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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Squatter cities, slums, housing shortages

I'm currently reading Shadow Cities by Robert Neuwirth, an investigative look at squatter cities in Rio, Istanbul, Mumbai, and Nairobi. These slums, ghettos, favelas grow at amazing rates -- cities within cities, created by individuals who build shacks on public land, usually without electricity, running water, sewage systems, or any other city amenities. On the other hand, also without taxes and landlords. Eventually, residents steal electricity and lay illegal water lines until, in some cases, agreements are reached about public services. In many cases, the governments will pull the houses down, and the squatters will rebuild...again and again, until the governments find they can't keep up with the squatters' determination and perseverance.

Neuwirth, who researched the book while living in the various places he describes, lived in one of the more progressive favelas in Rio, Rochina. About 1/3 of Rio's population live in one of the favelas, or squatter cities, in Rio. The worst squatter city was in Nairobi, Kenya.

Neuwirth gives a more positive view of some of these shadow cities than is commonly the case, and indeed, some of the shadow cities have become almost equal in quality and productivity to legal neighborhoods. While I think Neuwirth attitude is too positive/hopeful, with hundreds of thousands living in squatter villages, within or just outside legal cities, what is the answer? Sometimes, I even wonder "what is the question?" Or rather, that the answer may be to drastically change the way we view the situation and concentrate on what can be done about the population explosion.

At this time there are approximately a billion people world-wide living in squatter cities, that is one of every six people. Predictions are that the number will double by 2030. And as terrible as we may think the conditions of the people who live in these cities, many who live in there are grateful.

I was talking about the book to my friend Nina the other day, and she asked if the Cairo cemetery squatter city was included. I said I didn't think so, and checked when I got home. Not included in the book, the Cairene Cemetery or "necropolis turned metropolis" is another fascinating solution to the shortage in housing. This link (you have to scroll down a bit) shows the Cairo cemetery, which seem a much better situation that most other squatter cities.

Anyway...I am enjoying the book and thinking about some things differently. My thanks to Lotus for sharing this one.


  1. Thanks for the review. This is a fascinating problem/issue. I've often been interested in Lotus's picks, too! And thanks for the link to Squattercity--eye-opening!

  2. Thanks for the heads-up about this book. It sounds fascinating.

    I saw a little of this kind of thing when I lived in Algiers in the early nineties. The government would begin to build multi-story apartment buildings but could never seem to finish them before squatters moved into all of the apartments. They almost always moved in before power and water could be connected, so you can imagine what conditions were like after a few months. But, as you mentioned, for many people it was still better than what they were living in before.

    Part of the problem in Algiers is the cultural requirement that a young couple cannot get married before the male is able to provide a home for his new wife and eventual family. Moving in with his parents is fine but, because of the large families being raised, homes of the parents cannot possibly provide living space for brides and children of all the sons in the family. So housing is at such a premium that I came to believe that the Algerian government was happy enough to build the apartment buildings to a certain percentage of completion, knowing that they would never have the expense of actually finishing them. That allowed them to keep the pressure for public housing down a bit while not spending all that much cash.

    Algeria is a very corrupt country and all of its revenue comes from oil exports. Most of that money seems to be squandered and the rest of it disappears into private bank accounts around the world, most usually in Paris or Geneva.

    Thanks again for finding this one.

  3. This is going on my list. Great links included with the review!

  4. Gentle Reader - A difficult problem, but an interesting take on it. Neuwirth went the full mile on his research by actually living in each place.

    Sam - You have first hand experience with this sort of thing. Neuwirth, however, seems to favor the squatter building over government housing for some interesting reasons. Corruption seems to be a large part of the problem in most countries/cities where the problem is most evident.

    ACey - It reads quickly. Neuwirth includes a lot of personal anecdotal information from interviews. I do find it difficult to believe that so many residents are so positive in their assessments of the situation.

  5. Jenclair, I am so glad you are enjoying the book. I grew up not far from a huge slum in Bombay called "Dharavi" which was a real eye-sore and yet, it was so well organized and functioned so efficiently, we just had to admire how it worked. All slums are not equal however.

    The Guardian (UK) has a nice article on the fate of global urbanization in today's edition. They expect that by next year half of the world's population will be in urban areas and as most cities are woefully unprepared to cope with the burgeoning growth in population we are simply going to see the rise of more slums.

    THank you for the links, I am going to look them up now.

  6. thanks for the head's up regarding this important book. can't wait to read it....with this book I had a flash of inspiration for proposing a theme for my bookgroup next year of reading.... author's name seems so familiar - did he write a book about dying years ago?

  7. That sounds like an interesting book. I'm glad I am not a public official who has to deal with the 'tear it down' or 'don't tear it down' aspect of this. It is easy to feel compassion for these people...unless of course they are living next door and stealing your electricity! ;)

    It is sad that with the wealth of the world people have to have this as one of their choices for having a roof over their head.

  8. This looks really fascinating.

  9. Jen, I'd been worried about you. I finally looked here & found you've been reading instead of quilting!

    Hope all is well!

  10. Lotus - I am enjoying it and many thanks for sending it to me. The slum city Neuwirth talks about in Bombay is Sanjay Gandhi Nagar, and he thinks it works very well--largely because they work together as a community.

    kimy - It is a little frightening to realize how many people live this way and that so many more will be doing so. I'm not aware of anything Neuwirth has written about other subjects, and wouldn't even have been aware of this one if Lotus had not sent me a copy.

    Carl - I, too, am glad I'm not an official faced with those decisions. Yes, it must be frustrating when squatters steal your electricity...easy to understand a lot of the animosity against them, but sad to think that circumstances dictate their choices.

    Dewey - Not only interesting, but since it is a situation that only continues to grow (limited land, increasing population), the pressure to find solutions is strong.

    Deb - My computer is not working well. It is so slow and freezes so frequently that answering email, making comments, and writing posts is remarkably time consuming!

    I'm still doing some hand quilting at night, but little else right now, so I've spent the excruciatingly slow time online on the reading blog rather than the quilting blog.

    I need to take my weary little computer in for a check up!

    Thanks for checking in!

  11. This sounds fascinating. I'm glad I'm not the one who has to try and figure this out.

  12. okay, I have dying on my mind (too long a story to go into now, but I may have a post regarding 'things' when I get home) anyhow, there is a guy who wrote a book called 'how we die' and his name is similiar to neuwirth...think it's nuland....when I read your post my first association was slightly askew - anyhow this book is very timely given the latest report from the UN on the state of the world on urban population growth. will definitely hunt it down when I get home. oh on computer stuff have you defragged lately....might help! xxxxmoi

  13. framed - I'm glad I don't have to figure it out, but sure hope someone is coming up with some good ideas!

    kimy - All of those people needing somewhere to live, and no one with good answers... Hope you survive the horned toads in Texas!