Sixty million people in the developing world are leaving the
countryside every year. The squatter cities that have emerged can
teach us much about future urban living
27th January 2010
In 1983, architect Peter Calthorpe gave up on San Francisco, where he
had tried and failed to organise neighbourhood communities, and moved
to a houseboat in Sausalito, a town on the San Francisco Bay. He
ended up on South 40 Dock, where I also live, part of a community of
400 houseboats and a place with the densest housing in California.
Without trying, it was an intense, proud community, in which no one
locked their doors. Calthorpe looked for the element of design magic
that made it work, and concluded it was the dock itself and the
density. Everyone who lived in the houseboats on South 40 Dock passed
each other on foot daily, trundling to and from the parking lot on
shore. All the residents knew each other's faces and voices and cats.
It was a community, Calthorpe decided, because it was walkable.
Building on that insight, Calthorpe became one of the founders of the
new urbanism, along with Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and
others. In 1985 he introduced the concept of walkability in
"Redefining Cities," an article in the Whole Earth Review, an
American counterculture magazine that focused on technology,
community building and the environment. Since then, new urbanism has
become the dominant force in city planning, promoting high density,
mixed use, walkability, mass transit, eclectic design and
regionalism. It drew one of its main ideas from the houseboat community.
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 onmore 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 servicesone-chair
barbershops and three-seat bars interspersed with the clothes racks
and fruit tables. One proposal is to use these as a model for
shopping areas. "Allow the informal sector to take over downtown
areas after 6pm," suggests Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of
Curitiba, Brazil. "That will inject life into the city."
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."
The magic of squatter cities is that they are improved steadily and
gradually by their residents. To a planner's eye, these cities look
chaotic. I trained as a biologist and to my eye, they look organic.
Squatter cities are also unexpectedly green. They have maximum
density1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbaiand have
minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle,
rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi.
Not everything is efficient in the slums, though. In the Brazilian
favelas where electricity is stolen and therefore free, people leave
their lights on all day. But in most slums recycling is literally a
way of life. The Dharavi slum in Mumbai has 400 recycling units and
30,000 ragpickers. Six thousand tons of rubbish are sorted every day.
In 2007, the Economist reported that in Vietnam and Mozambique,
"Waves of gleaners sift the sweepings of Hanoi's streets, just as
Mozambiquan children pick over the rubbish of Maputo's main tip.
Every city in Asia and Latin America has an industry based on
gathering up old cardboard boxes." There's even a book on the
subject: The World's Scavengers (2007) by Martin Medina. Lagos,
Nigeria, widely considered the world's most chaotic city, has an
environment day on the last Saturday of every month. From 7am to 10am
nobody drives, and the city tidies itself up.
In his 1985 article, Calthorpe made a statement that still jars with
most people: "The city is the most environmentally benign form of
human settlement. Each city dweller consumes less land, less energy,
less water, and produces less pollution than his counterpart in
settlements of lower densities." "Green Manhattan" was the
inflammatory title of a 2004 New Yorker article by David Owen. "By
the most significant measures," he wrote, "New York is the greenest
community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the
world…The key to New York's relative environmental benignity is its
extreme compactness. Manhattan's population density is more than 800
times that of the nation as a whole. Placing one and a half million
people on a twenty-three-square-mile island sharply reduces their
opportunities to be wasteful." He went on to note that this very
compactness forces people to live in the world's most
energy-efficient apartment buildings.
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.
Urban density allows half of humanity to live on 2.8 per cent of the
land. Demographers expect developing countries to stabilise at 80 per
cent urban, as nearly all developed countries have. On that basis, 80
per cent of humanity may live on 3 per cent of the land by 2050.
Consider just the infrastructure efficiencies. According to a 2004 UN
report: "The concentration of population and enterprises in urban
areas greatly reduces the unit cost of piped water, sewers, drains,
roads, electricity, garbage collection, transport, health care, and
schools." In the developed world, cities are green because they cut
energy use; in the developing world, their greenness lies in how they
take the pressure off rural waste.
The Last Forest (2007), a book by Mark London and Brian Kelly on the
crisis in the Amazon rainforest, suggests that the nationally
subsidised city of Manaus in northern Brazil "answers the question"
of how to stop deforestation: give people decent jobs. Then they can
afford houses, and gain security. One hundred thousand people who
would otherwise be deforesting the jungle around Manaus are now
prospering in town making such things as mobile phones and televisions.
The point is clear: environmentalists have yet to seize the
opportunity offered by urbanisation. Two major campaigns should be
mounted: one to protect the newly-emptied countryside, the other to
green the hell out of the growing cities.
More than any other political entity, cities learn from each other.
News of best practices spreads fast. Mayors travel, cruising for
ideas in the cities deemed the world's greenestfrom Reykjavik to
Portland, Oregon, and my hometown of San Francisco. But what we need
is a new profession of active urban ecology, which figures out how to
fix the problems of urban living (cockroach predation, waste from
markets or sanitation, a persistent cause of disease in slums) and
helps cities engage natural infrastructure (rivers and coastlines
play a role similar to highways and sewer lines) with the same level
of sophistication brought to built infrastructure.
One idea that could be transferred from squatter cities is urban
farming. An article by Gretchen Vogel in Science in 2008 enthused:
"In a high-tech answer to the 'local food' movement, some experts
want to transport the whole farm shoots, roots, and all to the city.
They predict that future cities could grow most of their food inside
city limits, in ultraefficient greenhouses… A farm on one city block
could feed 50,000 people with vegetables, fruit, eggs, and meat.
Upper floors would grow hydroponic crops; lower floors would house
chickens and fish that consume plant waste."
Urban roofs offer no end of opportunities for energy saving and
"reconciliation ecology." Planting a green roof with its own
ecological community is well-established. For food, add an
"ultraefficient greenhouse"; for extra power, add solar collectors.
And the most dramatic gains can come from simply making everything
white. According to a 2008 study from the Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory in California, if the world's 100 largest cities replaced
their dark roofs in this way, it could offset 44 metric gigatonnes of
Some environmentalists already are proponents of urban compactness.
New zoning rules can be used to allow people to live and work closer
together. Taxes can cut car use. Child-friendly policies and
subsidised housing could bring down the high cost of city centre
living, which drives families to the suburbs (and good schools follow them).
Finally, it is better infrastructure that makes cities possibleso
what would infrastructure rethought in green terms look like? Some of
it will surely look like the new mass transit systems being built in
China, or the high-speed rail that is finally coming to the US. And
all of this should be powered by smart and micro gridsallowing local
generation and the distribution of electricity. The new generation of
small, modular nuclear reactors being developed in the US and
elsewhere, which provide less than 125 megawatts and are built
offsite, could have an important role.
Of course, fast-growing cities are far from an unmitigated good. They
concentrate crime, pollution, disease and injustice as much as
business, innovation, education and entertainment. The recent
earthquake in Haiti demonstrates the danger of slum buildings. But if
they are overall a net good for those who move there, it is because
cities offer more than just jobs. They are transformative: in the
slums, as well as the office towers and leafy suburbs, the progress
is from hick to metropolitan to cosmopolitan, and with it everything
the dictionary says that cosmopolitan means: multicultural,
multiracial, global, worldly-wise, well travelled, experienced,
unprovincial, cultivated, cultured, sophisticated, suave, urbane.
And just as this was true during the industrial revolution, so the
take-off of cities will be the dominant economic event of the first
half of this century too. It will involve huge infrastructural
stresses on energy and food supply. Vast numbers of people will begin
climbing the energy ladder from smoky firewood and dung cooking fires
to diesel-driven generators for charging batteries, then to 24/7 grid
electricity. They are also climbing the food ladder, from subsistence
farms to cash crops of staples like rice, corn, wheat and soy to
meatand doing so in a global marketplace. Environmentalists who try
to talk people out of it will find the effort works about as well as
trying to convince them to stay in their villages. Peasant life is
over, unless catastrophic climate change drives us back to it. For
humanity, the green city is our future.
LIFE IN THE WORLD'S SLUMS
In Bangkok's slums, most homes have a colour televisionthe average
number is 1.6 per household. Almost all have fridges, and two-thirds
have a CD player, washing machine and a mobile phone. Half of them
have a home telephone, video player and motorcycle. (From research
for UN report The Challenge of Slums.)
Residents of Rio's favelas are more likely to have computers and
microwaves than the city's middle classes (Janice Perlman, author of
The Myth of Marginality.)
In the slums of Medellín, Colombia, people raise pigs on the
third-floor roofs and grow vegetables in used bleach bottles hung
from windowsills. (Ethan Zuckerman, Berkman Center for Internet and
Society at Harvard Law School.)
The 4bn people at the base of the economic pyramidall those with
[annual] incomes below $3,000 in local purchasing powerlive in
relative poverty. Their incomes… are less than $3.35 a day in Brazil,
$2.11 in China, $1.89 in Ghana, and $1.56 in India. Yet they have
substantial purchasing power… [and] constitute a $5 trillion global
(The Next 4 Billion, Allen L Hammond et al.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: STEWART BRAND
Stewart Brand is one of the world's most influentialand
controversialenvironmentalists. After graduating in biology from
Stanford University, California, in 1960, he became involved with the
hippy movement and writer Ken Kesey's "merry pranksters," who were
the subject of Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test.
Brand's hugely influential Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture
guide to self-sustainable, communal living, was published between
1968 and 1972, and occasionally thereafter until 1998.
Co-founder of The Long Now Foundation and the Global Business
Network, Brand lives on a houseboat in San Francisco Bay.
His new book, Whole Earth Discipline (Atlantic Books), challenges
many of the long-held opinions of the environmental movement.