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How Slums Can Save the Planet 424

Posted by kdawson
from the rose-tinted dept.
Standing Bear writes "One billion people live in squatter cities and, according to the UN, this number will double in the next 25 years. Stewart Brand writes in Prospect Magazine about what squatter cities can teach us about future urban living. 'The magic of squatter cities is that they are improved steadily and gradually by their residents,' writes Brand. '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.' Brand adds that in most slums recycling is literally a way of life e.g. the Dharavi slum in Mumbai has 400 recycling units and 30,000 rag-pickers. 'Of course, fast-growing cities are far from an unmitigated good. They concentrate crime, pollution, disease, and injustice as much as business, innovation, education, and entertainment,' says Brand. Still, as architect Peter Calthorpe wrote in 1985: 'The city is the most environmentally benign form of human settlement. Each city dweller consumes less land, less energy, less water, and produces less pollution than his counterpart in settlements of lower densities.'" Reader Kanel adds this note of perspective: "Kevin Kelly is another guy who wrote about slums in a very positive light, though he was more interested in self-organisation and why cities are cool, I think. Kelly also reports on the strange trend for slum tourism. What we're seeing here is that the 'slums' have become a vehicle for people to bring out their own ideas about cities, humans, and the universe at large. I have a feeling that we're not really going to learn a lot about slums if we study them through these guys."
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How Slums Can Save the Planet

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  • by bobinabottle (819829) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @07:03AM (#31304408) [] Quite an interesting documentary series on the benefits and shortcomings of living in slums in Mumbai. He goes and lives in Dharavi for a few weeks and describes his experiences from a micro and macro point of view.
  • by Dull Boy Jack (1586443) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @08:27AM (#31304724)
    In fact, it's even more environmentally friendly not to be born at all. No need for people to die young or live in a slum. I find it really odd that most debates on man-made environmental changes forget to mention overpopulation. []
  • Re:Am I alone or (Score:5, Informative)

    by MrNaz (730548) * on Sunday February 28, 2010 @08:38AM (#31304764) Homepage

    Cities are benign? Only if you don't count the per-head energy and resources required to maintain the city and it's residents' way of life. If you count that, then every morsel of food must be marked up to account for the energy of bringing it from rural areas to distribution points, to warehouses, to supermarket shelves, to your pantry and then to your mouth. That's just an example. City living is nothing more than a concentration of workers to benefit industrial interests.

  • by commodore64_love (1445365) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @08:41AM (#31304790) Journal

    Maybe you should consider some Libertarian benefits of the slums:
    - Dynamic and growing economy with practically no oversight, regulation or taxation by government
    - High density living means services can be provided cheaply and new revenue streams become possible
    - No effective local government means that people self-organise between themselves to get things done

    I like your point about Libertarians. Many Ls are actually anarchists, saying that human society would actually be better-off with no government (other than self-rule). If Libertarian ideals took-over would we eventually end-up living in compact, filthy cities like our 1700s/1800s ancestors did? Thomas Jefferson called his century's cities "the dungheaps of humanity where the people live in their own filth".

  • by maxume (22995) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @08:49AM (#31304822)

    If you can afford it, you make damn sure the shit is processed beforehand. Disease sucks.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 28, 2010 @08:58AM (#31304868)

    I live in one of the biggest cities of the world, and that would be São Paulo, Brazil. The population is around 12 million people. The city core (which actually compromises a huge stake of the total city area) is pretty much highly developed (except for the huge daily congestion). Now, if you go to the outskirts, you will reach the slums. Have you ever been to one, I ask you? Do you really think it's green? You don't really know what you're saying then. First, most of the slums here are located in the southern portion of the city - which compromise hills, and, guess what, forests. However, the green hills no longer exist. They have been swept by slums. This also happens in Rio, just google for pictures and you'll know what I mean.
    Slums don't have piped water. That means the population will dispose at nearby rivers or land, causing irreversible environmental damages. Slum "houses" are poorly constructed wood made structures. Now guess what happens when it rains? The water force takes everything downhill, houses and garbage. The avalanche destroys everything on its ways. People get killed. The garbage ends up on rivers anyway, or clogging the city sewage, causing massive floods. How green is that?
    There are a bunch of counter arguments on the "slum is green" stupid theory. I could spend hours talking about them, but I think it is also worth mentioning the social side.
    Hell, would you leave your comfortable house now to dwell in a place which is even worse than tree houses? Dirty? Dangerous? Rain prone?
    Why don't you ask India whether they like their slums, sir?

    I am sorry, but in theory it might even sound a little bit cute. In practice, you ain't got no damn idea of what you sayin'.

  • by phoenix321 (734987) * on Sunday February 28, 2010 @09:15AM (#31304948)

    Dung can be used for fertilizing. Human and pig dung works fine to grow plants. Devoid of other alternatives, it is possible and the plants don't mind the source.

    The problem is, you're closing a feedback loop on parasites and bacteria harmful to human or swine. All it takes then is any pathogen that survives composting to quickly increase its effects.

  • Re:Am I alone or (Score:4, Informative)

    by BeanThere (28381) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @09:50AM (#31305178)

    What? Your post is in stark and blatant contradiction to glaring facts. The "West", which does have a very low birthrate, constitutes only a small percentage of the population, less than 20%. China, another 20 odd %, has a low birthrate but only artificially. Everywhere else, birthrates have exploded since the introduction of large-scale vaccination and the 'food aid' industry that holds back starvation wherever famine crops up. Africa has about a billion people and shows no signs of slowing down, and no, they're not urbanising, they're not becoming educated, and their birthrates aren't dropping significantly. We may never reach 20 billion, sure, but that will more likely be due to the unsustainability of the current 'system' and limited resources.

  • by BeanThere (28381) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @10:12AM (#31305336)

    I like your point about Libertarians. Many Ls are actually anarchists, saying that human society would actually be better-off with no government (other than self-rule). If Libertarian ideals took-over would we eventually end-up living in compact, filthy cities like our 1700s/1800s ancestors did?

    You just changed the definition of "libertarian" and then postulated what might happen if (your definition of) "libertarians" "took over". WTF? A "libertarian" is not an anarchist, they are two *very* different things. Maybe you meant "some people who call themselves libertarians are actually anarchists", but did you make that omission on purpose? And then did you actually mean "If anarchists took over", or, "If libertarians took over"? Are you purposely trying to conflate the two, or did you just word your post extremely badly?

    To clarify for other readers who might now have been misled by your incorrect statements, an anarchist believes there should be no government (leaving people to be entirely self-organising, and thus allowing private armies and thus, in all probability, the ultimate rule of whoever has the biggest private army), while a libertarian believes in small government, with individual rights and property ownership, and an enforcement system, but government retains a monopoly on force in order to enforce individual liberties.

    Finally, you imply that libertarian societies would lead to "compact, filthy cities like our 1700s/1800s ancestors", conveniently leaving out that the results of that was the biggest economic boom in the history of humanity leading to a powerful society with one of the highest standards of living in human history, a technological superpower society that basically invented almost every useful bit of technology the rest of the world uses today to slowly catch up in dragging itself out of poverty.

  • Re:Am I alone or (Score:5, Informative)

    by c_forq (924234) <> on Sunday February 28, 2010 @10:13AM (#31305350)
    I grew up in a rural area and it wasn't much different. We still drove about 20 minutes to the supermarket to stock our pantry. Add to that things like snow plowing cost a hell of a lot more per person to clear the road our house was on, the issue of garbage removal (we had a burning permit since none of the disposal services went out to our house), and about a million other things I can think of that I have no doubt what so ever that my current apartment life is much more efficient even with my increase in electricity use.
  • by TeXMaster (593524) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @10:46AM (#31305622)

    It is Fascist. Try to pass through a slum with a million people without sewers and see how green it is. Science without considering human wellbeing is not a good thing.

    While I get your point, fascism was in fact much less disregarding of general human welbeing than many capitalistic societies. For example, in Italy fascism was what laid out the basic infrastructure of the social welfare state (meaning essential housing, schooling and healthcare for everybody regardless of census, and leading to a consequent general improvement of the health and literacy of the population). It also brought forth the sanitations of swampy areas in the center-north Italy, with consequent reduction of endemic diseases such as malaria. So I seriously fail to see what's fascist about the article (given that it even lacks the _negative_ aspects of Fascism, such as the total lack of freedom of expression and all the other consequences of a totalitarian government, or the racist degeneration that came with its attachment to Nazism).

    Personally, I find the article useless, in the sense that it doesn't tell me anything non-obvious: scarcity of resources leads to very efficient use (and re-use), lack of resources leads to the use of alternatives, abundance of resources leads to waste. Wow that's surprising. People that waste could learn from the people that are efficient. Wow that's even more surprising. The article also fails to point out how it's possible to increase efficiency and reduce waste _without_ carrying over the negative aspects of slum life, but it'll never happen because the behavioral patterns of human don't shift towards efficiency unless there's a pressing need for it.

  • Re:Am I alone or (Score:3, Informative)

    by SomeKDEUser (1243392) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @11:18AM (#31305892)

    grrr, I hate the I agree moderation, especially when this is so wrong. people have no idea how their world really looks like.

    Go to, look at he stats on longevity and fertility. See the world flatten at an accelerating rate since the 60s. Basically, today, _now_, not "in projections", not "soon", the world has largely moved beyond (as in lower fertility/higher longevity) the fertility/longevity of the US in 1970. Except Africa, mostly because of the AIDS epidemics.

    if you have 20 min to kill, go to and look at Hans Rosling's talk. Best 30 min you'll have today.

    And stop worrying about overpopulation. There are enough other things to worry about.You may worry about resources, but you'll find it is nowhere as bad as you think. Yes, the world will go nuclear and GMO, but there really is not other way. And it'll work out fine.

    You may worry about water supplies and the climate, however. There is indeed cause for worry, there.

  • by chrb (1083577) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @01:12PM (#31306916)

    Services? Revenus streams? These people have -nothing- to sell. If they did it would get stolen fast...

    There are no goods, there are no services. Begging and theft are the only income streams.

    The statistics say otherwise. From TFA []:

    "The traditional stereotype of the Indian pavement-dweller is a destitute peasant, newly arrived from the countryside, who survives by parasitic begging, but as research in Mumbai has revealed, almost all (97 percent) have at least one breadwinner, and 70 percent have been in the city at least six years..." Slum dwellers are often busy with low paying service jobs in nearby high rent districts; they have money but live in a squatter city because it's close to their work. Because they are industrious, they progress fast. One UN report found that households in the older slums of Bangkok have on average 1.6 televisions, 1.5 cell phones, a refrigerator; two-thirds have a washing machine and CD player, and half have a fixed line phone, video player and a motor scooter. In the favelas of Rio, the first generation of squatters had a literacy rate of only 5%, but their kids were 97% literate."

    There are no goods, there are no services.

    From TFA []:

    "The 4bn people at the base of the economic pyramid—all those with [annual] incomes below $3,000 in local purchasing power—live in relative poverty. Their incomes are less than $3.35 a day in Brazil, $2.11 in China, $1.89 in Ghana, and $1.56 in India. Yet they have substantial purchasing power... [and] constitute a $5 trillion global consumer market."

    Is digging though human waste and burning plastic off electrical cables for a few cents of copper a 'dymanic and growing economy'? I don't think so.

    60% of the residents of Mumbai live in slums. Are all of those 60% "digging though human waste and burning plastic off electrical cables for a few cents of copper"? No. Some of them are, but there are many who have real, wage earning jobs.

  • P-shaw... (Score:2, Informative)

    by MadCat (796) <benvanstaveren AT gmail DOT com> on Sunday February 28, 2010 @01:25PM (#31307014)

    As a westerner living in Jakarta, I am very familiar with slums around here, and believe me, the article is just romanticizing the whole thing. Sure, yay, slums are green. You know why recycling is a way of life there? Because it's the only income some people have. 30.000 rag pickers in Mumbai you say? Well, anyone think they're doing it because they want to be "green"? Fuck no, they're doing it because it puts their meal on the table.

    Just for fun, think about this: You have a wife, and a child. You are living in, say, Jakarta, Indonesia. If you are lucky, every day you have $2 to spend on *everything*. If you aren't lucky, you have $0. Your "house" consists of plywood, 2x4's, maybe some sheet metal, and whatever else you have managed to fish out of the river that you live next to, that is filled with human waste, industrial waste, and god knows what else. This same river has a tendency to flood, so every so often you will have to take whatever belongings you have, and find refuge someplace else. That is, if the police hasn't performed what's colloquilly called an "eksekusi" where the original land owners want the slums cleared. In case the slum residents are unwilling, mysterious fires often solve the problem of them not wanting to move. Oh, I forgot, your trash picking that you do, every day, to bring money home? Yeah, you have to pay the local thugs "protection" money. So in the event that you get lucky and manage to make $2, expect to have to pay half to them. So, there you are with your dollar. Now you have three mouths to feed, clothe, and one child to educate. Of course, you cannot afford to educate your child, so he or she will never get any sort of good job. Food will consist of a bowl of rice. Maybe some veggies if you're lucky. If you're really lucky, a small piece of chicken. Split three ways. You bathe in the same river you shit in, you wash your clothes in the same river you shit in. Your clothes, by the way, are hand-me-downs, or free "event" t-shirts and shorts. You walk barefoot through the most disgusting things. You walk miles daily, barefoot, until your feet are so calloused up you could stand on knife points and not feel it. If you get ill, or injure yourself, the chances of seeing a doctor or the inside of a hospital are next to none.

    Yeah, I see how that's being "green", how that is so "cool" and "urban" and how slums are such a good thing, and how slums are so incredibly self-organising. Some people need to have the blinds removed from their eyes, and see things for themselves. Yet, I want to bet the authors of the respective articles haven't set a damn food inside a slum for longer than the few hours it took to do their "research". Live it for a few months and see if you're still so enthousiastic.

  • Re:Am I alone or (Score:3, Informative)

    by ydrol (626558) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @03:04PM (#31307854)

    You might want to look at mortality rate, rather than just birthrate. There is a reason why poor people have lots of children !

    eg consider following rates per 1000.

    USA 14 births - 8 deaths. ( [] )
    Zimbabwe 27 births , 22 deaths ( [] )

    Africa - Population Density ( Pop. density 30.51/km2 )
    N. America Population - ( Pop. density 22.9/km2 (59.3/sq mi) )

  • by blahplusplus (757119) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @03:53PM (#31308240)

    The ugly truth is that the world has too many people to have a western standard of living without conflict and war, most people are not responsible in their breeding habits and there are too many religious, irresponsible and uneducated.

  • Re:Am I alone or (Score:3, Informative)

    by greg_barton (5551) <.moc.oohay. .ta. .notrab_gerg.> on Sunday February 28, 2010 @04:49PM (#31308678) Homepage Journal

    they cannot "teach us" anything

    I disagree with TFA as you do, and take issue with it's whiff of noble savagery, but must take issue with this. Everything can teach us something. You can observe a slum and see how it organizes itself without wanting anyone to live in one, just as you can observe any physical system. It just happens to be a common theme of the environmental movement that, for the planet to survive, we must learn to live more simply. I happen to agree with that to a limited extent, but if it means my children have to pick through garbage to survive I sure don't. :) The goal of efficiency is laudable, but is itself unsustainable if it forces people to give up too much.

  • by Xyrus (755017) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @05:00PM (#31308764) Journal

    Talk about fear mongering ignorance.

    The world has a pool of resources. The population is increasing. The resources are diminishing.

    You can:

    1. Basically say fuck you to everyone. That's what you're post is saying. Survival of the fittest. Do whatever you want, consequences be damned. Consume, pillage, and plunder resources BECAUSE YOU CAN. Fuck the people, fuck the world, and fuck the future. Burn the world for your pleasure and let other people figure out what to do when all there is are ashes.

    2. Think for 10 seconds and realize that there won't be a future if we don't start thinking about long term solutions to problems that we're already seeing now. We only have so many resources and as population increases those resources are going to dwindle faster and faster. If we want to remain comfortable on our ball of rock we really need to start focusing on long term sustainability.

    Communism? Bullshit. This is common sense. Our policies right now are NOT sustainable.

    You're like a teenager. Go out and play. In the meantime the adults will try to figure out how we can still be here in another 1000 years.


  • by SirWinston (54399) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @05:34PM (#31309016)

    Not to mention the fact that slum cities in South America--and I presume in Southeast Asia, though I haven't looked into that specifically--expand by destroying neighboring forest. When city authorities put up boundary walls in places like slums around Rio de Janeiro, the slumdwellers bitch about it. []

    Well, stop cutting down rainforest to build shacks, and you won't have to be walled in.

    Seriously, promoting slumdwelling? Why not write articles about the real problems--like the population explosion these slums help cause by concentrating people, and hence increasing reproduction beyond sustainable rates? Seriously, most third-world slums are criminal havens which produce no useful arts and sciences, contribute nothing to mankind and the progress of Civilization, and export their criminality and overpopulation back to the developed world. []

It is the quality rather than the quantity that matters. - Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C. - A.D. 65)