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March 09, 2010


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Great post, as usual. I think the dynamism of slums, esp in the developing world, is underestimated, though I also would be careful of skipping over the misery. But would these same people be less miserable in the countryside? It is hard to say. I have never been starvation-poor. But I did grow up in a brutally impoverished area in New England under extremely adverse circumstances. Often in my family we debate whether my mother, single parent of four, should have moved to a city where she might have found a job...leaving us children...where (in those days, daycare wasn't prevalent, and how do you afford daycare for four kids anyhow?). I was back East not long ago talking with a friend whose stepfather was beating her mother and raping her sister...and she said the only thing that got her through was being able to go into the woods and "find something beautiful to look at. I'd try to do that every day." There's a lot to be said for those who live in brutal circumstances having the refuge of nature, if there is no other refuge. For small children, where "income generation" opportunities may be irrelevant, this may be salvation. Or not. Mileage varies. Just raising the point. It would be interesting to see if slum children in, say, Mumbai, end up better off in, say two generations, than slum kids in, say, Boston's Combat Zone have. Or if the hum of energy and enterprise in today's 3rd-world slums is more due to the newness of them and the same hope and enterprise that brought people to the cities in the first place, as with immigration waves in America. Once people get entrenched in poverty and ghettoes, is it then better to be poor in the country or the city, I wonder?

Richard Balmer

I'm in absolute agreement with you about the advantages of cities in terms of dynamism, efficiency... I think there's a difference between proclaiming the advantages of living in *cities* and living in *slums*. Through a weird internet quirk i've been recently in communication with members of the Mumbai waste authority who basically radiate increasing desperation at the situation they've got in places like Dharavi - those shanty-towns are primarily built on piles of waste in what was originally a swamp (there's only a city there at all because of a quirk of early-modern period European dynastic politics...) and they produce vast amounts of waste in turn, most of which is currently being shipped at great expense to landfill ever further from the city - and villages getting suddenly stuck downwind from them are currently involved in violent disputes with police and waste authorities... I've been reading Mike Davis' Planet of Slums book which cites figures written after that UN report that suggested that in most of these places supposed economic growth appeared to consist of developing new ways of cannibalising diminishing resources.

I've got no idea how one would go about harnessing the innovatory impulses you talk about while finding some ways to find the crippling rates of overcrowding, joblessness, malnutrition and disease endemic to these places. Certainly, Haussmann style rebuilding isn't a good option, and neither is - god forbid - gentrification. One thing that has really interested me recently: a relative of mine was researching family history, in particular colonial era forts on the East Coast of India. Far more interestingly than that, he was posting pictures on the internet, and got the interest of local history enthusiasts... who then were able to use the information gleaned as part of a campaign against a new, vastly polluting factory going up near the town. I wonder if those sorts of connections, linking these new cities into existing networks where there is money and expertise to provide support for local initiatives, might be a better model than the two "slum-dwellers as benighted cyphers" options you rightly criticised above.

David Forbes

Wow, two great comments.

Claudia: A great point. I grew up in an area with some pretty dire rural poverty, but I think in that too, the metropolis balances out by offering increased opportunities just because of the sheer array of businesses and cultures within walking distance (or a short drive).

Long story short, it always sucks (to varying degrees) to be poor, but I think it's even (albeit different) for rural or urban.

Richard: Thanks for the added insights about Mumbai. Waste and many of the other factors you allude to are a very real problem, and useful as a counterpoint to the perhaps too-optimistic tilt of Brand's original article.

I think linking into networks is absolutely essential. One method (among many, of course) would be better linking these slums with microloans, and offering resources for the ad-hoc civic organizations that develop in them to better manage waste and similar problems.

I'm reminded of research I did into the Kowloon Walled City sometime ago, which in some ways is the archetypal anarchic slum. At one point, the Triads essentially controlled the area, until a massive sweep by the police took them out. However, after that the police left the inhabitants to their own devices and civic organizations. The result was that Kowloon actually had less crime than some surrounding areas. Food for thought, certainly.

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