Interview with Mike Davis
There’s some pretty shocking stuff in this Tom Engelhardt interview with Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz and, most recently, Planet of Slums. It’s about the extraordinary growth of urban slums filled with people unconnected to the global economy, and with no prospect of connecting. He calls it "urbanization without urbanity."
It’s part one of a two-parter. Here’s a little taste:
Davis: Planet of Slums is intended to follow up the UN Challenge report, which alerted us that the global urban unemployment crisis was coequal to climate change as a threat to our collective future. Admittedly an armchair journey to cities of the poor, it is an attempt to synthesize a vast specialist literature on urban poverty and informal settlement. Two fundamental conclusions emerged.
First, the supply of free land for squatting had ended, in some cases a long time ago. The only way you can build a shack on free land now is to choose a place so hazardous that it will have no market value whatsoever. This increasing wager with disaster is what squatting has become. … This is true all over the Third World.
Squatting has been privatized. … Where, twenty years ago, people would have occupied vacant land, resisted eviction, and eventually been recognized by the state, they now pay high prices for small parcels of land or, if they can’t afford it, rent from other poor people. In some slums, the majority of dwellers aren’t squatters, they’re renters. … The major survival strategy of millions of poor urban dwellers, who have been in the city long enough to have a little property, is to subdivide it and become landlords to yet poorer people, who sometimes subdivide and rent to others. So a fundamental safety valve, this much romanticized frontier of free urban land, has largely ended.
The other major conclusion concerns the informal economy — the ability of poor people to improvise livelihoods through unrecorded economic activity like street vending, day labor, domestic service, or even subsistence crime. If anything, economic informality has been romanticized more than squatting, with vast claims about the ability of micro-entrepreneurship to leverage people out of poverty. Yet scores of case studies from around the world show ever more people squeezed into a limited number of survival niches: Too many rickshaw wallahs, too many street vendors, too many African women turning their shanties into shabeens to sell liquor, too many people taking in laundry, too many people queued up at work sites.
TD: In a way, aren’t you saying that the former Third World is being turned into something like the Three Hundredth world?
Davis: What I’m saying is that the two principle mechanisms for accommodating the poor to cities in which the state long ago ceased to invest have reached their limits just when we’re looking forward to two generations of continued high-speed growth in poor cities. The ominous but obvious question is: What lies beyond that frontier?