If you have ever worried that we might be concreting over south-east England, this book could be a useful antidote. The problem is not in Greater London. If anywhere is being concreted over, it’s Mexico City, Mumbai, Sao Paulo and the many other southern cities that have grown tenfold in just fifty years.
Although it would be rather more accurate to say that they are being covered with corrugated iron and bits of plastic sheet. The centres of the world’s megacities might be sprouting towers of concrete and glass designed by well-known architects, but at their edges they are sprouting slums at a devastating rate. The world’s slums add 25 million people to their populations every year.
Most of us are unaware of the problem. I am writing these words only a few hundred miles from the world’s biggest slum, but until I read this book I had never heard of it. It’s a slum complex called Neza-Chalco-Izta, and it houses four million of Mexico City’s 22m population. There are similar slums in Caracas, Venezuela and Bogota, Colombia, each housing at least two million people, and two more in Lima, Peru that together add a further three millions. So the ‘top five’ megaslums are all in Latin America – but Asia and Africa are not far behind.
‘Slum’ is a word no longer much used in Britain – for good reason, since most of ours have disappeared. Yet it is hard to avoid the word when contemplating the magnitude of informal, densely-packed settlements attached to the cities of the developing world. One fact from the many in Davis’s book says it all: Dharavi, in Mumbai (Bombay) which has the reputation of being Asia’s biggest slum, allegedly has 18,000 people per acre. Yes, eighteen thousand.
If Davis’s statistics are unremitting, so are his criticisms. The book is doubly depressing – the situation is getting worse by the minute, and apparently nothing is being done about it. Davis is respectful of slum dwellers and their campaigns for political change, but critical of most of the efforts being made – whether by governments, NGOs or slum dwellers themselves. He’s particularly incensed by the impact of the policies of bodies like the World Bank and the IMF – often for good reason, but without accepting that they might be learning from past mistakes.
I have visited only one or two of the places Davis writes about. But in Dharavi, for example, there are impressive self-build projects, sponsored by Homeless International and coordinated by local NGOs. The same goes for slum areas in Buenos Aires and Santiago (Chile). Such projects have escaped Davis’s notice. In fact, I began to wonder if he’d written this book at his desk, without having seen any slums himself. If he has visited them, the book is remarkably lacking in the personal stories of slum dwellers (and none are named in his Acknowledgements).
This is a pity, as the real story, as usual, is a mixed one: terrible problems, but people everywhere making enormous efforts to tackle them. Read this book to find out about the scale of the task, but don’t despair of helping the agencies and the people who are trying to do something about it.
Original post: Housing magazine