What Slums Can Teach Us

In Prospect Magazine Online, there is an insightful article about how modern urban planners are learning concepts and specific ideas from the squatter slums of India, Brazil and elsewhere.  This is the latest incarnation of the new urbanism that emerged in the 1970s.

One billion people live in these cities and, according to the UN, this number will double in the next 25 years. There are thousands of them and their mainly young populations test out new ideas unfettered by law or tradition. Alleyways in squatter cities, for example, are a dense interplay of retail and services—one-chair barbershops and three-seat bars interspersed with the clothes racks and fruit tables. One proposal is to use these as a model for shopping areas. “Allow the informal sector to take over downtown areas after 6pm,” suggests Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil. “That will inject life into the city” …

The book’s optimism derived from its groundbreaking fieldwork: 37 case studies in slums worldwide. Instead of just compiling numbers and filtering them through theory, researchers hung out in the slums and talked to people. They came back with an unexpected observation: “Cities are so much more successful in promoting new forms of income generation, and it is so much cheaper to provide services in urban areas, that some experts have actually suggested that the only realistic poverty reduction strategy is to get as many people as possible to move to the city.” The magic of squatter cities is that they are improved steadily and gradually by their residents. To a planner’s eye, these cities look chaotic. I trained as a biologist and to my eye, they look organic. Squatter cities are also unexpectedly green. They have maximum density—1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbai—and have minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi.

 

The article concludes with the following sobering thoughts:

And just as this was true during the industrial revolution, so the take-off of cities will be the dominant economic event of the first half of this century too. It will involve huge infrastructural stresses on energy and food supply. Vast numbers of people will begin climbing the energy ladder from smoky firewood and dung cooking fires to diesel-driven generators for charging batteries, then to 24/7 grid electricity. They are also climbing the food ladder, from subsistence farms to cash crops of staples like rice, corn, wheat and soy to meat—and doing so in a global marketplace. Environmentalists who try to talk people out of it will find the effort works about as well as trying to convince them to stay in their villages. Peasant life is over, unless catastrophic climate change drives us back to it. For humanity, the green city is our future.

Well worth the read.

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