Mike Davis is an American writer, political activist, urban theorist, and historian. One of his best-known books is ‘Planet of Slums’, in which he describes the future scenario of ‘slumation’ in megacities worldwide. Some would call that pessimistic, some think it is realistic, but Davis ensures it is the scientific point of view: Job crisis, poor education and lack of integration into the population are more important issues for future generations than global warming.
How would you briefly describe the hypothesis you write about in your book ‘Planet of Slums’? And how did you get to this conclusion?
My book, inspired by UN Habitat’s ‘The Challenge of Slums’, is a critical reading of that report’s footnotes; that is to say, of a vast literature on housing, employment, and public health in the cities of the developing world. In every region, however, research yields three major findings:
First, the frontier of informal housing – that is to say the availability of unoccupied land that could be seized by the poor with some hope of eventually receiving state recognition – has closed. ‘Classical’ squatting is now largely confined to highly precarious and hazardous sites; and thus ‘free’ land is no longer a significant variable in urban growth. The urban poor must now purchase sites in legal or illegal markets, or become renters in the slum.
Second, governments in the developing world compound the housing crisis through slum removal and the displacement of poor urban dwellers to peripheries. With the major exception of China, governments destroy slum housing faster than they build replacements. As the poor are pushed further from urban employment centers, the cost of transport soars as a proportion of family’s expenditure of time and income.
Third the unregulated ‘informal’ economy that now represents a majority of jobs in sub-Saharan African cities, and most Latin American and South Asian cities as well, has now reached the threshold of what economists call total ‘involution’. Too many poor people are competing with one another in a relatively limited number of survival niches: as pedicab drivers, porters, street vendors, house cleaners, rag pickers, casual laborers, and the like. The marginal return on intensified effort declines dramatically. As a result, urban youth increasingly find livelihoods in subsistence crime which simply redistributes poverty, or turn toward identity politics that ration informal niches on the basis of loyalty to a sectarian party or gang (excluding competitors).
Based on the experience of the 1980s when urban in-migrants literally worked miracles in building urban lives with informal resources, the World Bank assesses development needs on the assumption that cities, even in the absence of public policy, will provide the poor with opportunities to improvise shelter and employment. This premise is no longer tenable. As UN Habitat has emphasized, the ‘state must come back in’ with massive social investment, especially in slum peripheries.
© Tao Ruspoli (Director, Mangusta Productions)
If in your opinion the next step in urban development is slums, what do you think is the next step in mobility?
The crucial next step is the drastic reduction of the need for physical mobility through the decentralization of public investment, jobs, cultural resources, and education. No transport mode, even in science fiction, can solve the gridlock of present evolving urban patterns.
At the Audi Urban Future Initiative we do research on the future of urban living and mobility. Imagine we want to write a recipe: Could you give some suggestions for the different megacities in the world to save themselves from a future of ‘slumation’? What is it important to consider?
Let me define the principles, however strange, that are the foundation of my thinking:
All things urban (or rural for that matter) revolve around the creation of livelihoods and the mobilization of human capacities. The job crisis, not climate change, is the single greatest threat to our grandchildren’s future. Global capitalism has unequally industrialized the world at the expense of more than one billion urban-dwellers left outside the branded, formal economy. The peripheral poor constitute a surplus humanity – expelled from the countryside but exiled from urban hopes – whose existential condition rebukes all the towering edifices, mega-museums, and palaces whose images fill the architectural press.
Economic growth in the profound sense is not the accumulation of objects but the realization of every person’s capacity to contribute creatively to the social good through membership in a productive collective such as hospital, factory, farm village, childcare center, university, symphony orchestra, and so on. Thus the true measure of development is not GDP per capita but the degree of integration of the population into educated, caring and socially meaningful vocations. Given the inherent productivity of cooperative and self-managed labor, full employment would be expressed in a diminishing proportion of the working day devoted to obligatory labor and the increasing time that is genuinely free and social.
© Franziska Queling
In urban terms, these goals translate into the substitution of public space and communal consumption for private wealth. The city (source of 80 percent of total carbon footprint according to UN Habitat) is the only solution to its own environmental problem, at least to the extent that we are willing to share and enjoy wealth in common. To find such templates we must go back to that astonishing era, roughly from William Morris and Patrick Geddes to the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas (the Russian design school established in 1920) when the radical modernist imagination was passionately engaged in experiments to create alternative urban commonwealths. Those of us in wealthier cities or especially campus communities are surrounded by the detritus of these dreams: bungalows and garden housing, district heating and solar power, great libraries and parks, ‘neighborhood unit’ planning, case-study houses, and so on. We have to imagine how they might be reintegrated into their original holistic visions as democratic habitats now centered on decentralized employment and low-carbon social consumption. In any event, only utopias now realistic.
In terms of responsibility: Who would have to do what?
Support the redistribution of wealth that is the essential condition for sustainable, democratic urbanism. The modest starting point is progressive taxation in support of egalitarian public services.
Looking into future again – what do you think people in megacities will wish for in 20 to 30 years?
What they’ve always wished for: decent jobs and better opportunities via education for their children.
Last year, the Audi Urban Future Initiative was hosting an award with architecture offices from all over the world including Boston/Washington, Mumbai, São Paolo, Istanbul and the Pearl River Delta in China. Could you imagine the individualities in the future scenarios of those cities?
Contemporary monumental architecture is rather like graffiti. To be recognizable each signature must be larger and louder than the last. The inevitable result of this visual arms race is a congested skyline, half generic and half bizarre, usually in violent contradiction with natural landscape and the classical laws of proportion and perspective.
Great cities start from the bottom up, with the striking individuality and complexity of their neighborhoods, and are ultimately crowned by their parks, plazas, and infrastructures. City governments should provide incentives for residents to tinker at the micro-level with homes, apartments, stalls, and streets. Improvised housing often creates incomparable collages: the challenge is to provide lifeline services like sanitation, electricity, libraries, clinics and schools to communities, not to massify housing according to some simple formula.
In contrast, corporate and state tinkering with the urban landscape on a large, transforming scale needs to be severely regulated by design review and subject to public referendum. The form of the city, in other words, should be democratic public property. Would public opinion preclude such icons as the Lloyds Building, the Pompidou, Guggenheim Bilbao or the Shanghai Tower? Perhaps. But it would also politicize development and design issues in a way that creates a critical, informed public rather than simply feeding the culture of corruption that characterizes the relationship between local/regional governments and developers in most countries, rich and poor, New York or Mumbai.
In the real world, of course, these priorities are stood on their heads. Neighborhoods are redeveloped or displaced almost at will and without a vote if you just think of the mass destruction of Beijing’s traditional alley and courtyard-focused housing to clear space for the Olympics. Meanwhile big banks and hedge funds can erect virtually anything they propose, provided the dimensions and impacts are truly monstrous enough.
So, when we hear the term ‘world city’, or for that matter ‘community redevelopment’, we should all pull out our guns, because someone is coming to steal everything unique, quirky and self-made in our built environment.
© Tao Ruspoli (Director, Mangusta Productions)
How do you personally live mobility? What do you drive on which occasion?
The campus where I teach is 160 kilometers from my home, so I spend four hours each work day in my car. I have no transportation alternative and if we moved closer to my job then my wife’s drive would correspondingly increase. Although only 5 per cent of Southern Californians have extreme commutes comparable to mine, millions spend an hour driving each way to work.
The underlying problem is the mismatch between jobs (concentrated in the coastal zone) and the supply of affordable single-family housing (located in inland valleys and desert fringes). Freeway construction, most planners now concede, just subsidizes sprawl and obligatory dependence on the automobile. Rationing mobility via toll lanes and transport demand management, moreover, discriminates against working-class commuters in the absence of transport alternatives such as are available in London or New York.
Southern California, moreover, still lives in the shadow of the notorious decisions after the Second World War in Los Angeles to sell off its streetcars and close down the Pacific Electric Railroad – once the largest such system in the world. A visionary land-use plan that would have prevented sprawl and concentrated suburban population growth in denser nodes (thus recapitalizing the interurban rail system) was over-ruled by a revolt of realtors and developers. The California Department of Highways abandoned its original plan to leave broad freeway medians for mass transit, as well as an ingenious proposal to build a separate freight freeway for heavy-duty trucks.
Is there any change in sight?
Over the last generation investment in mass transit has favored the most expensive but politically prestigious modes. Los Angeles’ new subway and light rail systems are very popular but have had negligible impact on car use or traffic congestion. Certainly fixed-rail works well in dense corridors or between major nodes like airports and downtowns, but on the whole the region needs thousands more high-capacity buses running on dedicated rights of way.
Given the genial climate and flat residential topography, a million more residents should be able to travel safely to work or school on grade-separated bikeways; instead unprotected bike lanes on busy arterial streets simply increase the bodycount of dead or seriously injured cyclists. Car-sharing is finally arriving here, but it’s impractical for long daily commutes and too expensive for the working poor because an old car is still cheaper in LA than anywhere else on earth.
The most excruciating transport problem, however, is not congestion or mode mix but the rapidly deteriorating condition of road surfaces. The future is now old in Southern California. The entire freeway system built in the 1950s as well as thousands of miles of contemporary surface streets need replacement or repair. Patchwork no longer suffices and the costs of restoring life to old infrastructures will dramatically constrain spending on next-generation mobility.
© Franziska Queling
And how do you live urbanity? Do you live in a city or outside? And what are your reasons?
I must make a confession. In California there is an invisible line that separates the beach culture and the city from the semi-civilized far suburbs and rugged backcountry. I grew up in a town where we considered ourselves ‘Westerners’ not beach boys, worshipped Steve McQueen, and hated surfers. My existential orientation is thus toward mountains, deserts, and big skies. I’ve spent a lifetime off-road in the wild hidden places of the West, preferring geology to architecture, ghost towns to big cities.
On the other hand, my wife is a chilanga from Mexico City, mega-urban to the core. We moved to San Diego in order to be close to her family, now relocated in Tijuana, the most culturally dynamic and anarchistic city on the West Coast. We live in a largely military and Mexican-immigrant neighborhood (‘Golden Hill’) just east of downtown San Diego, a block from our younger kids’ wonderful, largely Latino public school. We don’t need a yard since one of the greatest American urban open spaces – Balboa Park – is only a 20-minute walk away. But we do have a deck on our garage roof with a wonderful view of ocean sunsets and the myriad city lights of Tijuana, only 14 miles away. Living on the border in a more or less unique twin-city, bi-national metropolis is the best possible perch for thinking about the future of cities.
What is the place that means most fun to you in a city?
I love harbors (real working ports) and old cinemas. When I was a kid in San Diego, there was a water taxi system to take sailors back and forth from downtown to the naval base on North Island. My friends and I would save our nickels and dimes so we could ride the harbor taxis then spend the rest of the afternoon in one of the great downtown movie palaces.
The classical cinemas have long closed, but the harbors remain. I’ll never understand why tourists would prefer an expensive day in Disneyland over the free and more thrilling drama of Los Angeles’ port at San Pedro. But then again, I’m addicted in a very nostalgic way to the spectacle of big machines, great bridges, oil refineries, and the old industrial world in general.