Monday, November 26, 2007

Planet of Slums

Photograph of a painting by Walter Handro
Cities in the abstract are the solution to the environmental crisis: urban density can translate into great efficiencies in land, energy, and resource use, while democratic public spaces and cultural institutions likewise provide qualitatively higher standards of enjoyment than individualized consumption and commodified leisure. - Pp. 134, Planet of Slums.
Truly, in the abstract, cities appear the solution to a lot of things, in an increasingly populated and economically stratified world. From the Le Corbusien dreams of the master planners to the amplifying growth of real estate values in the center of so many megacities (New York, included), there is a prevailing, abstract logic that a well-planned city may bring order, meaning, and stability of the masses who aggregate in the city center. Mike Davis' Planet of Slums is an assault on this logic, providing an overwhelming onslaught of statistics, anecdotes, and analysis that indicates that the modern city, in its incarnation as slum, shanty town, ghetto, favela, fails to deliver its denizens from poverty, inequality, or hopelessness.

Chaos, economic blight, and false hope seem to be the driving forces in the cities of the developing world, forcing the urban poor into worse and worse scenarios -- under-served by public infrastructure, lacking economic opportunity or social mobility, beset by public health epidemics, and trapped by government policies wrought from the high ideals of academia and Western think tanks. Rather than organic, democratic institutions, the poor parts of cities, ever increasing in size and population, seem like traps, sinkholes which draw in larger and larger populations, and provide no ready way out.

I wish I could say that under the reams of data damning the world's cities there is a trap door, leading to a brighter future. Simply not the case. While not an uplifting heart-warmer, Planet of Slums is a necessary look at some of the key demographic and social trends that will dictate the next epoch of our forward march through history, describing in terrifying detail of data and history the cauldrons from which the next genius may hail, but more likely, the next epidemic, revolution, famine, or genocide. Scary, sobering, and impossible to ignore.


karsten said...

"...the modern city, in its incarnation as slum, shanty town, ghetto, favela, fails to deliver its denizens from poverty, inequality, or hopelessness".

Well, I would expect this to be true, on the face of it. But what about the city in any other incarnation? Or is it his thesis that cities only have this one incarnation?

Anonymous said...

I seriously stayed up for like 2 hours reading your blog, and to be honest, it's pretty rare to find people with the depth of thought, and insight that you possess. I look up to you, and appreciate the strong character that i've gained from working with you. Thank you for the opportunity Ritik.

Ritik Dholakia said...

KS - I don't think that Davis' thesis is what you have quoted. That is definitely an interpretation for which I will take ownership.

Davis tackles specifically the problem of cities which, through macro-economic and political policy, and the natural entropy of people, have tended to be slumhood. Unfortunately, this comprises the majority of cities in the developing world.

Davis doesn't directly tackle problems of first world cities, although some teeter on the brink (Los Angeles, Paris) of being slums in parts, nor does he tackle the phenomenon of megacities (London, New York) where the poor are simply being priced out of the city.

Successful cities are not within the purview of his critique, and while I don't know for sure, I would guess that a lot of successful cities of today have become successful absent the crushing pressures of poverty and overpopulation.

Anon -- thanks for the kind words! Sorry I haven't been writing, unfortunately, I have been swamped recently.