In a local environment where the tent city along the American River has become international news after its exposure on the Oprah Show, calling forth the mayor and governor to proclaim that they will fix the problem, it is productive to take a longer look at the issue of housing for the poor of the world, and this article about the world’s slums, from City Journal, is instructive.
“Close to 120 years have passed since Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Using stereoscopic camera, magnesium flash powder, and riveting language, the Danish-born onetime crime reporter seared bleak, iconic images of New York’s low-income neighborhoods into the American consciousness. Though today Riis is almost universally celebrated—new biographies continue to appear—he helped set housing policy on a course that would prove tragically misguided. In particular, he inspired a range of government policies that viewed slums as bleak wastelands that transformed their residents into paupers and criminals and therefore had to be radically changed or eradicated.
“The problems that Riis and the housing-reform movement sparked are still relevant today, since slums, unlike many ills that worried nineteenth-century social reformers, remain very much with us. Indeed, their scale in the developing world dwarfs that of Riis-era New York. The United Nations estimates that in 2001, 924 million people, or 31.6 percent of the world’s urban population, lived in slums; the number today surely exceeds 1 billion. As Planet of Slums author Mike Davis writes, residents of the new slums constitute the “fastest-growing and most unprecedented social class on earth.”
“The harrowing descriptions of the conditions in Third World slums in a tide of recent books on the subject, including Davis’s, are in the Riis tradition. But the books’ overall assessments and reform prescriptions often are decidedly not. A relative consensus has formed about how best to address the new slums’ problems, and surprisingly, it appreciates what the UN calls the “positive” elements of slum life, shaped by a population characterized not as oppressed and helpless but as resourceful and creative. Journalist Robert Neuwirth, for instance, extols slums as places where “squatters mix more concrete than any developer. They lay more brick than any government. They have created a huge hidden economy. . . . [They] are the largest builders of housing in the world—and they are creating the cities of tomorrow.” In keeping with this encouraging trend, the UN even describes the Third World’s informal settlements as “slums of hope.”
“What, exactly, are slums? Some, especially in the developed world, are once-affluent neighborhoods gone to ruin; others were once public housing. But most are gigantic, tightly packed concentrations of flimsy shacks and shanties that rural migrants have built on the outskirts of cities—what the UN calls “vast informal settlements that are quickly becoming the visual expression of urban poverty.”
“Most of these settlements are in the developing world. Of the 924 million slum dwellers worldwide in 2001, 554 million lived in Asia, in such cities as Mumbai and Kolkata in India and Karachi in Pakistan. Another 187 million lived in Africa, in places like Cairo, Durban, Johannesburg, and Nairobi. And 128 million lived in Latin America and the Caribbean (famously, in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo). Only 54 million were in developed countries.”