Friday, February 20, 2009

Review: Shadow Cities

The full title is Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A Urban New World by Robert Neuwirth. Interesting—the author spent time living in squatter communities in Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Istanbul, comparing and contrasting the experiences of the inhabitants and how they are treated by the legal system.

In Rio de Janeiro the squatters have won many concessions from city authorities. Some of the older favelas are hooked up to city utilities and one even has a paved public street running through a large portion of it. Newer squatters still stuffer many hardships in more primitive settlements, and it is hardly a pampered life, but there is a huge amount of entrepreneurial energy and creativity being displayed on a daily basis in these communities. The one thing that seemed odd was that the role of the narcotics trafficking gangs, which I had been led to believe was rather significant, is downplayed here.

In Nairobi, conditions are much, much worse, with most people living in homes made of mud, some with metal roofs (though it is mentioned that these are very hot and uncomfortable). There is open sewage everywhere and access to clean water is difficult. Here the corruption of the local tribal and city authorities and the impotence of the international aid agencies is heavily emphasized. The legal system is set up to prevent squatters from expanding their own homes and efforts to bring even basic infrastructure services into the slums are defeated by the avarice of politicians and contractors, who pocket the money without finishing the work. Many city leaders actually own mud homes in the squatter communities which they rent out to families, generating solid returns on a literally dirt cheap investment. It all works to undermine community and individual efforts to improve conditions and start businesses, though there are some success stories. All in all the impression is of dignified people struggling to get by in squalor.

Conditions are hard in Mumbai as well. Here there is a political movement to empower the squatter population, though it seems to do relatively little for them. People display the same drive and creativity as seen in the Rio favelas, but the government has a bit of a schizophrenic attitude toward them. Slums that get built up may be torn down for development. There are programs in place to provide public housing for displaced squatters, which is progressive, but the concrete tenement houses offered by the government offer something like 200 square feet per relocated family, which is less space than most people not living on the street possess. And the tenants are prevented from improving or customizing these apartments. So many of the squatters with longer tenure refuse the deals. All in all, Mumbai clearly depends on the labor of its squatter community but likes to pretend it does not exist.

Finally, in Istanbul squatters seem to have a reasonably good life, with even more legal protections than in Rio. Again, these aren't suburban tract homes we're talking about for the most part. Fresh water and sewage facilities remain difficult issues and people often live on very small incomes that make acquiring necessities difficult. But some of the old squatter neighborhoods in Istanbul are indistinguishable from any thriving city neighborhood--the buildings are big and permanent, utilities are metered, and there are roads and bus stops.

There's also some history on squatters in New York City, which I skimmed. The author's conclusions are that aid agencies and officials too often focus on tearing down the slums without respecting the ingenuity, drive, and sense of community that has grown up within them. The solutions are too often cookie-cutter housing projects that offer no incentive or freedom to improve to the inhabitants. The suggestion seems to be that legalizing existing slums and providing more access to basic services by extending water, electricity and sewer lines into them would be more efficient than big public projects, because once you have a few major infrastructure arteries entering a big slum, the inhabitants will figure out how to use and distribute them for themselves.

Rating 4.0/5.0 for addressing a largely ignored topic in a way that made me think about it differently—though Shantaram had started me thinking along these lines already.

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