Tanzeel 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