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Housing catastrophe

Print edition : May 18, 2007 T+T-

The author brings us face to face with the consequences of decisions taken by those far removed from the stench and struggle of slum reality.

IN his 1998 study, Cities in Civilization, the planner and scholar Sir Peter Hall endorsed an ancient optimism: belief in an umbilical link between urban life and civilisation. Irrespective of the age, he argued, cities energise, replenish, renew. By token of their very size and complexity, they act as incubators in whose "innovative milieu" cultural inertia is transformed by the coming together of a critical mass of creative people. Twenty-first century cities, Hall predicted, would build on this tradition. Geared to the "marriage of art and technology", they would be harbingers of a "coming golden age".

A chasm separates these conclusions from those reached by Mike Davis in a new study, which follows Hall's by only eight years. Its publication coincides with an epochal transition that has received scant media attention or public debate. Some time in the next year or two (it may have happened already), the urban population of the earth will for the first time in human history outnumber the rural. What confronts this town- and city-dwelling majority, Davis argues, is the antithesis of civilisation as it has been understood since cities first came into being several millennia ago.

For giant swathes of people (one billion, according to United Nations figures), urban life is already indistinguishable from slum-based survival. What Davis calls "the astonishing prevalence of slums" is the central theme of a report, "The Challenge of Slums", published by the U.N. Human Settlements Programme (U.N.-HABITAT) in 2003. Drawing extensively on its "historic and sombre" findings, Davis expands on it by offering a critical survey of the literature on global urban poverty, underpinned by meticulous data synthesising. The result is a reality check that brings the reader up short: a passionately executed audit of human misery that is also an indictment of the policies plunging our planet into urban catastrophe.

Davis, a California-based political ecologist and Marxist, has in a series of books established himself as an innovative explorer of the interface between politics and the environment, understood as the historically shaped physical reality in which humans operate. In City of Quartz (1990) and Ecology of Fear (2000), he offered a provocative new way of looking at contemporary southern California, dissecting with controlled ferocity the bleak suburban sprawl, class divisions and deep-rooted insecurities of Los Angeles. In Late Victorian Holocausts (2001: reviewed in Frontline April 13, 2001), he showed how the great drought-famines of the later 19th century, while triggered by the synchronous weather system known as the El Nino/Southern Oscillation, were transformed into cataclysmic events by the imperatives of global capitalism. His work is characterised by the amassing and critical scrutiny of daunting quantities of evidence, by analytical sharpness, and by the propensity to challenge orthodox "explanations" that benefit the rich and powerful.

In his new book, Davis addresses two questions: what is happening in the world's cities as humankind crosses the threshold to become a predominantly urban species, and how has this reality come about?

Urbanisation, Davis finds, is taking place with a velocity that far outpaces the experience of Victorian Europe. Cities are growing "by a million babies and migrants each week". Ninety-five per cent of all future world population growth (expected to peak at about 10 billion in 2050) will occur in the urban areas of developing countries whose populations will double to four billion over the next generation. Megacities, with populations in excess of eight million, will swell into hypercities with more than 20 million inhabitants (perhaps 33 million in the case of Mumbai, though, as Davis notes (page 5), "no one knows whether such gigantic concentrations of poverty are biologically or ecologically sustainable").

Across much of the world (China, Korea and Taiwan are the exceptions), urbanisation is taking place in the absence of industrial development or economic growth, constituting what Davis calls "overurbanisation", driven by the reproduction of poverty, not the supply of jobs. The inevitable result, whether in Karachi or Sao Paulo, Nairobi or Mexico City, is the mass production of slums. Rather than the soaring creations of glass and steel anticipated by earlier generations of urban planners, 21st-century cities will be fashioned from "crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood", their residents squatting "in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement and decay" (page 19).

How to account for this nightmarish turn, this negation of all that urban life was once held to promise: jobs, culture, openings for personal and social progress? The old optimism, Davis argues, has been flattened by the "brutal tectonics" of neoliberal globalisation, in particular the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) slapped on debt-strapped nations in the 1970s and 1980s. This was the "big bang" of overurbanisation, the time when, for poor rural migrants as well as for millions of newly impoverished town-dwellers, slums became "an implacable future".

For Indian readers, Davis' account of what followed will strike powerful resonances. In line with International Monetary Fund/World Bank strictures, Third World states retreated from the sphere of housing provision. The emphasis was now on "improving" slums rather than eradicating them. Slums in cities as far-flung as Mumbai, Dar-es-Salaam and Manila became laboratories for the testing out of World Bank nostrums, whether "sites and services" in the 1980s or, since the mid-1990s, the bypassing of governments altogether through the sanctification of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). For Davis, the latter approach, as embodied in the `poverty reduction strategy' associated with John Wolfensohn's presidency of the World Bank, is nothing short of "soft imperialism": (page 76) "For all the glowing rhetoric about democratisation, self-help, social capital, and the strengthening of civil society, the actual power relations in this new NGO universe resemble nothing so much as traditional clientelism ... The broad impact of the NGO/`civil society revolution', as even some World Bank researchers acknowledge, has been to bureaucratise and deradicalise urban social movements."

Beyond the blandishments of slum "improvement" and fads such as the `titling' movement pioneered by the Peruvian businessman Hernando de Soto (for Davis, "the global guru of neoliberal populism"), Davis shows how infinitely more potent market forces are propelling most urban-dwellers deeper into the margins. He tracks how, from the late 1970s, any notion of synchronisation between urban land values and economic growth (in the sense of industrial development) has been overwhelmed by an unstoppable surge of land speculation. One result has been the closing off of such options as squatting. Another has been a population density implosion that, as in Mumbai's Dharavi, with its estimated 18,000 people an acre, "defies credibility". Shoehorned into ecological disaster zones ruled by squalor and disease, slum-dwellers face the constant threat of eviction, their "voluntary relocation" sought - and brutally enforced - in the name of city "beautification".

This is an angry book, designed not only to inform but also to stir passions and generate outrage. At times, the unrelenting bleakness of the story threatens to overwhelm the reader. One is also struck by the absence of any sustained engagement with the politics of resistance, the actions of slum-dwellers in defence of their homes and communities.

Acknowledging this in an online interview in May 2006, Davis explained that he had envisaged writing a much longer book that would have embraced the politics of the slum but found it impossible to rely on secondary or specialist literature to deal with this dimension. He opted to stretch the project out to include a second volume, which he is now writing in collaboration with Forrest Hylton, an activist with first-hand experience of political organisation and resistance in the slums of Colombia and Bolivia.

In what, then, is his opening salvo, Davis defines and exposes the global housing catastrophe with a ferocity and forensic attention to detail that make his case unassailable.

As edifices of assumption crumble beneath his onslaught, as comfortable Western equations between city and civilisation collapse into the dusty, effluent-strewn alleyways of Nairobi, Kolkata and Rio de Janeiro, Davis brings us face to face with the consequences of decisions taken by bankers, developers and governments far removed from the stench and struggle of slum reality. Whether we recognise it or not, the battle for human living space is on. As with global warming, there is an apocalyptic quality to its possible outcome.

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