Illegal Cities

Life among the Third World's squatters


Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, by Robert Neuwirth, New York: Routledge, 335 pages, $28.95

Since 1950 the population of the world has increased from 2.5 billion to 6.1 billion. Many of these newcomers earn less than $1 a day–far below the U.S. poverty standard–and live in sprawling megacities such as Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in India, and Nairobi in Kenya. They are frequently beset by bad governments and corrupt officials. How do they survive?

Investigative reporter Robert Neuwirth gives the answer in his fascinating book Shadow Cities. About a fifth of Rio de Janeiro's residents, half of Mumbai's, and two-thirds of Nairobi's live as urban squatters, a category that includes an estimated 1 billion people around the world. They don't hold title to the land on which they live; they are loosely if at all regulated; they do not pay taxes; they seldom receive postal delivery, water, sewers, roads, or other public services; and, in general, they live with a minimal legal order.

Anarchist political theorists have long dreamed of such a society; some of their ideas are today being put to the test. As Neuwirth reports, squatter anarchy can work surprisingly well. In the favela squatter settlements of Rio, law and order is privately maintained by local drug lords, and there is hardly any crime, comparing favorably in this regard with most Rio neighborhoods served by the city police. The housing is built one small step at a time. Although the exterior appearance is typically ramshackle at first, the interiors are surprisingly neat and comfortable, and after a few decades the outsides are often attractive as well.

For years, favela dwellers stole electricity from exterior transmission lines and obtained their water from plastic pipes run through the narrow alleys and stairways from exterior sources. In recent years, as the residents' economic conditions have improved, outside profit-making businesses have entered, including a cable TV network. Restaurants and service establishments dot many Rio favelas today. There are still no official property titles; a business or other new entrant simply buys the right to occupy a site from the previous occupant. Whatever their official legal status, these transactions are recognized within the favela as valid.

Neuwirth studied life in squatter settlements by living in four of them for a few months each. The physical conditions of life were most difficult in the Kibera settlement of 500,000 in Nairobi. Nevertheless, a strong sense of neighborhood community was present. Neuwirth reports that "many women…developed communal self-help networks" and "churches are a growth industry"; it sometimes seemed that "everyone in Kibera belongs to one church or another." Business dealings based "on trust" worked almost as reliably as those based on legal contracts. One Kibera resident who became a multimillionaire businessman chose to remain there because he liked the friendly and unpretentious people so much.

The poor of Kibera receive almost no help from outside institutions. The Kenyan government is inept and corrupt. Even a squatter has to pay officials a bribe to improve his or her property–functioning much like a private tax of as much as a third of the improvement value. Otherwise, it will be torn down by "inspectors." Also unusual among such communities around the world, Kibera's occupants of "mud huts and scrap steel shanties," who lack any running water, sewers, sanitation, or toilets, still have to pay rents to mostly outside landlords. Thus Kibera's residents are not strictly squatters in the same sense as residents of the other communities Neuwirth studied. Owing to these adverse conditions, Kibera was the only one of the areas he visited in which the quality of housing had improved little in recent decades.

Urban squatters generally locate either on open government land or on unused private land that has geographic or other obstacles to development. In the Dharavi squatter community of Mumbai, the area was originally a dumping ground near the ocean and the land was characterized by "marshy conditions and poor drainage," with Mahim Creek running through the neighborhood as an open sewer that "simply put…stinks." While private land developers passed it by, the area still looked good to poor squatters who were far from being able to afford any legally built housing in Mumbai.

The presence of foul odors and other unpleasant features did not mean there was no pride of residency. Neuwirth spoke with Waqar Khan, a 40-year-old who had lived in Dharavi since he was 13. Khan at first survived by selling bananas on the street and now has his own business making men's shirts. His first residence was "a simple shed," but Khan now "boasts a modern-looking store and an upstairs residence: all illegal, of course, but that's the norm here." Neuwirth observes that Mumbai's better-off citizens scorn the squatters of Dharavi even as they depend on them–perhaps 6 million squatters in the whole city–to take care of their children, clean their homes, wait on them in restaurants, and man their factories.

In the outer suburbs of Istanbul, Neuwirth visited squatter settlements that were largely indistinguishable from the legally built communities nearby. This situation was attributable to two unusual features of Turkish law. If a person succeeds in building a home on unoccupied land, eviction requires a court hearing and can be difficult. This rule had led to the practice of gecekondu residency, by which an aspiring squatter builds a home-like structure in a single night and then asserts occupancy in the morning. Fully half the 6 million residents of Istanbul now live in gecekondu homes.

Under Turkish law, groups of 2,000 or more residents can obtain recognition as a quasi-independent municipality. Squatter settlements have used this device to form their own local governments, then passed municipal laws allowing conversion of squatter occupancy to a legal title (for a price set by the municipality). Even if this is not possible, less formal mechanisms of asserting permanent squatter occupancy have developed in the suburbs of Istanbul, and Neuwirth finds that "there are even real estate offices that specialize in selling these titleless properties." One of these settlements, Sutanbeyli, had "more mosques than schools," reflecting the waves of poor immigrants from devout rural areas of Turkey.

In the 19th century, much of the United States was settled in a similar manner. When the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-American War added immense tracts of public land in the West, the federal government initially sought planned development and public sale of the land. But settlers usually got there first and defied the government in Washington to remove them. Reacting to squatter pressures, Congress at first confirmed titles retroactively, then with the 1841 Preemption Act offered the land prospectively for sale to squatters, and finally with the 1862 Homestead Act granted the land free of charge prospectively. "Homesteading" was simply polite language for the now legally authorized squatting on public land.

Squatting was also common in New York and other American cities in the 19th century, and many people occupied their unauthorized sites for decades. Eventually, however, the authorities tore down the squatter settlements in New York, responding to demands that the land be made available for intensive development. Unlike settlers in the American West, the New York squatters had never acquired a property right and thus could not profit from the growing value of their sites; eventually they were simply cast into the street.

This treatment was both unfair and inefficient: It often took long court fights and many years to evict people, delaying a higher-valued use of the land even as the squatters were finally denied any appropriate compensation. It would have been better to enact an urban version of the Homestead Act, as the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto has proposed that nations across the world do today. Strangely, Neuwirth is critical of this idea. He makes some valid points, such as the possibility that legalized status might bring new taxes and cumbersome regulations to squatter settlements. Nevertheless, Neuwirth seems to be applying an ideological filter here that sees private property as evil. He is capable of writing statements as silly as this: "When property becomes a commodity–simply a means of making money–we have begun the process that leads to homelessness and abandonment of the social contract."

Neuwirth gets back on much firmer ground when he discusses the failures of governments and international development institutions to address the problems of squatter settlements. New land titles and other appropriate policies could achieve large gains for the people in these settlements at minimal public cost. Instead, the world's policy makers mostly ignore the squatter communities.

Neuwirth notes the irony that the world headquarters of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme–known as U.N. Habitat–is located in Nairobi just a few miles from the Kibera shantytown. The officials of this world agency almost never visit Kibera and seem barely aware of its existence. This is typical, Neuwirth reports, of an agency whose record shows a "dismal 25 years of inaction and sloth" across the world. The U.N. housing program instead specializes in holding conferences attended by well-paid international civil servants and private consultants.

Neuwirth is strongest as a journalist and weakest as a social theorist. Shadow Cities is at its best shining an investigative lens into areas of urban life that have seldom been described before. It is a wonderful story of the vitality and creativity of ordinary people who have managed to survive and sometimes even prosper in the face of government indifference if not hostility.

With a little help, the residents of squatter settlements could do much more for themselves. They need a firmer land tenure that would cost almost nothing to implement–in contrast to the billions of dollars of international aid funds that are today being squandered in the Third World. I hope Shadow Cities will focus public attention on the needs of the world's poorest urban residents.?