In Defense of Slums

Environmentalist Stewart Brand offers a look at the changing perception of urban slums in the British magazine Prospect. Rather than perpetuating poverty, people are beginning to see that cities offer the world's poor a chance to improve their lives:

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. ...

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.”

In the big picture, it doesn't much matter what experts think of the growth of slums. As long 60 million people a year continue to make the decision to seek a better life in urban areas, squatter cities will continue to grow. If there were much hope for a decent life in the countryside of impoverished countries, people would happily live there. Instead, they realize that if they want to make a decent living, heading to the city is their best bet.

Ronald Bailey reviewed Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto in the February 2010 issue of Reason. Update: For more on slums, check out Robert Nelson's review of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth from the August/September 2005 issue of Reason.

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  • Johnny Longtorso||

    From the article:

    Squatter cities are also unexpectedly green. They have maximum density—1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbai—and have minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi.

    The idea of measuring environmental impact in notional acres was first introduced by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees in Our Ecological Footprint (1996) as a way to estimate the resource efficiency of cities and to condemn suburban sprawl. The concept has been very useful in shaming cities into better environmental behaviour, but comparable studies have yet to be made of rural populations, whose environmental impact per person is much higher than city dwellers. Nor has footprint analysis yet been properly applied to urban squatters and slum dwellers, which score as the greenest of all.

  • Johnny Longtorso||

    Those two paragraphs come from 2 different places in the article. I left off a "...".

  • Brett L||

    Poverty is next to gaianess.

  • ||

    They have maximum density—1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbai—and have minimum energy and material use.

    Its rare you see someone admit so frankly that poverty = greenitudosity.

  • Johnny Longtorso||

    As long as he's only suggesting it for _others_, it's OK.

  • Skid Marx||

    http://mises.org/books/TRTS/

  • Brett L||

    Its almost as if people displayed some sort of underlying bias towards acting in what they perceive to be their best interest, and in aggregate they tend to perceive the truth. Next they'll discover they can use this to find the clearing level of any good or service.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    What about crime in the slums? Should that not be taken into account?

  • ||

    Next thing you know someone will admit that people are better off working in sweat shops than starving if those are the only two options available, which is often the case. There is hope yet.

  • Tim||

    "One good thing about music, when it hits you fell no pain (repeat)
    So hit me with music, hit me with music
    Hit me with music, hit me with music now
    I got to say trench town rock
    I say don't watch that
    Trench town rock, big fish or sprat
    Trench town rock, you reap what you sow
    Trench town rock, and everyone know now
    Trench town rock, don't turn your back
    Trench town rock, give the slum a try
    Trench town rock, never let the children cry
    Trench town rock, cause you got to tell Jah, Jah

    ..."

    Bob Marley

  • Tony||

    This is bullshit. Poor brown people should work the land - because I think that's more picturesque.

  • The Gobbler||

    Fake Tony, right?

  • ||

    If it is a fake, it is a good fake.,

  • ||

    I doubt it. "Picturesque" is an awfully big word for Tony.

  • ||

    ""the conurbations made up of people who do not legally occupy the land they live on—more commonly known as slums""

    Illegally occupying land isn't a violation of someone elses's property rights?

    What, these cities have never heard of emminant domain? Once they become slums, you need to bulldoze it down and and bring in the real growth. What's the property value of a slum? Isn't a slum pretty much the defintion of urban blight? Bulldoze it, build high rise commercial buildings that will create jobs.

    ""If there were much hope for a decent life in the countryside of impoverished countries, people would happily live there. Instead, they realize that if they want to make a decent living, heading to the city is their best bet.""

    You mean head to the city and illegally squat? While they are at it, they might make a living at picking pockets. If you have to break one law in the name of better living, why not break two?

    Would a libertarian argument be against slums?

  • JD||

    "Illegally" is often just a matter of technicalities. In some countries, plenty of people have lived on the same land for ages, but if they don't have a government piece of paper that says they own it, they can't borrow against it, can't easily sell it on the open market, and are vulnerable to being pushed off. And, not surprisingly, a lot of third-world governments make it really hard to get title to land.

  • ||

    ""the conurbations made up of people who do not legally occupy the land they live on—more commonly known as slums""

    Illegally occupying land isn't a violation of someone elses's property rights?

    There is an excluded middle you are ignoring -- one that may be quite wide.

  • Emily||

    Slums aren't anti-libertarian! They are a wonderful argument for classical liberalism and property rights. One of the most widely accepted answers to the problem of slums is using property rights.

    The "libertarian" answer would be:
    1. Make property rights well-defined. The law must clearly state that property is yours with title and that means you can sell, lease, rent, whatever you want with it.
    2. Remove the numerous regulations to obtaining legal title to land. Most slumdwellers and squatters want to own their land, but they cannot get legal title - either it is publicly held and the process to acquire it legally is near impossible, or it is unknown who the land belongs to because of ill-defined property rights systems to begin with.
    3. Actually ENFORCE the law (a lot of people technically own property but its not protected in practice). Make sure that the informal "rules in use" are the laws on the books.

    Doing this will result in several things:
    1. Use of land/property as collateral to get loans. It is a source of capital.
    2. It is a potential source of revenue - you can rent out land.
    3. Strengthens women against domestic abuse - if she owns land, she is more likely to leave a abusive partner because she can support herself. She also becomes a key decision-maker in the home because she has access to capital.
    4. Reduces violent conflict - not only because property disputes can be easily solved, but because in the case war or displacement, you can easily tell who owned what with a system of legal titles (imagine if we went to war and you had to flee and when you came back, there was no record of your ownership of your house? This leads to violence - see Uganda right now)

    And scores of other positive benefits come from property rights.

    Illegally sitting on someone else's land is anti-libertarian. But in slums, its different because the government has made is almost impossible to legally get land. In this case, it is the state's responsibility to reduce barriers to legally obtaining title to land.

  • Emily||

    Just to sum up: The people who are "illegally" sitting on land are doing so because the government has made it IMPOSSIBLE to legally obtain land. This is a problem of STATES, not of criminal slumdwellers.

  • ||

    It's not impossible to buck-up get a job, and move out of the slum into a rentable apartment or dwelling. That's part of Sanders's point. The state isn't keeping them in the slum. The slum dwellers can move up in the world if they choose. No one is saying it would be easy. They have many barriers. The odds are they won't make it out, but some do, and it can be done.

    While I don't agree with people illegally living on someone elses land, I do agree with the idea that being in the city gives them far more options.

  • Old Mexican||

    If there were much hope for a decent life in the countryside of impoverished countries, people would happily live there.

    Well, developed countries will MAKE them live there, happily or not, through imposition of so-called "child labor laws", forced collectivization (also known as "unionizing") and environmental regulations, all in order to "level the playing field", offer a "living wage" to these unfortunates (a "living wage" meaning one about 1000 times above market so that the brown people become permanently unemployed), and to stop "corporations" from running so-called "sweatshops."

    Easy stuff.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    ""the conurbations made up of people who do not legally occupy the land they live on—more commonly known as slums""

    Illegally occupying land isn't a violation of someone elses's property rights?

    Are you ready for Libertarian Purity Rumble???????
    Adverse possession edition

    Ever acceptable? If so how long must pass? How much maintenance and support must be performed by the squatters? What actions by the titleholder suffice to reset the clock?

  • DJP||

    Something that wasn't mentioned is quality of life. I submit that people are generally much happier living a traditional rural life than living in urban squalor.

    Certainly people should be free to choose to live how they want, but the idea of the UN "encouraging" flocking to cities is scary.

  • EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy||

    Probably they'd be happier in the countryside if they could make it pay, but they can't. That's why they move.

    No one is pointing bayonets at them.

    It is a free choice between slowly starving in a picturesque rural village and barely hanging on in a squalid shanty town.

    Not a choice anyone would like to be faced with, but it is better than not having the choice.

  • Pious Libertarian||

    This is just more vulgar libertarian propoganda. So you all are okay with people living in slums?!?!

  • ||

    There is an upside to almost everything including a slum, I'll grant you that. But really? In defense of them? I lived in "the barrio" in L.A. and it wasn't pleasant, much nicer than a third world slum but not exactly someplace I'd want to stay, so I left it. These places are to be escaped, not celebrated. I get what you are saying, can't help but see this whole post as a little callous though.

  • Emily||

    I'm not sure how I feel about this. Okay, yes, slums are better than the countryside, but that sure as hell does not make them something to defend...these are places rank with disease, drugs, crime.

    The fact that slums are better than the country side and rural areas really only tells us one thing: that the whole country is poor and miserable. Ronald Bailey, you should be focusing on how to make slums better places to live - or how to make them disappear - with property rights and sensible limited government policy, not defending them as wonderful enclaves that the poor masses enjoy.

  • Emily||

    Whoops, Ben Sanders wrote this, not Ronald Bailey. My apologies!

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