Archive for poverty

Worldwide, cities are good for women

In honour of International Women’s Day this week, I offer the following argument:

The global shift toward cities and more urban based economies has benefited women — and the status of women — in at least three ways.

First, urban women and girls typically need to spend fewer hours doing household chores, including ensuring basic survival, than their rural counterparts.  For example, spending half a day hauling water, is not required — even in poorer cities or neighbourhoods where not all homes have running water, a pump is usually close to home.  Doing laundry is another chore that urban women can leave to a machine (even if she cannot afford her own, the laundry mat makes this task much easier and faster).

Additionally, as I’ve previously argued apartment and condominium living close to one’s work also benefits women and families with dual careers, removing tasks like commuting from the suburbs.  Higher density living also provides a wider audience of potential customers for often small scale female entrepreneurship. Whether making and selling choco-bananas from the house in Quito or teaching fitness classes.

Second, in part by reducing time spent on household chores, living in cities allow more girls and women to attend school (boys also benefit here too).  Moreover, cities often offer a woman a wide range of choices to utilize her education from “traditional female paths” like nursing or teaching to the new common female occupations such as accounting.

Third, city life for families and women is removing the economic bias in favor of sons, which world wide may be responsible for many fewer women being born — what the Economist called the missing 100 million women in the world’s population today due to abortion and infantside of female offspring (or gendercide as they call it).  Although the historical cultural bias remains in many countries, urban women have the opportunities to earn as good of a living as men.  Urban jobs tend to not favor brute strength as some rural occupations.  Moreover, land inheritances are less of an issue if one purchases food at the supermarket with money earned as a computer programmer, rather than needs to grow it for oneself.  Give the world’s population a generation to adjust to urban living, and baby girls may achieve equal status with their brothers in many more cultures.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that cities are perfect or some sort of heaven for the world’s women.  Violence and exploitation takes place in cities just as it does in rural areas (although one could argue that an urban oppressed women may have more resources and options to escape the abuse).   My argument is that on balance, the growth of cities and of more urban based, knowledge and service economies has been a step forward for the status and well being of the planet’s female population.

Your thoughts?  Are there other ways cities benefit women?  Or feel free to argue these points.

Intriguing idea: Charter Cities

Why is it that in hundreds of cities around the world, average citizens can own and use cel phones every day, but don’t have electricity or running water in their homes? They have a new, 21st century technology, but not a late-19th century one.

From this premise, Stanford University Economist Paul Romer develops an explanation, and then a solution in one of the most intriguing lectures I’ve watched in a long time.  See it here: or here.

Romer’s explanation for this dichotomy is poor rules.  Poor rules that create an unstable foundation for any kind of personal economic security.  For example, in some countries governments insist that utility companies offer electricity (or land-line phone, or water) at a particular, subsidized rate that doesn’t begin to cover their costs.  Therefore, these providers have no incentive to sign more people up, or even ensure the service doesn’t go out.  Changing the poor rules is tough, since thousands or millions of citizens as well as corporations rely on the cheap power, even if it is unreliable.  There is no easy path out for a country under this system.  (Cel phone operations, by contrast, tend to be market-based in much of the world.)

Starting up a new city, with new rules, in Romer’s argument, offers a way out.  He uses the example of Hong Kong.  For much of the 20th century, under British administration, the territory experimented with “good rules” adapted from successful economies around the world.  These rules encouraged innovation, investment, and overall economic growth.  Chinese premier Deng Xaopeng recognized how successful Hong Kong had been as a laboratory and market economy based alternative system to what existed in China in the late 1990s.   Special economic zones were then established in many Chinese cities, with more market-economy based rules (such as private property, market prices for services, etc.) offering citizens the choice of whether to live their and participate, or not.   Millions of Chinese have been flocking to these cities, that offer a different future for them or their children.  We’d have to consider them a success.

Based on the Chinese success, Romer suggests other countries from Cuba to Kenya consider creating charter cities and giving their citizens and people from around the world the option to move in.  He believes that more successful states, such as Canada, would be asked to administer the zones (instead of the failed state, who would be more of a silent partner).  As part of administering the zones, these more successful countries’ (or some team of people from them) would establish the new rules.   Likely these would involve laws about the security of private property, the enforecability of contracts, etc.

Contracts to provide services — everything from infrastructure, to schools, to commercial buildings — would be offered to national or global companies.

Charter cities would offer citizens in these struggling places another option.  They could switch to living by a different set of rules, and have an opportunity to build a better life for themselves or their children.

While I see some flaws in the plan (why would Canada’s government want to take on the challenge of setting up a special administrative zone, or charter city, in Guantanamo Bay, or anywhere else, for example), the idea is quite intriguing.  The planet needs to find a way out of failed states.

The video is worth watching if you have 20 minutes.

Blog action day: Dynamic cities and poverty

Dynamic cities with great employers, fantastic restaurants, great streets and pleasant parks also often have both significant numbers of impoverished people as well as wealthy individuals.  In some ways, this makes sense — great cities attract everyone.

In Who’s Your City, Richard Florida found that the most innovative centers in the United States — Silicon Valley, Boston and the Research Triangle — also contain the USA’s “highest levels of inequality.”  Florida notes that situations like this are becoming more common.  Economic spikes and valleys are happening within cities as well as in countries and around the world.

Why cities have such poverty and wealth side by side is no doubt complex.  Certainly, one aspect is that people struggling economically will come to more dynamic places in the hopes of finding that great job or other opportunity — and sometimes they will struggle.

What this means for cities — and their governments and residents — is that with success comes responsibility to address poverty.

As Florida says:

Managing the disparities between peaks and valleys worldwide — raising the valleys without sacrificing the peaks — is surely the greatest political challenge of our time.


This year’s blog action day theme is poverty.  To learn more, go to their home page.

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Book Review: The Concrete Dragon

Image from Amazon
The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What it Means for the World by Thomas J. Campanella

Reviewed by guest blogger, Dave Atkins.

Thomas Campanella’s book is a timely, eye-opening analysis of the wrenching urban revolution transforming China. Written in a clear, conversational tone, but packed with data and anecdotal stories that demonstrate the author’s insight into China, this book will amaze, confound, and challenge all those who seek to plan and manage urbanism.

The first chapters describe the scale of urban transformation underway in the Pearl River Delta, Shanghai, and Beijing. For those unfamiliar with China, it is an exciting story of rapid progress, amazing growth, and boundless ambition. But after laying the historical and political contexts, Campanella begins to systematically detail the human costs of growth–principally the destruction of neighborhoods and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. It is ironic that the Chinese character for “demolition,” Chai, has become a symbol of resistance–whereas in the west, it is a yuppie tea at Starbucks.

This is NOT a protest book. But the stories of displacement, the sacking of architectural history, and the value systems underlying this march to progress speak for themselves. Apart from being appalled at the human costs, what can westerners take away from all this? Three themes emerge:

  • Scale - Everything good and bad about western urbanism is amplified by several orders of magnitude. We begin from the sheer size of Chinese urbanism: 102 cities in China have more than 1 million people; compared to 9 in the United States.
  • Distinctions - urban “renewal” in China is nothing like that in US history. Understanding it is complex, especially in regard to suburbanization:
    • The city remains the dominant political unit and administrative unit, with suburbs possessing little relative clout. In the US, suburban communities taxed their wealthier base and built better schools and infrastructure, strengthening the cultural bias against cities. In China, cities have long been the ticket to stability for people, with mobility restricted and city-dwellers guaranteed food while the rural population starved.
    • Suburbs have a completely different context than in the US. In China, suburbs are populated with gated, self-contained communities. Buyers choose from all inclusive lifestyle estates with Anglicized (and intentionally bourgeois) names like “Latte Town, Glory Vogue, Yuppie International Garden, Wonderful Digital Jungle, and–cutting to the chase–Top Aristocrat.”

      Jobs have followed more or less in sync with the development of housing, so these suburbs are not “bedroom communities,” but more like mini factory towns. The concept of danwei–the communal work-unit model, and the housing form of siheyuan – courtyard-based living compounds–permeates development practices in sharp contrast to more open community development models in the US. In China, in the midst of extreme density, there is a tendency to organize into self-contained units. In the US, for all our proclaimed individualism, there is a bias towards community integration and an assumed role of government that is very different than China–a country we might assume would be much more communal.

    • The automobile is rapidly becoming central to Chinese experience. In the US, bicycles are a symbol of sustainability, recreation and fitness. In China, they are rapidly becoming associated with an image of a backward past.
  • Timeliness - August 8, 2008 will mark the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing. The urban revolution is part of a national drive to present a shockingly modern China to the world in time for the Olympics. After reading this book, I come away with the impression that what is going on with Chinese urbanism is more significant, more focused, and more imperative than even the US drive to land a man on the moon in the 1960s. It is impossible to understate what 8/8/8 means to China. Other books, such as China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future — and the Challenge for America by James Kynge describe the implications of China’s economic growth and associated social problems, but Concrete Dragon puts things in an infrastructural context, literally describing the architecture of supremacy.

I am not a professional urbanist, but I found the depth of this book impressive and the themes thought-provoking on many levels. The culture is so different from the west and yet the same types of changes are being attempted–on a massive scale–yielding unpredictable results. As an intellectual laboratory, it challenges our perspectives. As practical history, we are about to witness the birth of something spectacular.

Reviewed by guest blogger, Dave Atkins.

Innovation, spiky-ness and poverty

 In Who’s Your City, Richard Florida notes that economic spikes and valleys are becoming ever more pronounced.

What I found most intriguing, and simultaneously worrying, is his finding that the most innovative centers in the United States — Silicon Valley, Boston and the Research Triangle — also contain the USA’s “highest levels of inequality.”

Is poverty a necessary bi-product of good wealth-generation opportunity?

Florida focuses on those cities generating the most opportunity for creative, innovative people — the engine of 21st century economic growth.  These places attract well educated “knowledge” workers, but also a variety of others with different skills from construction to retail sales (and some with arguably more limited skills just hoping for a break).

This sounds remarkably similar to a gold rush town of yester-year.  Thousands flocked to places like San Francisco or Dawson City in the 19th century.  Only the talented, the connected and the lucky made any wealth.  They lived like kings.  Everyone else tried to scrape together a living anyway they could — or begged, or died from disease or the cold.

So maybe the historical lesson is that poverty will always follow wealth creation opportunity.

For modern cities, what should society do about this?   If you want opportunity, do you have to accept that some won’t be able to take advantage of it?  Put another way, do you accept that there will be definite winners and losers?

Would accepting this help city planners and economic development types along with social activists to better prepare to help those who don’t succeed.

As Florida says:

Managing the disparities between peaks and valleys worldwide — raising the valleys without sacrificing the peaks — is surely the greatest political challenge of our time.

I also wonder if such knowledge might help some of Florida’s readers choose their city?  If you don’t want to see great disparity between rich and poor, perhaps finding a place less dynamic might be for you?

Crowding out the locals

In Honolulu this week.  Amidst the sunshine and drier weather — a contrast from Vancouver of the past 18 months — I’ve noticed a remarkable similarity: Homeless people are everywhere.

From reading the local papers, guidebooks and chatting to residents it seems that a leading cause (or at least the believed leading cause) is tourism and the popularity among foreigners of the city.  Whether foreigners are the buyers, or merely the renters, the result is fewer homes for individuals and families with long (and shorter) histories on the islands – and much higher rents or sale prices for those that exist, which many cannot afford on typical salaries.  Honolulu also has a significant amount of geographic constraint, limiting the option for sprawl as a solution.

This got me thinking about superstar cities and sudden, rapid foreign involvement in the real estate market, and its resulting dislocations.  Seems the two go hand in hand.

And I’m also almost finished reading Richard Florida’s _Who’s Your City_ for a review here; he makes an observation that the cities generating the greatest amount of creativity or innovation also seem to have particularly large homeless and impoverished populations.  Interesting relationships to ponder…


“3 cups of tea:” Lessons from those who’ve never seen a city

Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time (New York: Penguin, 2006).

They live in isolated villages deep in the Karakorum Mountains at the western edge of the Himalayas. On our paper map abstractions, they live in Pakistan or Afghanistan. In reality, they’re on their own – stateless. The governments of these countries do not exist in their communities — no schools, no roads, no sanitation, no health care.

They practice their own version of Islam, Sunni, Shia or Ismali, often blended with older Buddist traditions. They would not recognize themselves in the fearful Muslim stereotypes thrown about in many outlets of the North American media and society. They are people simply living their lives and trying to ensure a better future for their children.

That’s what Greg Mortenson discovered after a fateful event in 1993 when he stumbled, alone and exhausted, off course on a weary descent from K2, the world’s second highest mountain in “Pakistan.” A village leader in Korphe took him in, offered him tea and a place to rest. During his stay, he asked to see the school thinking he’d repay some kindness through a donation of school supplies. What he saw changed his life:

Eighty-two children, seventy-eight boys and the four girls who had the pluck to join them, kneeling on the frostry ground, in the open … the village had no school and the Pakistani government didn’t provide a teacher…. [all the town could afford] they shared a teacher with the neighboring village of Munjung, and he taught in Korphe three days per week. The rest of the time the children were left alone to practice their lessons.

The book details Mortenson’s experience raising funds in the United States to build the children of Korphe a school, and then traveling back to the Karakorams to get it built. This process took several years, but Mortenson helped the villagers to make it happen. And soon representatives from other nearby villages approached him for help obtaining a school or paying for a teacher — which cost the unreachable sum of $1 US a day.

The book tells the story of how he built a network of support that has allowed him to build schools, schools that offer an alternative to the only other source of education in the region — the often-private-Saudi sponsored islamic fundamentalist madrasses that foment hatred, but offer often the only source opportunity and hope to thousands of impoverished young boys and their families. But also generate a jihadist ready army and Taliban fighters.

What can North American and European city dwellers learn from the pages of this book?

1. The interconnectedness between educating villagers in Central Asia and security of cities like New York. In 2001 Mortenson was in Northern Pakistan near the Afghanistan and Chinese borders. As he worked on his school-building mission, he noted numerous brand new madrasses in some of the villages. When word of the September 11, 2001 events reached him. His guide and self-proclaimed body-guard who spoke numerous local tongues and knew of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida’s training camps nearby in Afghanistan said: “Your problem in New York village comes from there,” pointing toward Afghanistan, “Osama.” People who had never heard of New York City knew more about how and why thousands of Americans were killed there than anyone there.

Mortenson insists that the real enemy is ignorance that can lead to hatred. Offering education and hope fights both better than pouring more bombs on Afghanistan.

2. The importance of education. As the one young village woman said, “It is like water — it is important for everything in life.” Mortenson’s organization, the Central Asia Institute, supports more than education for children, it also creates vocational training for adults and offers starter supplies like sewing machines or mountaineering gear. The book follows how numerous individuals improved their lives through the help of education. The granddaughter of the village leader who first took him in offers a great example. She completed 6 years of schooling in Korphe, and then went down to Skardu, a regional urban area, for further education.

Jahan, who had come to Skardu planning to become a simple health worker and return to Korphe was revising her goals upward…”When I was a little girl and I would see a gentleman of lady with good, clean clothes I would run away and hide my face. But after I graduated from the Korphe School, I felt a big change in my life. I felt I was clear and clean and could go before anybody and discuss anything…. Now that I am in Skardu, I feel that anything is possible. I don’t want to be just a health worker, I want to be such a woman that I can start a hospital and be an executive and look over all the health problems of all the women in the Braldu.”

As many North American cities struggle with poverty and related issues like addiction, the solutions offered appear more like band-aids: soup kitchens, shelters, and some basic health care.

What about more vocational training? What about offering better educational opportunities to children at risk?

Something as simple as a sewing machine can transform the lives of several families in the Karakorum. Maybe some of our own urban challenges have equally simple solutions.


Some images:

Image courtesy Greg Mortenson, Central Asia Institute. A community girls school.

More soon…

“The Missing Class”

Review by guest blogger David Atkins

The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America by Princeton University sociologist Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen offers a glimpse into the lives of many urban, working Americans who live above the official poverty line, but are not quite middle class.

This book is based on surveys and interviews between 1994-2002 and tells the stories of nine families in the New York City area, organizing those stories around these key issues:

  • gentrification of neighborhoods – some are being priced out of their neighborhoods, but life is safer in the Brooklyn, NY neighborhoods of Sunset Park, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill. It’s an evolving story that is not all good and not all bad.
  • credit card debt – why and how it gets out of control so quickly. For some, the desperation to escape privation has been a costly temptation.
  • childcare challenges – do welfare moms make better parents and community members than moms who commute hours to a factory job leaving their kids in improvised daycare?
  • health care – one accident can be a ticket back to poverty
  • relationships – the complex web of male/female and extended family arrangments is necessary, practical, and often dysfunctional
  • bureaucracy – near poor people hate welfare as much as the rest of us and would do almost anything to avoid going back.

This is a detailed book; I found it difficult to keep track of who was whom. We meet at least 50 different people in the course of describing the lives of 9 families. I had to draft an outline of the people involved to keep the names and places straight. But what emerges from this book — most relevant to cities– are the following three key recurrent themes:

1. “Near poor” is not a transitional state. Nationally, the “near poor” represent 57 million Americans. We tend to think that poor people who work hard will eventually get ahead and achieve at least some degree of security. But the reality is that those who escape poverty often remain in an economic condition where they are working hard, but cannot advance. In any urban setting, a significant underclass is not on any track to participate in community life beyond working as hard as they can to stay above water. Urban planning these days is often about attracting talent, making cities “cool” to live in for the “creative class” or knowledge workers.

The service class and working class are the people who keep the city running. Understanding, through the anecdotal stories of these families, should help to inform planners why the urban poor and near poor are not just a problem to be dealt with, but human beings who need to be a part of the engine of progress.

2. Child care is a constant problem. The welfare reform efforts of the 1990s succeeded in getting many Americans back to work. Laziness is not a problem among the working poor. Exhaustion is. And their children are constantly in danger of falling back into poverty because of the lack of supervision and involvement from parents who are too busy working to keep the rent paid and food on the table. The near poor are not choosing to let strangers raise their kids in order to pursue a career. There is no choice, only consequence.

3. We need practical, situational solutions, not value-based policies. The stories of how people get into trouble are seldom without some blame. Credit card debt? Why do you have that plasma TV? Single mom with 2 kids and husband deported? Why did you get pregnant again? This book describes with humility and empathy how the real stories of people living and working on the edge are doing their best to survive. The policies of welfare reform in the 1990 succeeded in creating a strong incentive system to get poor people working, but people make mistakes often through lack of information and misinformation. When wealthy people make mistakes, we see it as a learning process. When the near poor make bad decisions, we are quick to judge and apply our own standards about what they should have done and accept their difficulty as the cost of their bad decisions. But a few mistakes can lead to total disaster, especially in the context of children. What is the pregnant, single mom supposed to do to support her family? Take a course in web page design? When? Who takes care of the kids? Life is not fair, OK, we all get that. So what can we do about it?

The central thesis of this book is that we ignore the near poor. They exist in a gap between those in poverty, who we feel an obligation to assist, and those who are “on track” to greater economic stability and prosperity.

Newman identifies some key policy recommendations (and note the forward by Senator John Edwards–this book is intended to provoke political change):

Perhaps most importantly,

“…we must replace this patchwork child-care “system” — a term it barely merits — with a comprehensive, public-supported network of day care (for kids aged six months to three years) and kindergarten (starting at four). We know that the majority of mothers of children under one are in the labor force; no amount of wishful thinking is going to change that fact.”

The most successful and effective policies identified are more projects than policies. There is no magic solution; no single national policy that should be adopted. But by getting into the details of these families, Newman helps us leap over the simplifications and notice the near poor who are a huge segment of our population that is not looking for a handout, but needs some help up.


This review was contributed by guest blogger, Dave Atkinsa technologist and metro parent who blogs about issues affecting the creative class and their city lifestyle choices, often focusing on Boston where he now lives (after doing some time in the Bay Area and Seattle).

Moving away from the car-tropolis

How might cities change over the next 20 years?

Here’s one theory for North America generally: they will switch from evolving to facilitate, primarily, automotive travel to allowing citizens more time for leisure, which intriguingly will mean less automotive travel on a daily basis.  This shift will also re-make who, socio-economically speaking, lives where within the metro area.
People are increasingly valuing time more than money.  Workers of all generations (although stereotypically generation y – the millennials) are now foregoing promotions and other career advancement opportunities in order to have more leisure time to share with family and friends. 

Younger creative and professional workers in particular are often choosing to live in downtowns and other higher-density urban areas near their jobs and near entertainment and recreation opportunities.  Moreover, in some cities, families are now making the choice to live in smaller residences, close to where household members work.  In these cases, they are avoiding distant commutes, giving themselves more disposable time.

Over time, neighborhoods close to major employment centres for creative and professional types (often downtowns and town centers) are becoming more popular.  Gentrification is taking place in some districts as families and individuals with some financial resources move in and often renovate older houses.  Elsewhere condo towers going up, commanding high prices.  Density is proving to be a safe, enriching environment for families in some cities and the example will catch on — especially when governments stop subsidizing suburban living, pushing more families to try higher density living closer to work.

Subsidized automobile-based transportation options have been the basis of urban evolution in North America for at least 60 years.  All tax payers pay for the roads and highways that allow for suburban sprawl, something that will become less palatable to many citizens who are spending the extra money for housing closer to their jobs.  Citizen concern over global warming will make it more politically possible to start charging users to travel on these roads that are becoming more costly to build and maintain as the price of oil rises.  The costs of commuting vast distances in single occupant vehicles will also become more expensive.

So, within a decade, I expect that suburban living will be very costly financially and in terms of time, which is increasingly valued more than money.  These twin forces will pull people toward higher density communities.  And with higher density comes better, more frequent public transit options such as metros.  People who need to commute will not do it in a single occupant vehicle, instead traveling faster and less expensively on a transit system — that is, if they can afford to live in a higher density area.  Note: I’m not saying everyone will live in the urban core, but that they will choose higher density areas with more amenities and good transit options to (other) major employment areas.

Ironically, the result of a shift to a “chronopolis” or a city based around resident desire to save time (or make time for their own preferred pursuits) will be pushing those without significant financial means to less dense suburban areas.   The spacious cookie-cutter middle class suburban homes of today, may be the ghetto of tomorrow.  Living in these areas will mean longer waits for buses (residents won’t be able to afford private auto travel) to take people to metro stations from which they’ll travel to work or school.

That’s my prediction.  It might take 50 years to happen (after all, the car-tropolis has been evolving for longer than that), but in larger metro areas, it’s a likely future.

Dubai – a microcosm of globalization?

What does globalization really mean? It’s a loaded term with many meanings. Perhaps one way to understand what the shrinking distances between people, economies, cities and countries really means is to look at life in one city that exists in its current form because of global trade and travel – Dubai.

Dubai is a city in the United Arab Emirites that has long historic routes as a regional trading centre, but only recently has become well known internationally. The government has undertaken a bold scheme to use the income from the limited oil reserves of this emirite to build a global financial center as well as international shopping and tourist destination.

Most work is done by foreigners, imported for their particular skills. This is where Dubai seems to encapsulate a darker side of the global economy — the stratification of jobs, and incomes, sometimes along national lines. Creative, professional and management type jobs tend to go to North Americans and Europeans. Skilled and semi-skilled labor is typically done by people from the Indian sub-continent but also Africa and other parts of the world. Tourists are typically caucasion, and usually from Europe — or UN workers and non-profit development staff stationed in places like Afganinstan taking a break. The class/race stratification is shocking. The few who are true emirate citizens are either managers or live off the income from oil and investments.

I’m trying to decide if Dubai and its social stratification is a microcosm of the world, or just a unique place.
This week south-Asian workers staged a strike. According to CBC news, construction workers were protesting poor working conditions and wages.

Dubai is currently home to the world’s tallest building, the Burj Dubai expected to be completed in 2008 and home of the world’s first Armani luxury hotel, and authorities report an annual average growth rate of 12 per cent over the past decade, largely driven by construction.

The boom has been possible due to plentiful investment from oil rich neighbours and armies of non-unionized South Asian workers whose fear of deportation, until recently, kept them from voicing discontent over low wages.

“The cost of living here has increased so much in the past two years that I cannot survive with my salary,” said Rajesh Kumar, a 24-year-old worker from the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, earning $150 a month.

This weekend the workers ignored the threat of deportation and refused to go to work, staging protests at a labour camp in Dubai’s Jebel Ali Industrial Zone and on a construction site in Al Qusais residential neighbourhoodThey demanded pay increases, improved housing and better transportation services to construction sites. On Saturday workers threw stones at riot police and damaged their cars.

The government is threatening deportation for some (foreigners have few rights in Dubai), however the construction managers and business community are generally against this as there is a labor shortage. Indeed, because of good economic times in India, cheap labor is becoming harder to come by in Dubai, generating challenges for the ambitious construction schedule.

There is another question here for cities like Dubai: Can a city survive on imported, rather than home grown labor and talent? What if not only the poorly-paid construction workers left, but also what if the highly-paid foreign real estate development managers and financial market gurus left for home as well?

And yet, I hope that the contrast of rich and poor, of highly paid talent from North America and Europe set against poorly paid labor from South Asia, is not really a microcosm of the world.


Final, personal note: I did see the social stratification contrasted against ridiculous extravagance first hand three years ago. During a 24 hour layover in Dubai en route from Islamabad to London, my husband and I stashed our luggage at the giant glitzy airport and hopped on the bus to reach the old part of town. We were the only Caucasians using the spotless, brand new public transit system. The other passengers appeared to represent the multi-ethnic planet earth. The Indian-looking driver piloted the vehicle through major thoroughfares and onto narrower streets lined with industrial looking apartments, each with a balcony crammed with clotheslines displaying colourful laundry. They instantly reminded me of apartment blocks in working class neighborhoods of Latin America or Eastern Europe. On the roads, women in jewel encrusted black burka’s drove luxury automobiles (how they see to drive remains a mystery to me) while white men and women preferred SUVs, often white in colour. The modern shopping malls were more glitzy and grand than any I’d ever seen. A friend working there (managing a major development project) also took us on a tour. The strangest stop was a small high-rise neighborhood that looked — deliberately, by design — exactly like part of Yaletown in Vancouver.

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