Viewpoint (February 01, 2004)

Pictured above is a man just outside the religious centre of Touba, Senegal. In the background are two key elements of an equation for urban development: a cell phone tower connecting to an international social network, and a branch of Western Union where every month, millions of dollars flow into the country from migrants working abroad. This informal economy is very much in evidence across the country, from burgeoning shops to housing for expanding families. In Senegal, people tend to invest their money in bricks and mortar, rather than depositing it in banks. Remittances from migrant workers abroad account for 50% of what the Senegalese government spends on housing and infrastructure. Most of the money that is being sent home is “taxed” by private institutions, rather than the government.

Upon returning from studying these effects of urbanization, I was delighted to read that Prime Minister Paul Martin was discussing the importance of remittances at the Summit of the Americas held in Monterrey last month. Remittances are funds that migrants abroad send home to their families. As noted in a report by the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, “remittances are more important for [Latin American and Caribbean] economic and social development than the combined value of foreign direct investment, portfolio investment, foreign aid, or government and private borrowing.” The fact that leaders at the Summit of the Americas are working toward pushing banks, foreign-exchange firms and private agents like Western Union to lower their commissions is a significant step. Commissions can range from five to twelve per cent in Latin American countries.

There are two major reasons why architects should be aware of this phenomenon and lend support to efforts that improve the quality of life of migrants and their communities abroad. The first relates to the need for our profession to advocate financial and legal mechanisms that promote improvements to the built environment. By supporting government initiatives that force financial institutions into offering affordable and accessible financial services to migrant populations, such as access to credit and lower commissions on wire transfers, more money can benefit the construction of housing and businesses in developing communities.

The second reason pertains to Canadian cities. There are many initiatives currently designed to ensure that migrant populations receive access to social services and adequate housing. For instance, there is a research network known as The Metropolis Project (, which discusses research and policy implications pertaining to immigration issues in large urban centres, and provides for a foundation of urban planning and design initiatives. Partners include educational institutions, private sector and non-profit organizations, professionals, community groups and all levels of government. While extending internationally, the Canadian portion of the project is centred in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver. Each centre collaborates on an interdisciplinary level with a wide range of immigration issues affecting populations who may or may not be well-integrated in Canadian society. Subjects pertaining to our profession might include strategies for better social housing and the provision of educational and health services. By learning and understanding the effects of migration, architects can advocate for architecture and urban design that is socially-inclusive, both at home and abroad. Ian Chodikoff