In his new book, Planet of Slums, Mike Davis argues about a "fundamental reorganization of metropolitan space" around the world, where hundreds of thousands of rural migrants flock to the cities every day, driven by reckless international economic policies which have decimated rural infrastructures worldwide, have demonized peasants, and gone on to create "unprecedented incubators of new and re-emergent diseases" in today's megaslums "that can travel across the world at the speed of a passenger jet." Cities have absorbed nearly two-thirds of the global population explosion since 1950, and are currently said to be adding close to a million new babies and migrants each week.
For these new arrivals, it is a condition Davis says "that can only be described as marginality within marginality", a "semi-death." With only 20 percent of new housing stock supplied by formal real estate development, out of sheer necessity and survival, "people turn to self-built shanties, informal rentals, pirate subdivisions, or the sidewalks. (...) And because the geographic location of slums is becoming more and more marginal, the destructive power of natural elements leaves today's slum residents in an ever more vulnerable state."
Driving global urbanization at hyperspeed, these nearly 2 billion slum dwellers "are the pioneers of swamps, floodplains, volcano slopes, unstable hillsides, desert fringes, railroad sidings, rubbish mountains, and chemical dumps—unattractive and dangerous sites that have become poverty's niche in the ecology of the city," while the rich, continuing their trendy retreats to the countryside, can fulfill a jewel encrusted destiny behind their gated communities in an "elusive and golden nowhere."
In the latest issue of Orion magazine, Davis prints a chapter from his new book entitled Slum Ecology, which gives a brief examination of how the restructuring of Third World urban economies has not only contributed to dangerous health conditions around the world, but has also ruined our capacities for responding to those conditions, which ultimatley imperils the rest of the world with the same disasters seen endemic only to the slums. He also warns of the myth that by adding more people to the city you are contributing to a stronger economy, when in fact "the pull of the city is drastically weakened by debt and economic depression."
"Urban theorists have long recognized that the environmental efficiency and public affluence of cities require the preservation of ecosystems, open spaces, and natural services: cities need them to recycle urban waste products into usable inputs for farming, gardening, and energy production. And along with intact wetlands and agriculture, sustainable urbanism presupposes a basic level of safety—of meteorological, hydrological, and geological stability, and protection against disasters like floods or fire. None of those conditions can hold in most Third World cities. Suffering under a series of crushing pressures, most recently a quarter-century-old regime of Draconian international economic policies, cities are systematically polluting, urbanizing, and destroying their crucial environmental support systems.
But if ecological reality prevails, it won't stop there. Today's megaslums are unprecedented incubators of new and re-emergent diseases that can travel across the world at the speed of a passenger jet. And, as the imminent peril of avian influenza indicates, economic globalization without concomitant investment in a global public-health infrastructure is a formula for catastrophe. It takes only a little imagination—the thought of a series of ill-fated airplane trips—to remind us that we're all living on the same planet of slums, under the same economic regime. The conditions creating the slums—greed, inequity, poor planning, and disrespect for human rights—are human forces, but they tend to intensify the Earth's natural forces. Those forces, ecological and biological, don't always behave as predictably as we would like, or stay within their bounds."
Slum Ecology by Mike Davis (Orion Magazine)
Photographs by SEBASTIÃO SALGADO (except for the last one, photographer unknown)
Planet of Slums (extract in the New Left Review)
The Space Race (A review in the Village Voice)