Only the slums can save us now

Paul Raven @ 22-02-2010

The Rocinha favela, Rio de JaneiroChairman Bruce is still busily curating a canon of Favela Chic thinking over at Beyond The Beyond; this article at Prospect Magazine looks to be a definitive slice of shanty-town futurism.[image by fabbio]

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 density—1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbai—and 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.” […] 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.

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5 Responses to “Only the slums can save us now”

  1. Dave says:

    They’re “efficient” because they’re grindingly poor. You can bet ragpickers would be ragbuyers if they could afford it. Permanent, grinding poverty may very well be in all of our future, but you’re an idiot if you think it’s cool.

  2. Paul Raven says:

    I don’t think anyone’s saying it’s “cool” – I’m certainly not! I do however think it’s interesting to turn to the adaptive behaviours of the world’s least fortunate people for lessons in how to get by with a smaller ecological footprint. Necessity is the mother of invention, and all that. 🙂

  3. Dave says:

    Perhaps I am drawing the wrong implication from the word “chic” above . . . but I doubt it. It reminds me of the glamorization of “marginal” living in the cyberpunk writers.

    Anyway, I guess I am not inclined to think of the modalities of extreme poverty as techniques or inventions. You’ll get “an industry based on gathering up old cardboard boxes” where the price of labor is very low relative to materials. It’s not an ecological hack, it’s just an economic condition — and it’s a condition that corresponds to being very poor.

    An additional implication is that most of these tactics couldn’t be ported to the rich world, because they would be a hideous waste of resources.

  4. Dave says:

    . . . I only ever post here to get in fights, apparently.

  5. Paul Raven says:

    Not at all, Dave, not at all – dissenting views and opinions are always welcome here, provided they’re argued politely and free of political axe-grinding. That’s how we learn new things, right? 🙂