An interview with Robert Neuwirth
An interview by Vera Lukyanovich
In most developing countries "sustainable" building is a long-range goal. The reality is that, despite no land being owned, a whole low-cost real estate economy takes shape, being managed without any laws or governmental approval. Life in such informal settlements is characterised by grossly inadequate housing and lack or total absence of access to basic urban services and infrastructure. Nevertheless, whole generations live and work there. People earn money, cultivating the development of the informal economy, which grows to an incredible scale; along with the slums.
I discussed these issues with Robert Neuwirth, American investigative reporter and author of “Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World” and “Stealth of Nations”. The first book was written as a result of Robert’s experience of living in squatter communities in Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul and Mumbai. Research for his second book,“Stealth of Nations”, took four years, which Robert spent investigating the way people earn a living in squatter settlements. Robert was observing from inside the operation of street vendors, smugglers and various informal import/export companies.
The first question I want to ask you is about the future of cities in developing countries. Today the tendency is as follows: more than 30 % or about 865 million of the urban population in the developing world lives in slums. This is the data from UN-HABITAT as of 2012. In India every eighth urban child under 6 years lives in a slum, and this continues to grow. In EU the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime is 1.6 children, in Indian slums this rate amounts to 4.5. This figure is also higher than the overall national rate in India, which is 2.5. Generally, the population in slums is significantly younger than in the typical city of a developed country. So, the question is whether, in your opinion, slums can be considered as a city of the future?
First, I try not to use the term ‘slum.’ Why? Because it’s degrading. These are communities that are degraded because they are deprived of municipal services. But they are real communities. It’s even a problem to call all these areas shantytowns, because, in countries like Brazil and Turkey, the homes people build are most often with reinforced concrete and brick. They’re not shanties or huts, but rather real apartment buildings.
I tend to call these neighbourhoods ‘squatter communities’ because that expresses the in-between legal status involved: people have built their homes without approval on land they don’t own.
Anything that involves 1⁄3 of the urban population of the world is beyond a trend. It’s reality.
But the key principle is this: anything that involves 1⁄3 of the urban population of the world is beyond a trend. It’s reality. These are real neighbourhoods – part of every city’s fabric – and they should be treated that way. And, given the number of children growing up in these communities (and check your Indian statistic … it has to be more than one in eight children in urban India growing up in these communities given that, in Mumbai for instance, squatters make up 1⁄2 the urban population), they are the cities of the future.
These are the official criteria for a household to be considered as a “slum household” (this is the definition from UN-HABITAT). It says that there should be a group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area who lack one or more of the following: 1. Durable housing of a permanent nature that protects against extreme climate conditions 2. Sufficient living space, which means not more than three people sharing the same room 3. Easy access to safe water in sufficient amounts at an affordable price 4. Access to adequate sanitation in the form of a private or public toilet shared by a reasonable number of people 5. Security of tenure that prevents forced evictions. According to these criteria an immense amount of housing in Russia can be considered as “slum households” – at least 18 million people in Russia lived in such condition as of 2001. What is your opinion about it? What are your criteria for a settlement to be considered as a “slum” or squatter community?
What’s ridiculous about the UN’s criteria is that, by its own terms, many ‘redeveloped’ slums are slums. In India, as I noted, large families are given one 225 square foot room in a redeveloped building, and may share a toilet and kitchen with many other families. That flunks points 2 and 4 in its own definition.
I don’t think it’s useful to spent time defining what makes a community a slum. Indeed, it’s because of criteria like the UN’s that I prefer to talk about squatter communities. What’s different about these communities is their legal status: they are not recognised as part of the formal city. If we can change that, people and build and redevelop and make their own rules in the communities where they live, and improvements will be commensurate and in keeping with their needs and desires. I start from the principle that, no matter the material conditions, people value their own neighbourhoods and want to make them better. What was most interesting to me as I traveled around the shantytowns of Nairobi, for instance, was this: when I asked people what they wanted for their community, the answer was rarely a better house. It was water, or sewers, or electricity or street lighting, or roads on which an ambulance could get through. Infrastructure rather than new homes. People want to work for the betterment of their communities. Governments restrict them, as do our prejudice that what is most important is the bricks and mortar of the house.
Now I’d like to talk to you a little about your personal experience, which is really interesting and extensive. You spent about 4 years living in squatter communities around the world. What is the difference between them in your view? Where is the strongest sense of community and why?
Well, the differences are cultural and material. Some cultures foster togetherness. Others are based more on individualism. In some, tribal and family disputes predominate. In others, people work together despite regional and ethnic differences. All of the places I have lived – neighbourhoods in Brazil, Turkey, Kenya, Nigeria, India, Paraguay – had strong community identities. But in Kenya, for instance, people did not feel free to mobilise on behalf of their communities. While in Turkey or Brazil they did. India’s empowerment efforts were blunted somewhat by the caste system, but at least the ethos is still there. In Nigeria, the political structure is still quite repressive, and while people are allowed to mobilise, efforts at community empowerment are often met with force – so the population is quite fearful. In Kenya, an atavistic colonial-era bureaucracy called the provincial administration made organising in the shantytown very difficult.
All that aside, people in every neighbourhood were proud of their community. That was an important universal lesson.
How did your interest in squatter communities appear? What was the trigger for it?
I spent years writing almost exclusively about the inequities and inequalities involved in housing and politics in New York City and one day a friend who was working for the UN mentioned the number of squatters in the developing world. I realised that instant that the issues I was writing about were small by comparison. These people, who created so much out of nothing, were the real story. There’s no government or developer who can build housing at the cost people can afford and in the numbers that are needed to house the urban poor. So they seize land and build for themselves. This, it seemed to me, was one of the great untold stories of the 21st century, and it inspired me. I had never been outside of North America and Europe, so I didn’t have much knowledge or courage. It took me five years to develop the courage and to finally quit my job and go to live in these communities. I feel amazingly privileged that people opened their lives to me and I hope my writing has done justice to the effort and dignity the world’s squatters have put into making their communities better.
And now let’s discuss the redevelopment of squatter communities, which has recently become a very popular issue. Governmental programmes of building multi-storey housing instead of existing squatter communities have been applied in some countries; this being especially popular in India. What do you think of such programmes? What could be considered as effective redevelopment of squatter communities?
Squatter communities can redevelop themselves, in partnership with government.
It really depends. I’m not totally against so-called redevelopment. If – and this is the key point – it is the choice of the people in the communities themselves. Often, people don’t see some of the negatives involved in what is called redevelopment. In India, for instance, a family gets, as I recall, 225 square feet in a redeveloped building – no matter how many generations and children are living together. And while they may run a store from their home in the so-called slum, they will be refused permission to do this in the redeveloped apartment. Also, we should be aware that so-called slum neighbourhoods are often near to where people work, while redeveloped buildings are often far away, requiring a costly and time-consuming commute to work.
I prefer to think about people developing and redeveloping their own neighbourhoods. Squatter communities can redevelop themselves, in partnership with government.
So, how do you see squatter communities in 20 years? What are the major global tendencies in their redevelopment that you have observed? Are there any successful examples of redevelopment so far?
The biggest changes in the past 20 years have been in countries like Turkey and Brazil and other countries across South & Central America and North Africa, where squatters have started to develop on a larger and more dense scale. People are building apartments rather than one-storey shanties and you can rent in the squatter community rather than build for yourself. This is successful redevelopment, by the squatters themselves.
I have not seen any government projects that are truly community-based and community-led.
I see the future as bright for these communities. But it will take a fight against the private real estate lobby. In Istanbul, the government has been destroying historic neighbourhoods in the name of upgrading. Same in Rio de Janeiro in the buildup to the World Cup and the Olympics. Squatter communities in valuable central areas of the cities are the most vulnerable – and people have to mobilise to protect themselves and their communities. If the people mobilise now, their communities will be important parts of the city in 20 years.
Taking into account that squatter communities have already to a large extent drawn the attention of modern society, forcing urbanists, economists and politicians to work on the improvement of quality of life, let’s assume that the quality would dramatically increase and major problems would be solved. This could cause unaffordability for newcomers from rural areas settling there. Does it mean that squatter communities are unavoidable?
In most countries in which housing is built for profit, the best market, from a landlord’s perspective, is one of managed scarcity. Too many apartments available and the price will crash. Too few and the ones available will quickly become too expensive. In that kind of market, it is no wonder that people are forced to build for themselves, on land they don’t own, and in precarious environmental regions.
Or people are underpaid for their work. In India, for example, I met a woman who worked two half-time jobs for middle class families. The combined wages were not enough to rent an apartment for herself and her two daughters. In fact, her income was not enough to rent a hut in a squatter settlement. So her family lived on the open ground under a road flyover next to the train tracks. The middle class families that employ her would have to pay a living wage for this to change.
Slums or squatter communities are not unavoidable. But only if we make changes – personally and as a society. No more business as usual.
You state that about 1.8 billion people are engaged in informal economic activities around the world. How can we cooperate with it? Do you see any particular plan for effective cooperation? How do you see the development of the informal economy in future?
Informal economy is the economy of the global majority
To me, the informal economy – or what I call System D – is the economy of the global majority. More than half the workers of the world work off the books, either for themselves or being paid in cash. This makes System D the most important economy in the world. To ignore it is to ignore the global majority.
There’s lots of pressure on System D now. Governments all over the world are criminalising street trading. The merchants need to organise themselves to improve their businesses, their markets and their neighbourhoods. If they can do this, if they can create a space for themselves, politically and socially they will represent a tremendous positive force for the future.
Thank you, Robert! It was nice to talk to you. My pleasure.