware of this when it developed a decades-old management program that required all its executives to spend their first 8 weeks living in a remote, rural village in order to truly and more compassionately understand their customers. Government bureaucrats in cities across the world might benefit from such a bootcamp too.

As large as cities get in the future, there will always be a rural constituency. Saunders posits that farms will get larger, more productive, and more efficient, driven by the economics and realities of labour and mechanisation. Discussions and conflicts will arise on simplistic assumptions of governance and power that are premised on size and growth. This chapter clearly illustrates the mutually beneficial relationships between the cities and villages, and how these connections need to be sustained and nurtured to allow both to coexist and support one another. In this march towards urbanisation, let this not be forgotten.


The last example in this chapter, describes the economic relationships between the village of Bishwananth in rural Bangladesh with London in the UK. It challenges us to think of these rural-urban relationships at a transcontinental scale. This brilliant diagram by Nikola Sander (pictured above) plots migration flows across the world from 2005 to 2010. Tick marks show the number of migrants (inflows and outflows) in millions. Saunders’ Bangladesh example shows how a Bangladeshi migrant working as a cook in a curry restaurant in London is treated like royalty in her or his native village. Mike Davis, in Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City, discusses how rural peasants from Latin America, now settled in the USA, through greater access to levers of power in a more economically powerful new home country, were effecting political and economic changes in the countries they had left behind. Even as countries across the world turn inward, and xenophobic and racist dogma seems to become acceptable, the broad swathes of people in the diagram above have redrawn the maps and terrains of villages, cities and nations.

As I turned the page on this chapter, I am haunted by the image of six-year old Pu Ming Lin and his two-year old sister Dong Lin, clinging to their ageing grandmother as she toils in the fields of Shulin in rural China. Saunders has painted a full and human picture of the lives that are these stories. He rightly says: “The fate of the village rests largely in the way countries manage their cities.” This next generation– vulnerable, forced to live away from their parents, orphaned by suicide, denied access to education or opportunity– they are the true cost of this massive migration from the countryside to the city. No amount of wealth, power or argument for urbanisation can justify the price of progress that these little children have paid.

By Tanzeel Merchant

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Maryama A. says:

    Informative and thought provoking would be the choice of words when describe chapter three of Arrival City. Mario’s story was executed with enough information and informative backing of an arrival city of that emerged solely based on immigration and “suburbanization”. I enjoyed Saunders’s argument that cities are potentially to be expected to fail due to the high levels of violence however, an arrival can miraculously turned around, which was correct for L.A’s case however, it was a 20 year process to conclude with that result.

    The chapter began to analyze a subsection of Los Angeles (or known to be West Adams or North corner of South America) as a major source of income for the rural communities from where the immigrated urbanities came from. Mario’s story allowed the readers like myself to understand the hardships one had to go though in a newly acclaimed arrival city such as L. A. He’s been through the cities beginnings and rough middles like violence, poverty, and lack of state visibility. His story (which is an example of many stores in the city) was a clear definition of perseverance within the world of entrepreneurship’. As Saunders’s puts it, Mario’s story is echoed “across the western world, in the outskirts, the low-rent suburbs, the housing-project districts and the abandoned inner-city enclaves of North America’s and Europe’s cities” (p. 81-2). This particular chapter ties what Saunders is trying to state in chapter 1 and 2 which illustrated how those who immigrate into heavily populated and diverse cities tend to be individuals from rural areas of the world.

    Mario and many other Central Americans like himself thrive off of the “booming transnational property trade, driven by a population who aspire to entrepreneurship, education and home ownership” (p. 81). However, there is a struggle attached to that goal which is stated in the third quarter of the chapter which analyzes the hardships of poverty, disassociation as well as fear that individuals from rural countries have to go through when immigrating into rural countries without actual permission by the state (citizenship). Saunders’s is very passionate about immigration and citizenship laws for those who are illegal immigrants but have managed to create an growing arrival city. The United States has a strong case with this but what is Canada’s involvement? Do we have a similar case? Saunders does address that Toronto shares the same qualities as L.A but is it to the exact extent as L.A?

    Mario’s and many other community members have struggled to gain asylum from their war conflicted homes in Centre America, this topic was very much covered on the last portion of the chapter. From my take on his information I found it to touching home for me. Then again I may not be the right generation that can vocally represent those who have fled their homes to start a new however, I can say that my parents have. They chose the suburbs to get away from the busy streets of downtown however, I later came to the fact that they chose our little home so that we can be a part of a safe and prominently African community that is growing on its own compared to the rest of Toronto. To be honest I wouldn’t mind living anywhere else in the city but, my parents actually feel “right back home” and productive when living in the “burbs”.

  2. Michelle B says:

    In this chapter, Saunders uses the case studies of Poland, China, India, and Bangladesh to identify how the “push and pull of the arrival city” (p.102) had come to govern the lives of impoverished inhabitants. Saunders exemplifies this point in highlighting the struggles associated with rural environments, something which is noted above by Merchant, to be commonly romanticized in Western society. This chapter successfully evokes an array of saddened emotions from the reader, detailing the everyday hardships faced in these rural communities, forcing one to recognize the simple luxuries that are continually taken for granted in more privileged societies.

    The connection between the various studies of the cities is the failure to maintain a sufficient living through agricultural means, therefore manifesting arrival cities. Individuals are forced to float back and forth between rural and urban cities to juggle being with their families and escaping economic crisis, with obtaining an education and earning wages to send back to the villages to support loved ones. Due to many of these cities lacking any form of social welfare assistance or social safety nets, it becomes important to maintain ties with ones villages and farms to compensate. Saunders does well to look beyond the wage earners to the toll this takes on the children of urban migrants, most prominently evident in his study of Shuilin, Sichaun, China. Here he posits that grandparents are becoming identified as a form of adoptive parent, straining family relations and subjecting youth to the overwhelming stresses of supporting the family later in life.

    An interesting detail which stood out in this chapter was Saunders discussion of the “Londoni,” who despite holding normative jobs in London were viewed honorably back home in Bangladesh. This discussion leads into what appears to be his overarching argument that the arrival city is indeed urbanizing the village both culturally and in terms of economic organization. The issue is that the flood of money back to the villages is generational, and will likely cease in the near future as the children of arrival cities break free of their familial connections. This makes self-sufficiency vital to the inhabitants of these villages, recognizing that future income will soon be their own sole responsibility as opposed to the foreign remittance which is currently relied upon. With many desiring the leave the village, Saunders notes the importance of how countries manage their major cities, and the policies used to distribute rights and resources. He concludes in stating that both of the former will influence the future environment of the arrival city and the village.

  3. Sharmila Uruthiranandasivam says:

    Saunders examines four rural-to-urban relationships that are taking place in Poland, China, India and Bangladesh. In this chapter, he demonstrates that the relationship between rural and urban areas balance one another. Without this balance, severe consequences can be faced such as absolute poverty, debt and hunger. Saunders begins to examine the relationship of the rural-to-urban concept in Tatary, Poland where Marek Storczynski (farmer) is holding onto his arable land for the sake of receiving a pension when he turns 60 years of age. Without the support of his daughter sending remittances from Warsaw, life would not be sustainable for Marek. Therefore in this example that Saunder provides, we can see that urban remittances are helping out Polish farm families maintain their farms and establishing a living.
    The second example that Saunders provides is Shuilin, Sichuan, China where the rural-to-urban relationship is represented rather differently. This village consists of grandparents raising their grandchildren while the working group have moved to urban centres to find work. We can see here that Pu Jun, who we read about in Chapter 1, has a family in the village that needs to be supported. Pu Jun has two kids who are rather young and are being cared by their grandparents. In this example, Saunders explains that the village serves as a social security net for those workers in urban centres who do not receive benefits such as unemployment insurance due to their citizenship status. When there is an economic downturn, urban workers return back to villages which serve to provide them with some security opposed to none in urban centres. We can also see that remittances from urban centres allow village houses to be upgraded and sustain a family. From this example, I can see that rural-to-urban relationships work together in the time of need, balancing off one another for support.
    Saunders provides a third example in which the rural-to-urban relationship does not exist for various of reasons in Dorli, Maharashtra, India. These farmers are not able to purchase fertilizers and seeds because of such high prices in the market. In this case, farmers borrow money from the bank and black market lenders. Farmers gain little to none profit at the end of harvest season to provide for their family. Without remittances from urban centres, it is rather a challenge to sustain a farm and provide food for the family. Many farmers decided to suicide by drinking pesticides and insecticides because of having a debt. In this example, I can see that the absence of a rural-to-urban relationship has caused strains for farmers who could not handle the cost of farming and barely make profits for everyday needs.
    The last rural-urban relationship outlined in Chapter 4 is Biswanath, Sylhet, Bangladesh. This village has changed from a regular agrarian village to one that has shops to cater to the villagers. Remittances sent from villagers who have migrated to Britain have funded for roads, houses, stores, and even universities. Remittances being sent from arrival cities were being used to create an economy that are quite similar to urban centres. But as soon as remittances disappeared, many shops had to close down as they were dependent on money from arrival cities. Soon after that some villagers decided to sell their farm to allow those with knowledge of new farming methods to flourish. This also meant that these farms needed labourers and villagers were employed for work. Some kept stores open for the villagers and made money this way. Biswanath turned into a miniature urban centre when remittances were sent by relatives living in arrival cities. As soon as these remittances stopped being sent, villagers turned to different methods of work to make a living. This met that some people sold their farm lands in order to open up a store or even work on larger farmland. This idea could have worked in Dorli if enough money was invested into agriculture and if farmers were willing to give up their farmland to either open up a store or become a labourer.

  4. Benjamin Allen Stevens says:

    While, as you say, it is the next generation that is “the true cost of this massive migration from the countryside to the city,” they also stand to be the primary beneficiaries of their parents’ sacrifices. If their parents are be successful in the arrival cities they have left their children behind for, their children will have opportunities far greater than they would have had in the village. In this way, the parents are spending their own lives to gamble on the future of their children – and it may well be worth the risk.
    If Pu Jun, the transformer builder, is successful, he will move his family to Chongqing permanently, and they won’t look back. As described by Saunders in previous chapters, the entire purpose of arrival cities is to provide opportunities for both migrants and their villages of origin. The example of Dorli, “the village without a city,” is a heartbreaking example of what can happen if these opportunities for escape and improvement are unavailable. Villages and villagers who are unable to make the gamble on the future are (as described by Saunders, who is choosing examples to make a point) destined to stagnation and eventual destruction at the hands of starvation by the vicissitudes of fate.

    Finally, the example of the Londoni in the town of Sylhet in rural Bangladesh is an excellent, albeit extreme, illustration of how wealth and status are relative. Even though they live in public housing in Britain, and earn wages close to the legal minimum, Sylheti migrants are able to build palaces, and live like royalty, in their home village.

    1. Christine Anandappa says:

      I once held a romanticized view of rural life, this view has been challenged by the narratives of real rural life that Saunders offers throughout Arrival City. Chapter 4 has made the strongest impact on my shift in perspective as it provides a closer look at the lives that arrival city migrants have left and the struggles that the family left behind continue to face. This chapter takes us through four different villages and shows the common experience of hardship that family farmers face.

      Just as you are haunted by the image of vulnerability faced by six-year old Pu Ming Lin and his two-year old sister Dong Lin in the rural village of Shuilin in China, I am as well. This family’s story shows the sacrifice of separation by sending a family member, Pu-Jun – father of the two children, into the city to find work. Without this sacrifice, they would be threatened by absolute poverty like many of the other villagers. We are introduced to Pu-Jun in chapter 1 where he describes the rare occasions and moments that he gets to share with his children. Although he is able to send remittances to support his family, I feel that remittance is also the biggest obstacle in his family’s reunification. A large part of Pu-Jun’s earnings is sent back to the village, this can make it difficult for Pu-Jun to establish a better life in the city that could accommodate his whole family. I want to be hopeful for these children but a part of me fears they will not be able to reunite with their father.

      I also understand that the story of these two children, Pu Ming Lin and Dong Lin are not an exception. There are many children that experience separation from their parents through migration, in hopes of a better life. Although I understand why the risk is taken, it also is heartbreaking for me to imagine the emotional impact of this experience for these children.

  5. uzmizzle says:

    In Merchant’s blog post on chapter 4 of Saunders’ Arrival City, Merchant names the four different villages, but he does not seem to sufficiently stress on the varying situations that urbanization creates. Merchant focuses on the hardships that connect the four villages: caused by policy implementations from cities that brutally affect rural populations. However, what I personally found very interesting is, how each village looks as a result of emigration. Saunders brings together in one chapter, Dorli in India, Biswanth in Bangladesh, Shuilin in China and Tatary in Poland.

    Interestingly, there seems to be a recurring comment made by multiple farmers from each of the four cities. The mindset in these villages is that, because farmers are living in such extreme hardship, it is best if farming and farmers became non-existent. Marek Storczynski, a Polish farmer from chapter 4, expresses joy in the thought that in the near future – European peasant farming will be completely left in the past. Globally, traditional farming life has gradually become impossible to sustain, as the urban life becomes increasingly appealing. Saunders reinforces this concept towards the end of the chapter under the story of Biswanth, Sylhet, where he says “agriculture is no longer always the most sensible way for villagers to make a living.” (p. 8 of 12, Saunders) This, I believe, is Saunders making a crucial point about urbanization, to be considered for the rest of the book. He builds on this idea by saying that farming will only viable and profitable for those villages with dependable, thriving arrival cities around, and with investments to give the village economy a startup — such as the case in Biswanth, Bangladesh.

    Although Merchant and Saunders both make urbanization the root cause of all evils that results in the suffering of millions of people globally – highlighted by Saunders through the two children in Shuilin growing up without their father, the suicidal and indebted farmers in Dorli, etc – this is not necessarily the only view. Merchant mentions an Indian movie filmed in the 1950’s, depicting the hardships of a rural Indian village life. It is important to focus on the positivity that urbanization brings to the villagers who are offered an avenue to escape their impoverished lives after generations of suffering. Globalization and urbanization have lent the poorest villages – from the corners of China to the farms in Poland – a chance to escape, albeit through more suffering. Technology has changed the face of farming and continue to do so. For the time being, multiple generations will make sacrifices as Merchant concludes. However, it is a price these generations are paying in order to escape thousands of years of oppressive farming life to a more hopeful life of higher and stable income.

  6. Amrit- Paul Sandhu says:

    Chapter 4 of the Arrival City is a very interesting one that gives a really detail depiction of the relationship between village and city. An area of focus that I want to emphasize is from the case of Poland. The idea that a country changes its traditional customs just by being involved more on a global scale is really intriguing. Poland became part of the European Union and there was a new emphasis and importance of global cities+ their economic importance. The immediate effects of this were apparent when much of the Polish youth were able to go to different countries and their global cities to attain new skills. This allowed the opportunity to return to Poland and more importantly to a global city within Poland.

    I am interested to hear what opinions people have about the notion that global organizations have on fixing this issue between villages and cities. Global cities have an economic responsibility especially with trade and links to other global cities; therefore if there are more organizations linking countries together does it influence a positive impact for the need of more global cities. If the government is trying to leave people within villages in attempts to discourage urbanization; the counter argument can be made that global organizations can give governments reason to promote urbanization.

    Keeping people in areas with the sole purpose of not urbanizing is a form of marginalization and it is justified that Saunders refers to them as people in a “peasant life”. They are essentially farming to be able to survive and there land is wasted when it can have some economic benefits as well. Stagnating opportunity has social repercussions as well that can be seen through Pu- Ming Lin and Dong Lin, they are forced to live away from their actual parents creating close bonds with grandparents and elders who have a bigger age gap. Saunders refers to the death of surrogate parents being tough however it has an implication on families as parents must come back into the vicious cycle to take care of the children of their passing.

  7. Daniel Vozis McEvoy says:

    The issue of globalization and it’s affect upon rural life was well illustrated in in Chapter 4 through the examination of “Londonis” and their relationship with the village of Biswanath in Bangladesh. This village has seen many of its resident’s leave rural life for a chance at a better life for themselves and their children in an urban area; however, unlike Dorli in India, the residents of Biswanath have left for an arrival city in London, England. In their new home, the Bangladeshi immigrants to London have worked hard to create a prosperous life, with many living prosperous middle class lives. With their new found wealth, a fortune compared to what many earn in Biswanath, the Londonis have created homes and businesses in their city of origin which employ not only their relatives, but also other members of the local community. Through the creation of job opportunities through employment on their properties, as well as businesses created with the capital provided through remittances, the village of Biswanath has been transformed into a rural center of commerce.
    Unfortunately for the residents of Biswanath who had Londoni relatives who sent home remittances, these “gifts” for afar are dependent upon the whims of the global financial market. The market troubles of 2008 caused these systems of money and wealth transfer from developed to developing world to dry up, leading to an increased reliance upon agriculture as a means of survival and financial support. This emphasized the need for more productive agricultural methods, as well as a consolidation of smaller agricultural plots into viable commercial farms which could not only provide sustenance, but also profit and jobs for farm labourers.
    Although those who grew up in urban environments such as myself often have an idealized version of the rural family farm, the reality is often quite different, as Saunders emphasizes in this chapter. While Saunders points out that small rural farms are often rather productive, it is important that they are able to provide for than just bare sustenance for the family that works it. If a farm is able to provide some level of profit for the landowner, as well as jobs for agricultural labourers, there is an opportunity to invest in the local economy that can spur capitalist growth for rural towns and villages. This emancipation from dependence upon remittances has allowed Bengalis such as Montaj Begum to invest their profits from modernly managed farms into small businesses, and provide a sound financial base independent of the whims of their emigree relatives(Saunders, 2011, pp.128-129).

  8. Kersten says:

    For me, the truest sacrifice of the what it means to immigrate to an arrival city and leave behind literally everything is demonstrated in Chapter 4. While reading this chapter, I was continuously brought back to a day that I spent in Beijing in the hotungs (long standing urban slums of the working class). There my family and I had a tour guide who took us through the hotungs and gave us a history of the area, as well as an insight into what day to day life was like for the working class of Beijing. I was absolutely heartbroken when she shared with us that she and her husband had moved to the city 3 years ago from their rural village so that they could afford to send their daughter to kindergarten one day. She and her husband slept on the floor of a one room hut in the hotungs, and kept only enough money to pay their rent and eat, and all the rest was sent back to their village where her mother was raising her daughter. Once a month, she and her husband got 24 hours off, and they would use this day to take a 4 hour bus ride back to their village and see their daughter for a few hours before having to head back to the city.
    Not only do I sympathize and have immense respect for the countless parents who sacrifice everything in order to hopefully give their children a better life than what they experience, but my thoughts always go back to the children who are growing up without their parents. Saunders touches briefly on this in the chapter, and describes that these children may not be as socially adjusted having to be raised by an older generation, and they will also experience the loss of a parental figure much earlier in life having been raised by their grandparents.
    Given the young age of the children, it is understandable that we the readers did not get to hear much from them in this chapter, but that is definitely an interview I would be interested in reading or listening to in the future to gain perspective on what life is like for those children who grow up away from their parents. Do they understand the full extent of their parents sacrifices? Do they see why it’s necessary? Do they feel a disconnect from the people brought them into this world?
    I could continue that list of questions much longer, but I think you see where I’m coming from.
    I very much look forward to the rest of this book after this chapter.

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