Join Date: Aug 2004
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The Vitality Of...Slums?
This article is primarily a book review, and I doubt many of us will ever read this book, but just the review alone raises some interesting issues.
A swiftly crumbling planet
By Matt Steinglass
Salon.com, Mar. 14, 2006
In case global warming, avian influenza, AIDS, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, Chinese nationalism, epidemic obesity and the state of the Knicks don't have you worried enough, Mike Davis has a new reason to panic: Planet Earth is turning into a giant slum. For the first time in human history, the world's urban population now equals its rural population, and the balance tilts further toward the cities with each passing year. The overwhelming majority of this growth is occurring in shantytowns and tenements stretching from Karachi to Lima, where people live crowded together in densities that sometime dwarf those of such notorious 19th century human anthills as New York's Mulberry Bend. As of 2005, 1 billion people were living in slums, and that number is rising by 25 million per year. [The current world population is 6.5 billion+, so that's about 15.4% of the total. And world population is growing at roughly 76 million per year, while slums are growing at roughly one-third that rate (25 million)...so, it stands to reason that slum populations will consider to soar.--yolland]
The high modernist dream has been pronounced dead before, beginning in the 1970s, when Jane Jacobs first attacked skyscrapers and freeways in favor of the organic, variegated human-scale neighborhoods such mega-projects often bulldozed. But the slums that hold 39% of China's urban population, 55% of India's, and an incredible 99% of Ethiopia's make a mockery of Jacobs' "urban ballet." In Davis' words, "Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay."
It's not surprising to hear such apocalyptic rhetoric from Mike Davis, who has spent his literary career taking on one disaster after another. Yet it's hard to dismiss Davis as a serial Chicken Little; his books are simply too well researched. For Planet of Slums, he has digested acres of reports by U.N. agencies, governments, academics and non-governmental organizations, along with many obscure architectural papers. But he does have a penchant for arguing against all sides of an issue. In Chapter 3, he excoriates neoliberal governments that fail to build housing for the poor--then criticizes those that do, like China and Thailand, because their high-rises are too far from poor people's jobs, or lack the community feeling of the old slums. In Chapter 4, the reader learns that granting squatters legal title to their land is a false solution that only enriches speculators--but that not granting squatters land titles leaves them at the mercy of gangs and police who demand payment for squatting rights. Reading Davis can be a bit like sitting down at a bar next to a guy who starts out lambasting the president and then proceeds to ridicule the opposition, leaving one with the impression that he doesn't actually vote.
Well, one might say, what do you expect? It's a book about slums. What's to like? But, in fact, many urban thinkers have had positive things to say about slums. For example, Davis in several places cites papers published as part of a 2002 conference on African urban issues titled "Under Siege," held in Lagos, Nigeria. I was at that conference, and the tone, while sometimes apocalyptic, was a lot more enthusiastic than one would expect from reading Davis.
The conference's most illustrious presenter was the Dutch superstar architect Rem Koolhaas, who had just finished a 4-year study of Lagos' slums conducted with his students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. They found that what at first appeared as pure negative chaos was in fact a complex, unstable and highly creative informal economy. Their book, The Lagos Project, presents dozens of examples of the city's mash-up economy: the world's largest markets for used electronics and auto parts; unfinished public housing taken over semi-legally, the units rebuilt in jury-rigged expansions by the residents; a never-completed butterfly highway access ramp converted into a cantilevered village by informal colonists, complete with market stalls and a church. Koolhaas coined the term "flexscape" to denote large indeterminate structures, like highway overpasses or abandoned freighters, which can be creatively reappropriated and made to serve changing local needs. He came to see the city not as a dystopian nightmare or ruin, but as a giant hive of recombinant, sometimes cannibalistic creative energy. Lagos is often termed "unlivable" by Westerners and even by its own inhabitants; but as Koolhaas pointed out, 12 million people live in this unlivable city, and somehow, on their own terms, they make it work.
Davis does acknowledge the views of such slum enthusiasts. In the 1970s, in particular, social scientists in Latin America wrote of "slums of hope," where families staked an informal claim on open land and built a shanty in the expectation of gradually working their way up the income ladder, into the middle class. But he invokes these optimistic progressive visions of the slum in order to dismiss them. Davis argues, rather trenchantly, that the rising inequality associated with globalization and the neoliberal economic policies of the Washington Consensus have sawed through that income ladder. The very fact that slums are growing much faster than the urban population overall is proof that the "slums of hope" are mostly hoping in vain.
One of Davis' most original observations is that the explosive growth of modern third-world cities stands the model of Europe's Industrial Revolution on its head: It is not generally driven by economic growth. In East and parts of South Asia, the new jobs are there, but not in Latin America and certainly not in Africa, where countries have been losing industrial jobs since the 1980s even as their cities ballooned. Today's migrants are not lured to the city by the promise of prosperity, but are driven from the countryside by ever direr poverty, population growth, environmental damage, war and the increasing global domination of high-tech agribusiness. "'Overurbanization,' in other words," Davis writes, "is driven by the reproduction of poverty, not by the supply of jobs." In the cities, they survive not by finding formal employment, which scarcely exists, but by scrabbling together an existence as petty traders, artisans or day laborers--entering the so-called informal sector, which Davis argues generally subdivides the existing economic pie into ever-smaller pieces.
It would certainly make a great movie. And it's a brilliant paradigm for thinking about global inequity: Planet of Slums is the first book I've read to consider globalization through the frame of the urban landscape. But again, Davis sometimes strays too far to the noir side of his cinematic imagination. In my own experience of some of the slums Davis describes, I haven't found them as bleak as he does. He utterly fails to capture the organic vibrancy and thriving street life that can make slums attractive: the elbow-to-elbow throngs of Lagos' Idumota market, where Igbo teenagers hand-spool videotape for local shot-on-video feature film studios, choking in the exhaust of thousands of tiny electric generators; the alleyways and gray tile roofs of Beijing's packed old hutongs, where barbers trim hair on the sidewalk in front of mirrors hung from tree trunks; the sunny, grassy shantytowns of Capetown, South Africa's Khayelitsha.
A romance of picturesque poverty? Sure. It's easy to be charmed by Khayelitsha when you live in Tamboerskloof. But like Davis' Bangkok residents who preferred their old slums to the new public housing projects, at least some slum dwellers enjoy aspects of their neighborhoods--many of which they themselves have created. What Davis' book misses is any acknowledgement of positive agency on the part of the millions of people who move into slums each year. More important, it lacks any acknowledgement that some of the negative outcomes he describes from housing policy toward the poor are the result of inevitable tradeoffs. Planet of Slums is a brilliant book, but it might have benefited from a calmer analytic tone, more like the one taken by Jared Diamond in last year's Collapse--an acceptance that even catastrophic social developments result from bargaining and competition between different groups with different outlooks and interests, and that perfectly bad solutions are as rare as perfect ones. It's gratifying to see that Davis is now at work on a book about what agents of change might lead to positive improvements in the situation of the global poor. Davis is extraordinary at staring into the abyss; it'd be nice if he started telling us where the handholds are.
Hmmm...I can't help getting the impression that the reviewer is just as unsure as Davis is about how to evaluate precisely what the explosive growth of slums heralds for the future of human welfare. I can genuinely understand the protestation that slums are home to countless inspiring and astounding displays of human ingenuity and vitality in the face of hardship, and that it's both patronizing and shortsighted from a policy standpoint to overlook these qualities. In my own research in the slums ringing Mumbai, I've seen many examples of the sociocultural and physical "flexscapes" Koolhaas describes. But I've also seen appalling infant and child mortality rates; utter stagnation of progress beyond exploitative and pernicious social systems that cause searingly painful compromise of human life and potential; and a kind of numbing, contagious fatalism about where it's all headed and why anyone should even bother to rebel.
So if I find it patronizing and ill-advised not
to learn from these heroically resilient people, I also find it unforgivably irresponsible and an abdication of duty to see their condition as "the result of inevitable tradeoffs." It's one thing to levelheadedly acknowledge that the forces shaping this are too large and powerful to save everyone from them; it's quite another to accept it as inexorable fate that such misery must continue to entrench and spread.