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Shadow Cities and the Urbanization of the World

rio.jpgRobert Neuwirth spent three years living in the squatter communities growing in some of the developing world's biggest megacities: Nairobi, Rio, Mumbai and Istanbul. He documented his experiences in the book Shadow Cities, which Ethan reviewed a few months ago, and regularly brings this perspective to bear in the comments here on WorldChanging (hi, Robert!). Last night, he spoke in San Francisco, at the monthly Long Now Seminar, taking the audience on a trip through the new urban world.

Some numbers: today, there are approximately one billion squatters -- about 1 in 6 people on the planet; by 2030, it's estimated there will be two billion squatters, or about 1 in 4; by 2050, there could be three billion squatters, or 1 in 3. Some 200,000 people move from rural communities to urban communities every day, globally. That's around 70 million per year, or 130 every minute. Inevitably, the cities of the future will be built by squatters.

The internal migration is driven by economics: there's simply little or no money to be made in the countryside (something Zaid has discussed in his excellent ongoing series on agriculture). In the cities, however, the new immigrants can find jobs but not housing. Historically and globally, the response is to find unused land, seize it, and build on it. Squatter communities are found around the world (Neuwirth noted that San Francisco emerged in large part as a squatter city), but local and regional governments vary widely in their reactions.

By and large, governments and established businesses don't build for the squatters, so they build for themselves. Neuwirth argues that the key determination of how well the squatter cities get built is whether the squatters can feel like they are secure in their location. When they do, over time, greater care is taken and better building materials get used. Mud and stick walls get plaster coatings, and are eventually replaced by brick; in turn, single-story shacks become multi-story complexes. The result, with cantilevered buildings and hillside development, appears broadly similar to the medieval through renaissance growth of European cities. The squatter communities are active locations for business and economic activity, with shops and services of all kinds. Political activity, as well -- from local arbitration to alternative political and police structures.

And with structure comes infrastructure -- the pipes and wires and flows that keep a community alive. In some locations, the squatter-built infrastructure is haphazard and spotty; in others, it rivals the "official" infrastructure for reliability. In the squatter city Sultanbeyli, in Istanbul, there are paved roads and traffic lights. In Rocinha, in Rio, the squatters attach wires to power mains, becoming "electricity thieves" -- or, in the local argot, "gato" (Portuguese for cat). The power company realized that these thieves were potential customers, and offered official, more reliable wiring in exchange for using a power meter, and many residents are taking them up on that offer. In Nairobi, conversely, those discovered to be stealing electricity are arrested.

Other infrastructure problems remain, in particular trash (does it get burned? Carted off? Who takes care of it?) and sewage (are there pit latrines, or semi-functional sewers? Do people just go in plastic bags and dump into local streams?). Access to water is a huge issue, as well, often resulting in guerilla piping and pumps pulling water from the mains.

Neuwirth sees a pathway from the dangerous squalor of Nairobi's squatter city to the relative security and increasing organization of squatter cities in Rio and Mumbai to the nearly-mainstream comfort of Istanbul's squatter areas. There are two key determinants:

  • A guarantee that residents won't be evicted -- what Neuwirth terms "security of tenure." This guarantee can be implicit, but clearly an explicit guarantee adds much more stability.
  • Access to politics.

    Turkey provides both, and the squatter areas clearly have benefitted from the situation (when he showed pictures of Sultanbeyli, the only way an outside observer would know that these were "illegal squatter buildings" would be from being told -- and even then, it would be hard to believe). Kenya, conversely, provides neither, and the squatter cities surrounding Nairobi were clearly the least-livable of the set.

    The favelas in Rio are notable in that they are generally overseen by rival drug gangs. The government explicitly does not police the squatter cities, so drug gangs can operate more or less unimpeded. But, in many cases, the drug gangs take on some of the government functions, underwriting child care, building soccer fields, supporting various community services, as well as keeping the streets safer than in the "legal" parts of Rio. Neuwirth argues that the drug gangs are, in many ways, much more honorable and reliable than the police in Rio. Interestingly, control of squatter cities by drug gangs only appeared in Rio, not in the other cities in which Neuwirth lived.

    Neuwirth didn't draw an explicit connection between the drug gangs in Rio and his observed need for access to politics, although a later comment -- that the drug gangs sometimes act as arbitrators and judges in community disputes -- implies that there are clear political elements to the drug gang "rulership" of the Rio slums.

    Squatter city growth is very much an adaptive process. Neuwirth argues that squatters can do more with less and can do so more efficiently than governments -- when they can harness their own abilities. Governments can help best by meeting them halfway: providing infrastructure (particularly water and sewage), some materials and construction assistance, and the legal guarantees of security of tenure.

    Neuwirth is dubious about a role for technology as a means of improving the lives of squatters -- something that also comes out in his comments here on WorldChanging, I should add -- arguing that access to the Internet and personal computers are well beyond the economic reach of most squatters, and should be far down on the list of what should be done.

    This is where I have my greatest disagreement with his analysis.

    Firstly, "technology" doesn't simply mean Internet access and personal computers. Technology can mean something as basic as lighting. Neuwirth said that the most common cause of death in the squatter city in Nairobi was traffic accidents -- people being run over at night, in the dark. Wearable LED-based lights -- or even stand-alone street lights charged up by solar power during the day, shining at night -- could reduce such incidents dramatically. A similar argument could be made for water-supply technologies like rainwater cachement or playground water pumps. Solar and wind microgeneration could also be useful in the communities not able to connect reliably to the power grid.

    Secondly, to the extent that "technology" does mean information and communication, a good case can be made that access to ICT can have a positive economic and social effect, whether as a means of maintaining family connections for rural-urban migrants or as a tool for identifying markets for goods and services. Neuwirth's point that these technologies remain too expensive is a good one, albeit one that mobile phone and computer makers are aware of; it's quite possible that price will soon no longer be an issue in the more stable of the squatter cities, and soon after that, perhaps even in the places like Kibera, in Nairobi. This is not to say that information or energy technology should be the first wave of support for squatter cities. Water is almost certainly the number one issue, and political rights close behind.

    But as Neuwirth himself argues, squatter urbanity is a remarkably adaptive system. If the "street finds its own uses for things," nowhere can this be more visible than in those places forced by circumstances to be the most efficient and innovative in their material consumption. Leapfrog technologies are not total fixes, by any means. Instead, we might think of them as added components for adaptation.

  • Comments (3)

    I am sure, there can be a way to reverse this urban migration and squatting.

    To my mind, the only way is to move the seat of Governments to various rural places and split the entire Govt. into as many divisions as possible and remove them from mega cities.

    Create more ooportunities in rural areas with higher infrastructure, technology and connectivity.

    Kris Dev.


    Maybe (and maybe not) there can be a way, but why should we? With global population rising, why should we promote less dense settlements? Why spread a population over the widest possible area?

    Moving government and infrastructure to rural places would have the effect of urbanizing them, as people moved to follow those things. All it would accomplish is the destruction of currently rural places.

    The goal is not to decrease density in squatter settlements, but to improve their living conditions - within that density.


    i agree with justus, although i can see kris's point. with populations rising, density is an attribute to be coddled like a newborn. it allows the potential of more sustainable practices, but it also does leave potential vacuums within the rural areas outside of these cities for corporate farming to come in. the problem is that few governments look toward the equitable use of their finances for long term sustainability. they, instead, look at immediate kickbacks form foreign investment. a few years ago i did a research project on migration, population growth, and free trade zones, the thing that amazed me was the new form of urbanization that this generates. the US/Mexico border is a great example of this. within 50 miles of the border, massive maquiladoras locate themselves as far away from urban areas as financially possible (bringing infrastructure with them) the workers at that maquila then must create their own urban system around the maquila..implementing their own black market infrastructure. if the maquila area becomes prosperous and creates a strong enough infrastructure...the urban area near it will incorporate it as a legal settlement. its kinda like urban prototyping. in peru hernando de soto documented the potential of governments to reap huge tax base increases by recognizing the property rights of these squatter settlements. i think this is something that jaime lerner actually did to increase his government's revenue in curitiba,brazil during the 80s.


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