Skip to comments.Slumming it is better than bulldozing it
Posted on 01/14/2008 9:55:14 AM PST by Lorianne
This is going to be a big year for the wrecking ball. By the time it's over, two of the world's most famous neighbourhoods will be gone, replaced with scaffolds, cement mixers and the sort of well-meaning mistakes that have scarred the cities of the West for decades.
The photo accompanying this article was taken on Christmas Eve in the sprawling Mumbai slum of Nehru Nagar. On an eerily quiet warm winter evening, photographer Subhash Kumar Sharma watched as a self-built, decades-old neighbourhood containing tens of thousands of people emptied itself out in advance of wrecking equipment. High-rise office buildings and carefully planned public-housing towers, some already built, are replacing this old, peaceful, rambunctiously squalid neighbourhood.
This is merely a foretaste of the demolitions to come this year in the world's most densely populated city. By next January, history's most ambitious slum-clearance project will have completely eliminated Dharavi, the astonishing hive of human activity that houses between 600,000 and a million people nobody knows for sure how many in an area the size of a university campus along a sewage-choked river in Mumbai.
Dharavi, possibly the world's most-written-about slum, is famously the source of billions of dollars in economic activity, most of it involving the transformation of waste into useful new products in jury-rigged factories packed into a lawless, spontaneous mountain range constructed over 60 years from found bits of wood, corrugated metal and plastic sheeting, rising four or five storeys above the chemical-and-sewage-clotted mud.
It will all be gone this year, replaced with a master-planned community that gives each slum family a 225-square-foot house with running water, a toilet and electricity. These tiny homes, devised by the city's powerful Slum Rehabilitation Authority, will be located in multi-storey concrete buildings provided by developers, who will have to provide and maintain 30 million square feet of this housing in exchange for the right to build 40 million square feet of commercial developments and condominiums on the remaining land.
On the other end of Asia, in Turkey, this week has seen another famously ramshackle neighbourhood about to fall to the wreckers. A few brave, very poor souls are holding on to their houses in Sulukule, one of the last of the crooked wooden neighbourhoods of central Istanbul, as its residents, many of them members of the Roma minority, are moved into concrete high-rises, some nearby and some on the edge of the city.
This, too, is the tip of an urban iceberg. In November,
Istanbul's government announced an extraordinary plan to demolish one million buildings across the sprawling city. The official rationale is earthquake prevention: Most of Istanbul's houses have been built by their occupants, as the city has grown from a small community of a million people in 1960 to an ever-expanding hub of 12 million people today.
Even though these self-built structures are often considered more earthquake-safe than the government-built high-rises that tend to replace them, the government is intent on replacing all "crooked buildings," "rear-lying neighbourhoods," "slums" and "illegal buildings" with neat high-rises that promise parks, better schools, navigable roads and municipal services, turning the city's mad accretion of wild innovation into something more orderly.
Both demolitions are well-meaning acts of reform-minded governments, intent on using the recent economic fortunes of the developing world to make improvements not only to the unhygienic and untaxable masses of the poor, but to the prospects for office space.
This trend is not limited to Mumbai and Istanbul. The largest cities in the world, which have heretofore grown like untamed fields, are using their recent fiscal success to impose the discipline of the planner upon the imponderable chaos of the slum.
To those of us in the Western Hemisphere, it should all sound painfully familiar. In the decades immediately after the Second World War, our governments looked at the crooked buildings of New York and Toronto and London and Paris, and the recent immigrants from rural areas and foreign shores who filled these haphazard, colourful, unhygienic, unregulated spaces, and set out to make improvements.
Urban planners drew up ambitious plans, based on carefully considered, socially progressive theories. They favoured the "city in the sky," with elevated walkways connecting clean high-rise apartment buildings, centred on paved public squares a collectivized ideal, cast in poured stone. These came to be known in the United States as "the projects," in Canada as social housing, in Britain as council estates, in France as banlieues, in Germany as plattenbauten.
They did away with the cooking smells, the crowded front steps and the street-side entrepreneurship of the old 'hood. In later decades, the names of these developments all became popular euphemisms for a certain sort of prison-like destitute urban inhumanity, a terrible mistake of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that we've spent the past generation trying to undo.
What do these blights have in common with the latest social-improvement agendas of Mumbai and Istanbul? In every case, the "improvements" are being carried out by high-minded planners who have given no more than a token listen to the well-established communities that will be subject to their plans.
"This place could use some improvement, for sure, but we all live here because we prefer it to anywhere else we've lived, and we've made it our home," 20-year-old Devendra Tank told me last summer when I visited the outlandish factories and homes of Dharavi, including his extended family's tiny, toilet-free home and ceramic workshop.
Every family in Dharavi has paid for its house, through complex social arrangements that go back decades. They all get electricity, cable TV and an amazing range of other services (including that great Indian miracle of same-day laundry) through other intricate networks. Mr. Tank was pursuing a master's degree in business administration, like many of his peers.
The families there are among the most fortunate in the developing world they have been drawn to the slum because of its fortune-making potential and have carefully assembled a livelihood and an ad-hoc system of social security there.
This is the crucial flaw in all top-down, slum-clearance plans: They are based on the belief that people are in slums because they have fallen out of mainstream society, but most slums are composed of people who are clawing their way into the mainstream the new arrivals from the villages, the recent immigrants from overseas.
They know more than anyone does about what it takes to improve their condition. Given the right conditions planning approval, utilities, accessible loans, proper deeds or leases on their property they would probably advance to the middle class faster than any government agency could take them there.
"Nobody in the slums really asked for free housing," says Abhay Pethe, a Mumbai economist who specializes in the city's housing labyrinth. "It was the politicians who wanted to make this announcement, to build something new."
Of course, nobody wants to live in a neighbourhood that smells like a toilet and everyone prefers a solid roof to a sheet of plastic. People everywhere want their children to be in safe, neat schools. Slums are a vast improvement over rural poverty, but it is a proper human instinct to want to do away with them.
In the past 40-odd years, though, smart governments have discovered better ways to move people out of squalor. Most of these eschew the wrecking ball, instead throwing the state's weight behind the progressive momentum that already exists. Granting people title deeds on their tiny plots of land can help, but money also needs to be spent: Sewage, water and other utilities need to be supplied and building materials, if not actual builders, furnished.
"The best plans generally let the slum dwellers themselves make the main decisions in planning their future. You should provide clean water, toilets, electricity, garbage collection and disposal, and maybe let people build their own houses if they can using materials that you can provide," says Aprodicio Laquian, the Filipino-Canadian planner who practically invented the idea of slum-dweller-designed urban rehabilitation in the 1960s and is now at the University of British Columbia.
"Eventually," Mr. Laquian says, "you want to make available a better sort of housing, a five-storey walk-up apartment, but planned according to the needs of the community, not by some central plan."
These sorts of schemes, known as "slum upgrading" or "sites and services," have been at the heart of the most successful urban-renewal projects of the past 40 years. The most impressive of these is Indonesia's Kampung Improvement Program, which doesn't look like "the projects" at all, but like a bunch of highly populated, very pleasant working-class neighbourhoods.
This is the sort of thing that the world should be emulating. But the desire to plan from the top, and bulldoze the carefully considered ambitions of the people who have built their lives in the slum, continues to win the day.
For reference, that's a square 15 feet on a side.
That said, it is interesting to see how the author gets all lachrymose about the demise of "a lawless, spontaneous mountain range constructed over 60 years from found bits of wood, corrugated metal and plastic sheeting, rising four or five storeys above the chemical-and-sewage-clotted mud."
Most of us would call it what it is: a sh*thole. The author most likely does not, and would not, live in such a place. The article reminds me a bit of Melville's short story, "Poor Man's Pudding and Rich Man's Crumbs," in which a rich man's romantic vision of the beauty of poverty is put to the test....
Which is probably huge by some standards
When including “running water and a toilet” it’s probably palatial compared to what they had before.
“Slumming it is better than bulldozing it “
I thought this was about New Orleans...
I honestly thought this was a New Orleans story.
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