Dharavi, Mumbai. Photo by Scott Eells.
The majority of humanity now lives in cities. I've seen much hand-wringing over this, but little consideration of the possible benefits it could offer. Now, writer Stewart Brand offers a detailed defense, starting with that most maligned aspect of urban infection — slums:
There are plenty more ideas to be discovered in the squatter cities of the developing world, the conurbations made up of people who do not legally occupy the land they live on—more commonly known as slums. 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 reversal of opinion about fast-growing cities, previously considered bad news, began with The Challenge of Slums, a 2003 UN-Habitat report. 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.”
Urban density allows half of humanity to live on 2.8 per cent of the land. Demographers expect developing countries to stabilise at 80 per cent urban, as nearly all developed countries have. On that basis, 80 per cent of humanity may live on 3 per cent of the land by 2050. Consider just the infrastructure efficiencies. According to a 2004 UN report: “The concentration of population and enterprises in urban areas greatly reduces the unit cost of piped water, sewers, drains, roads, electricity, garbage collection, transport, health care, and schools.” In the developed world, cities are green because they cut energy use; in the developing world, their greenness lies in how they take the pressure off rural waste.
Some parts of the article are too optimistic for my taste — slums have very real problems with runoff and erosion (not to mention fire and crime) — but I'm endorsing the piece because it raises some very real points in city's favor.
First, as it repeatedly says: dense metropoli are damn efficient. Second, in its focus on the slums, this article takes the discussion about urbanism away from the squeaky clean planners' version that's all perfectly designed towers and plazas. Chaos is part of a city's fabric as well, and Brand makes some solid arguments for its necessity as part of a larger whole. (Planning for disorder? Exactly, read your Tao.)
I'm also happy to see any article that treats citizens of the developing world as something other than benighted cyphers. This is a major pet peeve of mine, as depending on who you ask, massive percentages of the world either need companies to bring the blessings of modern capitalism or selfless activists to save them from said capitalists. Missing in this is consideration that, like every human culture on the face of the damn planet, the developing world is composed of people with just as much natural ingenuity as you or I. Because we tend to view innovation in a fairly narrow window, we overlook some lower-tech strokes of genius going on around the world.
I read some years ago about how the cities of the Middle East mostly lost their wide checkerboard of Roman lanes after the Arabs drove the Byzantine Empire out. When I'd mostly heard this referenced before, it was as a negative, look-how-civilization-has-fallen sort of thing. However, camels, which handled winding roads better, had replaced wagons as the main form of mercantile transportation and a maze of neighborhoods was a huge impediment to the very real risk of outside invasion. Even seeming squalor, sometimes, has its method.
More than one wag has dubbed cities unnatural, but our species has been building them since we knew how. For what it's worth I think rural life is just as natural. What I don't think works particularly well is the sprawling, suburban hybrid that emerged over the last 50 years. That particular method is too dependent on some fairly tenuous resources and doesn't seem to work particularly well culturally, lacking both urban ferment and rural tranquility.
Of course, we could end up with a dystopian hellscape out of all this chaos, but what else is new?