10 March 2010

How slums can save the planet

Urbanisation, slums, walkability, neighbourhood, San Francisco, Rio, Mumbai, Bangkok, Nairobi, density, community, village, squatter cities

Excerpt From Prospect by Stewart Brand

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 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.

PHOTO: Dharavi, Mumbai, where population
density reaches 1m people per square mile

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 on—more 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 services—one-chair barbershops and three-seat bars interspersed with the clothes racks and fruit tables. ...

Read more at Prospect Magazine

LIFE IN THE WORLD’S SLUMS

In Bangkok’s slums, most homes have a colour television—the 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 pyramid—all those with [annual] incomes below $3,000 in local purchasing power—live 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 consumer market.

(The Next 4 Billion, Allen L Hammond et al.)

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