“Planet of Slums”
13 November 2007 |
Mike Davis, 2006
Cities in the 21st Century
Davis, who is famous for City of Quartz and Magical Urbanism, is one of the clearest and most rigorous thinkers on the Left, certainly its primary voice on cities. An exhaustive researcher, he is rip-smart and prescient in his observations and provides the reader with a language for understanding the world before him. If at times he has seemed both coldly analytic and overly-didactic in examining the lives of the poor, in Planet of Slums Davis delivers to us the world as it is: now more than half urban, it is defined by unimaginably-dense settlements carved from the city’s edge. He puts it in context right away:
In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with a population of more than one million; today there are 400, and by 2015 there will be at least 550.
Starting now, he goes on to say, cities will account for nearly all the world’s population growth. Davis’ charge isn’t to bemoan the urban flood per se, nor to tell us how adjust our models of urban planning, but to enable us to understand the mass-movement of people from country to city—how it came to be and why in practice it is so awful. Interestingly for a scholar of sterling ideological credentials, Davis is also enthusiastic about the subject, so much so that he writes with a feverous pitch.
The exploding cities of the developing world are also weaving extraordinary new urban networks, corridors, and hierarchies. In the Americas, geographers already talk about a leviathan known as the Rio/Sao Paulo Extended Metropolitan Region (RSPER) which includes the medium-sized cities on the 500-kilometer-long transport axis between Brazil’s two largest metropolises, as well as the important industrial area dominated by Campinas; with the current population of 37 million, this embryonic megalopolis is already larger than Tokyo-Yokahama.
You hear in his voice the expert’s level of international understanding and excitement for the task and indeed, that grasp comes through clearly in Planet of Slums—which is why despite the limits of ideology we ought to believe what he says: that urban poverty is the human issue of this century; that it is made worse by governments who promise to help but instead line the pockets of the already-wealthy; that feel-good notions of micro-enterprise rising from the concentration are feel-good for us observers only; that slums are bulldozed for the wealthy without reparations; that the entire enterprise is an ecological catastrophe.
The result—the thorough marginalization of a billion people—causes Davis to wonder if slum dwellers are merely surplus humanity. He draws the connections to nineteenth century Naples and Dublin. He calls this the global informal working class—and worries that to certain governments slum inhabitants are essentially viewed as terrorists. But Davis, who sees infinite variety in the response to living in hell, is careful not to prescribe a single fix. He worries that there are no apparent solutions; neo-liberalism and globalism certainly don’t have any. Marxism seems like a dead end. He leaves us with the American military response—and that ought to worry all of us who believe the city is humanity’s greatest achievement.