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A Question of Cities

Forty years ago students of urban studies wondered whether the city would make it. Now the question is, Will the basic concept of property survive?

Only forty years ago, urban studies was such a young discipline its name was still up for grabs; a 1963 issue of American Behavioral Scientist lists “urbanistics,” “metropology” and “urbiculture” as synonyms. Back then, the big question in urban studies was as apocalyptic as the Cold War mood: will the city survive? Lewis Mumford, an architecture critic for the New Yorker and a sage on all things metropological, had a decidedly grim prognosis: American cities, he argued, would go the way of Rome—straight to Necropolis, the city of the dead. (His solution? Deport excess city dwellers to smaller, far-flung communities, an answer that had the virtue of combining fascist and socialist principles.)

by John Reader
William Heinemann, October 2004

Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World
by Robert Neuwirth
Routledge, December 2004

Today, Mumford remains a towering figure in urban studies, but his hypothesis about big cities choking on their own entrails feels as antiquated as the term “metropology.” In the West, big cities have stayed big, and in the developing world, big cities have gotten really, really big. As Robert Neuwirth points out in Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, across the planet almost 200,000 people move from rural areas to cities every day. Neuwirth estimates that about a billion people in the world do not own the urban property they live on, and that by 2030 “there will be two billion squatters, one in four people on earth.” The new question for urban studies, at least in the developing world, is not whether the city will survive, but whether the basic concept of property will make it.

Neuwirth wouldn’t lose any sleep if it didn’t. He views squatting as a fundamentally traditional form of urban development. To write Shadow Cities, he lived in squatter communities outside Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul (three months in each city), and researched the historical role of squatter settlements from the thirteenth century onward. The portrait that results is of extremely poor but industrious people who struggle against crushing material realities: water that runs only between 2 and 5 AM or overflowing shit that melts the wall of one’s mud hut. In arguing that squatters enjoy a natural, age-old form of community living, Neuwirth probably does not mean to imply that such atrocious conditions are also “natural”—but this contradiction glares from most of the book's anecdotes. His goal in wading into such a paradox, though, is to divorce squatters from their reputation as lawless bandits. He notes that even Manhattan began as an island of settlers building on land they didn’t own. (The last of these settlements, near Central Park, was demolished only in 1904, the same year the subway started running.)

Neuwirth rejects the idea that the city is inherently artificial, and therefore bad, and the country natural, and therefore good—and in this he agrees with John Reader, whose Cities is a far more traditional history of urban centres. Reader talks about the “ecology” and “instinctiveness” of cities and points out that humans live in cities as naturally as monkeys live in trees (Lewis Mumford would not be amused). Cities begins as the best sort of dinner-party banter, full of fun facts: for instance, how the invention of pottery helped women have more babies. (You’ll have to read the book to learn more.) And Reader’s account of Çatal Hüyük, the world’s oldest known city, which dates back 9,000 years, eerily echoes Neuwirth’s descriptions of modern squatter settlements: “as many as 10,000 people—living cheek-by-jowl in a sprawl of continuous brick-walled houses covering an area of about 12 ha in total.” Residents of Çatal Hüyük entered their homes through holes in the roof; in Mumbai, Neuwirth crawled through a hole in his landlord’s ceiling to reach his own room.

Reader’s history of these early cities—from Çatal Hüyük to Babylon to Athens—has the feel of an intergenerational novel in which the characters keep giving birth and dying off. Personally, I can’t bear to read such sagas (too many funerals), but Reader’s tale of rising and falling cities turns out to be a good substitute: less emotionally draining, more edifying and no need to follow a family tree. Unfortunately, the rest of the book veers off in several haphazard directions, and Reader’s thesis about the human instinct for building cities gets lost en route.

For one thing, he fixates on the ubiquitous, but not very thrilling, issue of food supplies; even his portrait of Rome is reduced to an extended treatise on the city’s grain rationing problem. To compare this account of Rome to, say, the one in Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization (a huge and lovely tome published in 1998) is to move from two to three dimensions. Elsewhere Reader seems to crib directly from Hall’s authoritative text; his chapter on Berlin (which ultimately focuses on the city’s food shortages prior to World War One) calls the city “an artificial political creation,” exactly the words used by Hall. By the end of Cities, Reader has shifted his focus from individual cities’ food problems to the issues facing most modern cities: poverty, the atom bomb, garbage disposal, health conditions and so on. The book winds up being a greatest hits of urban history and urban theory, but all we get are covers of old tunes instead of original voices.

There’s no shortage of original voices in Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities, but in his crusade for squatters’ rights, he’s a little too eager to paint their lives as universally wholesome. His chapter on the favelas (squatter communities) in Rio, for instance, vividly sketches the thriving commercial climate of these areas: the favela in which Neuwirth lived included health clubs, a photo shop, a post office and a video store. No one owns the land, but after a family builds a dwelling, they “sell the laje, or roof rights, to a friend or acquaintance, who would build an additional two stories. And that person, in turn, might sell his or her roof rights too.” Significantly, Neuwirth paid rent everywhere he lived as a “squatter.”

It’s true that favelas bustle with enterprise, yet Neuwirth completely omits their raging and ubiquitous drug wars, saving that topic for a general chapter on crime at the end of the book. By the time you get there, the favela is fixed in your mind as a benign communal paradise. The new information about drug lords just makes you think, Well, every garden has its mosquitoes. But violence and drug trafficking are central to favela life (for a convincing and gruesome depiction, see the 2002 movie City of God). Incorporating this reality into his book, however, would interfere with Neuwirth’s thesis that “the world’s squatters value civil society” and that their example should be followed in North America. Most squatters do value civil society, but Neuwirth’s own experiences suggest a subtle relationship between property rights, financial stability, and law and order.

“What is it about property?” Neuwirth wonders at the end of the book. “It’s an incredibly divisive thing. No one’s been able to come up with a convincing justification for it.” Now that, to borrow Lewis Mumford’s terminology, is a megastatement. As exemplified by the quotation marks used in this article, property is a mutual agreement on how to share what we need. Even the squatters among whom Neuwirth lived believed in private property: in one part of Mumbai, squatters mark off their homes with, literally, lines in the sand. These lines are “tiny ridges in the earth, outlines that indicate what is yours, what is mine. The dividing lines are nothing—scarcely more than an inch high, but pounded so hard they cannot be easily erased.” If, as John Reader argues, human instinct propels us toward urban settlements, toward meshing our lives with others beyond our families, an equally powerful instinct drives us to seek exclusivity.

In an age of mass consumerism, this drive is easily dismissed as a passing capitalist fad, but the instinct for exclusivity boils down to those stubborn lines in the dirt. In today’s world, it’s nothing more than escapism to suggest that land should be exempt from a dollar value; in clinging to such utopian fantasies, Neuwirth seems to be crawling headfirst into those roof-holes in Çatal Hüyük in search of a past that no longer exists. It’s a “victory over vitality”—which, incidentally, is how Jane Jacobs described Lewis Mumford’s anti-urban position in 1961. In any case, why should poor people be denied the option of owning the land they live on? Neuwirth, with perfect First World condescension, argues against granting free title deeds to squatters (the same system that colonized America in the 1800s, remember) because they’re not capable of handling the attendant “red tape and regulations.” And perhaps they aren’t—yet. But talk about pre-emptive strategies. Could there be a more cynical reason to deny the 2 billion squatters who are expected by 2030 the legal right to those lines in the sand?