Only connect? Migration and the right to the city

Published 23 May 2012 / By Michael Keith

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By: Michael Keith, Director

Recently the London Borough of Newham hit the headlines when writing to housing associations and private landlords in Stoke on Trent (over 150 miles away) looking for rented accommodation to offer to people on their housing waiting list. The borough that will host the Olympics is one of the most diverse parts of Britain. It continues to be a major destination for international migrants in the capital. But the housing market is overheated. Rental returns are spiralling because of the Olympics and the press report mass overcrowding and the renting out of garden sheds as homes for new arrivals. But the spectacle of local people displaced to Stoke, when the London Olympic bid had foregrounded the regeneration of east London and the city’s diversity, is what resonates in the media.

In some quarters this receives little sympathy. There is an argument that what is needed alongside the ‘rebalancing’ of the British economy from consumption and debt to production and export is a spatial restructuring of demand between London and the south east and the rest of the country.  Equally, the relationship between development pressures, gentrification and displacement is both commonly aired and well researched.

But this alone will not answer the problem of city growth. On May 17th a report by the National Housing Federation, Shelter and the Chartered Institute of Housing suggested that the ‘target units’ of housing supply in the UK is running at approximately half what is needed. This is not a uniquely British problem. Across the globe whether in China, India or the United Kingdom some of the largest major cities are growing rapidly (even whilst others face problems of diminution and shrinking). In movements from the immediate hinterlands and on a continental scale China became over 50% urban in 2011 as part of arguably the largest migration the world has ever seen. By 2030 India is predicted to have 68 cities with population more than 1 million, up from 42 today (Europe has 35).  As the French sociologist Alain Touraine has argued the 21st century will be defined by the answer to the problem ‘comment nous vivre ensemble’. Only a fraction of the demand in the UK is attributable to migration but migration is one part of the jigsaw that tries to piece together a way in which we think about the future of cities and how we live together in the future metropolis.

What these contexts share is an uncertain urban future – in whose image will these new cities be made? In Britain’s parochial public sphere a debate about migration targets and totals appears at times divorced from the practical dilemmas of managing the consequences of the major flows of people to the UK in the last decade. And the attempts to build the good city imply a further uncertainty about the balance between state action and market trend.  In this respect the response of the ‘socialist market’ in China and the informalities of Indian cities might speak surprisingly to the realities of the British situation as well as a potential to learn from the diverse European experiences of rent control, public housing and public / private rental mixes.

In all cases there is a need to understand that whilst migration tends to be measured in terms of movements between countries, its consequences are realised in specific places and neighbourhoods. Whilst the economic benefits of migration tend to be generated nationally (or at least at the scale of labour market travel to work areas) the social costs and pinch points tend to be realised locally. This mismatch, a disparity of geographical scale, is at the heart of some of the more pressing research questions and policy dilemmas that link flows of people to contemporary urban change.

In thinking through how growing cities accommodate large numbers of new people, it is important to start identifying the trade offs that might be necessary in public policy, as well as the forms of intervention that might be optimal in housing policy beyond absolute ‘targets’ and total numbers. Welfare systems must try to appropriately recognise both the long queues of ‘local’ people that look to subsidised housing provision and the need to accommodate new arrivals.

The notion of the right to the city was coined by the French radical Henri Lefèbvre in the 1960s, signalling how the metropolis was both a crucible of resource allocation and an arena of political action.  In a distant echo of 1960s idealism the United Nations Habitat team picked up on Lefèbvre’s rallying cry in the run up to the March 2010 World Urban Forum in Rio. If the UK were to think slightly less parochially it might be possible to think through the UK housing crisis alongside the challenges of migration in a fashion that considers the problems of Britain alongside those of other cities across the world. If we take one step back from our national context this might raise some important questions. What are the policy trade offs between public needs and local demands?  How do regimes of rule structure the right to the city? How does citizenship work at plural scales – at levels of entitlement to welfare at the level of the neighbourhood and the metropolis as well as the nation state? How do welfare regimes recognise or preclude the right to reside in the centre of the city as well as at its periphery? How we measure the social externalities of migration flows into these growing places?

Maybe the time has come to link the utopian invocation of the right to the city to a hard headed debate about reconciling incommensurable demands and realisable city futures. Among other things this suggests the need for a link between research on migration and the mechanics of city change.  The ghosts of other stories in London’s Olympics link imaginatively to the experiences of Barcelona and Beijing just as the new demographics of the London Borough of Newham link not only to Stoke but also to transnational and diasporic links across the globe. Only connect.