The future is urban

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 Planet of Slums
Just what can be done about it remains unclear

A FRIEND HAS just returned from an anti-war conference in Cairo. One of the largest delegations was composed of peasants. We blush at the word: they use it with pride.

In one workshop, European peace campaigners and peasant militants tried to explain their different situations. âeoeOur last peasantsâe(TM) revolt was in 1381,âe my friend said. The Egyptians were delighted to learn that there was a British tradition of rural mobilisation. âeoeIn fact, itâe(TM)s 200 years since Britain had any sort of peasant population,âe another activist interjected. The peasants looked horrified: they imagined a future in which the urban outnumbers the rural.

Mike Davis details how the last 50 years have witnessed a demographic revolution. In 1950, the worldâe(TM)s population was three billion, with the great majority living on the land. Since then, migration between the rural areas and cities has tilted the balance. By the end of this decade most people will live in cities; and by 2030 it is estimated that the urban population will outnumber the rural by a two-to-one majority.

In 1950 New York City was the worldâe(TM)s largest, at 12 million. No third-world city was half as large. Today the worldâe(TM)s largest is Mexico City at over 22 million. Eighteen African, Asian or Latin American centres have more than 10 million inhabitants each. Bangkok is not Tehran, Rio is different from Mumbai. But common features can be identified.

Migration to the cities exacerbates the ecological crisis. In 1978 there were fewer than half a million cars in Cairo; today there are more than seven million. The desert city chokes with dirt and fumes. Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has no water-based sanitation system. Mike Davisâe(TM)s breadth of vision as he ranges across these cities is one of the strengths of Planet of Slums.

A slum in India

As Davis describes, the urban propertied have adopted two main responses to growing in-migration. Some states have engaged in giant acts of slum clearance, as recently in Zimbabwe. Others have taken no steps to plan or to develop any infrastructure around the slums, leaving the market to provide.

In successive chapters Davis rejects both approaches. A particular target is the shoddy thinking associated with the global quangos such as UN-Habitat, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. In the 1970s, many states moved away from national projects, including housing. Into the theoretical void strode writers like John Turner, previously a contributor to London-based anarchist paper Freedom. Struck by the creativity of the new urban poor, Turner presented squatting as the solution to the global housing crisis. His message was taken up by the UN, supporting programmes of small loans to facilitate house building.

A slum in China

The cult of the squatter, Davis argues, also fit the priorities of third-world construction companies, the local rich who pocketed the loans. Since 1990, Davis argues, squatters have been less prevalent in major slums. Many have acquired legal title, and have in turn rented their land (often at high mark-ups) to newer generations of urban arrivals. The granting of title to informal settlements has pushed up land prices âe" which, as we know from our own cities, function as a tax from one generation to another, benefiting occupants at the expense of future occupiers.

I put down this book with just one regret. In other Davis titles, the critique of capitalism has been accompanied by detailed suggestions for change. Prisoners of the American Dream, for example, includes a history of workersâe(TM) struggle in America âe" a story too few know. But in Planet of Slums, there is no creative statement, no alternative provided. The problems Mike Davis captures. The question readers will be left with is an old one: what else can be done?âe"David Renton

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