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‘We need a new commons’: how city life can offer us the vital power of connection


During the pandemic, the nations of the world set about energetically strengthening borders around themselves, and within themselves, as states restricted entry. During the early lockdowns, according to the UNHCR, 168 of the world’s 195 countries partially or entirely closed their borders. This hit refugees particularly hard. “Movement is vital for people who are in flight,” said Filippo Grandi, the head of UNHCR. “They save their lives, by running.”

The virus knows no borders; it is the ultimate globalist. Covid-19 put an end to the idea that the 19th-century European nation state is the political arrangement we should all aspire to. The nation state is an outdated concept, and ill serves the present emergency. The rich countries have frozen immigration. But when people can’t move, they also can’t earn. Global remittances – money sent back to their families by people working abroad – which amount to four times all the foreign aid given by the rich countries to the poor ones – have gone down two years in a row. Poor countries will be poorer.

The US immigration system basically froze, for undocumented immigrants as well as those who had already been given visas to enter the country, and for those fleeing war or climate-induced devastation. In 2020, immigrant visas dropped 45% from the previous year. The administration stoked fear of migrants as a disease-ridden horde. “We’ve got people being released at the border right now who’ve got Covid,” announced the Fox News host Jeanine Pirro. “They’ve got all kinds of diseases. They are being released into the United States.”

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Governments all around the world have used Covid as an excuse for delay or denial. Travel bans were wielded on political lines, while the pandemic provided fresh cover for xenophobes who wanted to demonise migrants. A Kuwaiti actor demanded that migrants (who constitute 70% of the Kuwaiti population) should be thrown into the desert to free up space in hospitals for native-born Kuwaitis. (When the actor’s words sparked condemnation on social media, she responded: “My words did not come out as I intended them to … I won’t throw them in the desert. But maybe something can be built in the desert, quickly and within days.”) South Africans attacked migrants from other parts of the continent. Colombia shut its border with Venezuela, cutting off a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of desperate people.

As borders closed, the inequality of the world economic order was mirrored in the vaccine divide. Although research and manufacture were conducted worldwide, the delivery has not been equal. As of 15 December, 61% of Americans were fully vaccinated; 62% of Indians and 98% of Nigerians were not. I have never seen the world so divided, but I have also never seen the world so united. Never has foreign medical aid been so eminently an act of self-interest. As Grandi notes: “We’re not safe until everyone’s safe.”

Covid made government central again. The US economy was saved by government action: it sent out cheques to support its citizens. It was government that mobilised the drug companies, and funded them, to come up with vaccines. What we now know: you can’t fight a virus with private enterprise. It’s the supreme test of governance.

The greatest lottery is the lottery of citizenship. If you’re lucky enough to be born in a country with a sound public health system and a functioning government, such as Taiwan or New Zealand, you’re golden. If you’re unlucky enough to be born in India, whose leaders lied about the extent of the contagion as well as its severity, you’re screwed. Governance is now a matter of life and death. Just as the world is beginning to accept the notion of “climate refugees”, could we imagine a new category of refugee: a person fleeing from bad, really bad, life-threateningly bad governance?

In a time of global economic crisis, we need more migration, not less. Openness to immigration, and resistance to kneejerk populism, is one of the hallmarks of good governance. If we had truly open borders, world GDP would double. According to the Economist, we would be richer by $78tn a year. The west needs young and energetic migrant workers to revive its cities. The latest US census shows falling population figures. Over the past decade, the US grew at the second-slowest rate since its founding: there are more Americans over the age of 80 than under the age of two. People thought the Covid lockdowns would lead to a baby boom; instead, births in February 2021 were down 10% from the same period last year. What is the solution? It isn’t to provide incentives for Americans to make more babies, which would be catastrophic for the planet, since the US population, about 4% of the global total, is responsible for about 20% of all the planet’s energy consumption. It’s to make room for those who have already been born elsewhere.

By 2030, one in five Americans will be of retirement age. The US is becoming a country of geezers; it won’t survive if it doesn’t have young (the average immigrant is 31, seven years younger than the median American age) and hard-working (immigrants participate in the labour force at higher rates than the native-born) workers paying the taxes so the retirees can enjoy their shuffleboard. Seniors should be in the forefront of demanding more immigration, out of pure self-interest.

As we went into lockdown, it wasn’t the Mayflower descendants who kept the economy humming. Migrants are 14% of the US population, but 29% of doctors. Forty per cent of medical and life scientists – the ones who work on vaccines – are immigrants. More than half the doctorates given out in engineering and computer science in the US were earned by students not born in the country. The two scientists who invented the Pfizer vaccine are a Turkish couple who migrated to Germany. In the UK, 15% of NHS staff, praised for their performance during the pandemic, are immigrants.

But these are not just doctors. The nurses and other hospital attendants – those who’ll empty your bedpans and bathe you when your family isn’t allowed to – are equally essential to our survival. About half of the 2.5 million farm hands in the US are undocumented immigrants, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), though growers and labour contractors reckon the figure is closer to 75%. Unskilled migrants will stay and do the kind of work that you can’t do remotely.

Facebook Twitter The US-Mexico border at El Paso, Texas, closed to non-essential traffic on 21 March 2020. Photograph: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty

But our gain can be their loss: since the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan has lost an enormous number of the intellectuals, teachers, technocrats and other members of civil society that are more than ever necessary to keep the country running in the face of catastrophic drought and continuing civil strife. Freedom of movement doesn’t have to be in one direction, from the poor to the rich countries. Take the example of skilled immigrants. A Pakistani immigrant to the UK can learn medicine, and then go back every year to help out in a rural clinic – or move back altogether and run a hospital, as many doctors do.

Governments that accept the need for immigration and mobility, enshrined in anti-discrimination laws, create a more open society that benefits all of us. More open borders lead to more open minds: open to flows of knowledge, different ways of thinking, worshipping, being. If we acknowledge that we need each other, it’s a lot easier to add more people to our already densely populated cities.

I love cities as much as I hate borders. But city-dwellers have suffered in the past year: stay-at-home orders and housing shortages have exacerbated problems that have existed for decades. I have three ideas to improve our cities, which were borne out by the experience of the pandemic: increase diversity and promote migration; give everyone access to a patch of nature; and create common spaces for communities to expand, engage and interact.

Cities aren’t fixed. A vital city is also a mobile city. Movement can revive down-on-their-luck neighbourhoods with fresh money, talent and energy. You have no right to live for ever in your childhood home, but you do have the right to live somewhere in the city where you can make a new home for your child. A fair and just city should ensure this for every citizen.

To those who said, “Can New York survive the pandemic?” I have two words in response: “Jaikishan Heights”, the south Asian way of pronouncing Jackson Heights, a neighbourhood in Queens. When my family first came to New York in 1977, we found a dangerous, bankrupt city. I got mugged twice when I was a teenager. Our car got stolen regularly. Jackson Heights was not glamorous or welcoming.

When we were there, most of the south Asians in the neighbourhood were Indians, beneficiaries of the 1965 Immigration Act, which lifted racial quotas and encouraged family reunification. They were professionals: engineers, doctors. Now, it’s a much more diverse mix of south Asians: Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Tibetans, Bhutanese. They are shop owners, taxi drivers, garment factory workers. Very few of the Indians I knew when I was growing up here in the 70s are still in this neighbourhood. Now these streets are attracting people from all over. Diversity is actively essential to attract the kind of people that create wealth – and revive the city.

Through the plague year, nature has been the only permitted escape: the parks, the hikes, the summer home for those who could afford it. Here is where garden allotments, like the ones I visited in Leipzig in Germany, need to be revived and expanded. The schrebergarten movement started in 1864, to give city-dwellers, even poor ones, a taste of nature. (Their namesake, Moritz Schreber afflicted generations of German children with his theories on child-rearing.) You pay €1,000 up front and a €150 annual lease for one of these plots – a little patch of land that you lease, but never own. Each plot has a cabin, in which you can sleep in a pinch, but it isn’t meant to be a vacation home – they are more for napping than spending the night. Each colony has a little clubhouse where you can have beer with your neighbours – a country club for the workers. And, of course, you can grow things. There are now 1.4 million of these schrebergartens, all over Germany.

Facebook Twitter A gardener on their allotment in south London during the pandemic. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Guardian

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all working-class families in cities all over the world had their own schrebergartens? If a fast-food worker or cab-driver had access to a plot of land with a little house, just over the city border, where they could go with their families and grow peppers and tomatoes and enjoy the springtime air, and wake up to birdsong rather than sirens? Access to nature should be a human right, and not just for the rich.

In the UK, demand for allotments soared during the pandemic, with applications to join waiting lists rising by as much as 300%, as people clamoured for a spot in one of Britain’s 330,000 allotments, most of which are run by local councils. People wanted to grow their own fruit and veg, much like the “victory gardens” that grew a fifth of the country’s produce during the second world war. One in five Londoners has access to a garden; the other four can only look on enviously.

When we did emerge from our homes, we did so to protest. The entire city became a speakers’ corner. There was a lot of shouting – but, truth be told, very little actual conversation across the political divide. Can we imagine a public space where we actually have an unanticipated dialogue? Where a cop actually talks to a Black Lives Matter activist? Can this be designed?

We need a new commons. Where can we meet? The bazaar, the library, the park? In cities around the world, outside space is increasingly being privatised – such as the private parks attached to expensive flats, nominally open to everyone but staffed with intimidating guards that keep the poor at a distance.

In New York, the most successful new park I know of isn’t the High Line – which seems mostly used for conveying tourists from overpriced condominiums in Hudson Yards to overpriced restaurants in the Meatpacking District – but Diversity Plaza in Jackson Heights, where, by the simple expedience of banning cars from the street in front of the subway entrance, a commons was born. If you want to know the debates in the Bangladeshi elections, or listen in on the Chinese-Tibetan dispute, you can grab one of the unlovely metal chairs or benches the city provides, and buy a chai from one of the small storefronts fronting the plaza and settle in. You will find people with time on their hands, and stories to tell you.

When I was a teenager growing up in Jackson Heights, the place where my friends and I hung out, flirted with girls, read the news of the world and checked out books in 30 languages – because few of my fellow immigrants could afford to buy them – was the branch of the Queens Public Library on 81st Street. A library is, in the words of sociologist Eric Klinenberg, a palace for the people.

We need libraries more than ever because, post-pandemic, they serve as a place to work or study for those who don’t have space, or internet access, at home. What we don’t need are epic follies such as the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s planned Central Vista Redevelopment in New Delhi, a $3bn futurist extravaganza. “It’s like an old slum – it’s like a little village in there,” the project’s architect, Bimal Patel, said to CNN, explaining why he was intent on demolishing existing heritage structures, and other buildings that had been repurposed over the years, such as stables and barracks now used as offices. It’s the oldest and heaviest weapon in the jargon of urban planners: “slum”. Robert Moses dropped that word on the South Bronx, the real estate lobby dropped it on the bastis of Mumbai, and the police use it against the comunidades of Rio.

Grandees like Patel believe urban architecture must be monumental and awe-inspiring, so that the commoners are dumbstruck upon entering, and are reminded that there is a direct connection between God and their ruler. Architecture becomes another way to remind ordinary human beings of their powerlessness. But every city contains villages.

The best way to understand people who are different from you is to live among them – even if it causes conflict, and even if you arrive as antagonists. The Crusades pitted Christians against Muslims, but also led to the greatest transfer of knowledge between the Arab world and Europe – the west became acquainted with Ptolemy, the number zero and Islamic architecture.

My concern as a writer, at the most essential level, is about this: the individual human being struggling underneath the foot of history, personal and political. In Hindu mythology, Shiva dances on one foot with a circle of flame around him, and underneath is a dwarf, struggling to get out from beneath the massive foot of history. History is in his control and out of his control, and it is this struggle that we as writers witness and document.

Humanity has now splintered off into a divide as absurd and arbitrary as left- and right-hand drive. We’ve lost the ability, which great literature gifts us, to differentiate between individual human beings in a group or class. We classify people in huge categories: blacks, whites, migrants, trans, feminists, police, Democrats, Republicans. And then each member of that category has to walk around with the heavy weight of this classification on their head. Within each group, we are assumed to be fungible. The individual human being is complex – much more complex than the virus. Diversity, or heterogeneity, will save us. Unpredictability, or even eccentricity, will help. We are creatures of moral complexity.

Facebook Twitter A block party in Brooklyn, New York. Photograph: Simon Leigh/Alamy

I was once reporting in the holy Indian city of Benares, studying a brutal outbreak of Hindu-Muslim rioting. The city’s main industry is exquisite silk saris. Muslims weave them, and Hindus sell them – they’ve been coexisting for centuries. But in the early 1990s, that compact broke down, and the city erupted. Dozens of Muslims were killed by Hindus affiliated with the BJP.

So I sought an appointment with the Hindu leader of the BJP, a man who had fomented the riots, and he asked me to come to his house one morning. As went in, I passed two old Muslim men on his veranda, talking among themselves. I went in and spoke to the Hindu merchant, and he spewed hate against Muslims, telling me nothing I hadn’t heard before in India: that Muslims are outsiders, they should have gone to Pakistan at partition, etc. As I was wrapping up this not very valuable interview, I asked him what the two old Muslim men were doing on his veranda. “Oh, they’ve come to me to settle a property dispute between them,” he said. “Why you?” I asked. “I thought you hated them?”

“Yes, but I hate them all equally,” he responded. If the Muslims went to someone in their own community to adjudicate the dispute, that person probably would be related to or biased against one or the other. But since they knew this Hindu merchant hated them all equally, they could trust him to render fair judgment in the matter of the property dispute. It’s no wonder India drives foreign journalists mad. People can compartmentalise different parts of their minds – hypocrisy in this regard is not seen as a vice. There is no law of the excluded middle in Indian philosophy. Something can be true, false, both or neither.

Where Aristotelian logic admits only two possible states of being for a proposition – that it is true or false, and there is no middle ground – Jain logic expands these to no fewer than seven possibilities. The name given to this exquisitely predicated conception of truth is syadvada: “The science of maybeness”.

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To go forward, we could all use a little maybeness. Banish the binary. Include the middle. And the fringe, and the top and bottom. The universe is not forever a Manichean fight to the death. The virus is against us, but, as of last February, when I got vaccinated, it also lives in me. It is part of me, and defends me against its number who seek to invade and kill me.

To defeat the virus, we have to come together as one super-organism. Not just for this pandemic, but all the pandemics that are most assuredly coming our way. What brings us together, and what pulls us apart? And do all of us really want to be together, or would many rather stay apart? The coronavirus – more than 9/11, more than the financial crisis of 2008 – has been humanity’s test. But the greater test is coming, for nations and cities: climate breakdown. Covid is just a dress rehearsal.

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