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Humanity is urbanizing at a world-changing pace and in a world-changing way. A billion squatters are re-inventing their lives and their cities simultaneously. One of the few to experience the range of the phenomenon first hand is Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World. He took up residence in the scariest-seeming parts of squatter cities in Rio, Nairobi, Istanbul, and Mumbai. They vary profoundly. What Neuwirth found in the new “slums” is the future via the past. Hence his title:
“The 21st-century Medieval City,” Robert Neuwirth,
For his talk “The 21st-century Medieval City,” Robert Neuwirth took an overflow audience to “the cities of tomorrow,” the developing-world shanty-towns where a billion people live now, and three billion (a third of humanity) are expected to be living by 2050. With vivid stories and slides (shown for the first time publicly), Neuwirth detailed how life works for the squatters in Rio, Nairobi, Istanbul, and Mumbai. It’s hard for new arrivals— 1.4 million a week around the world, 70 million a year. They throw together mud huts and make do with no water, no electricity, no transportation, no sewage, and barely room to turn around amid square miles of dense crowding.
What brings them from the countryside is the hope of economic activity, and it abounds. Restaurants, beauty shops, bars, health clinics, food markets. No land is owned, but a whole low-cost real estate economy takes shape, managed without lawyers or government approval. (Hernando de Soto is wrong about land ownership being necessary for growth.) People build their house, a wall at a time when they have a bit of money, and then sell their roof space for another family to build a home there, and so on up, story after story. Devoid of legal land title there are prospering department stores and car dealerships in the older squatter towns of Istanbul. Forty percent of Istanbul, a city of 12 million, is squatter built.
Rio is a famously dangerous city, for tourists and natives alike, except in the squatter neighborhoods where no police go. There security is provided by drug gangs, who have become surprisingly communitarian, building day care facilities and soccer fields along with providing safety on the “streets”— narrow stairways kinking up the steep mountainside amid overhanging upper stories looking indeed medieval. There are wires and pipes everywhere carrying stolen electricity and water. (Enlightened power companies realized the thieves are potential customers and are making it easy for them to buy into legitimate service.)
Neuwirth pointed out that squatters “do more with less than anybody.” All that the rest of us have to do is meet them halfway for their new cities to thrive. There are two crucial ingredients for success. One is what the UN calls “security of tenure”— confidence that you will not be arbitrarily evicted. The second is access to politics— some avenue to growing legitimacy and participation in the larger city.
This is the historic process, after all. All the great cities, including San Francisco, began as dense warrens of illegal huts. “It is a legitimate form of urban development.”-- by Stewart Brand