Urban squatters save the world
Cities have always created wealth, and have always been a population sink. Still, a world now more than half urban and headed toward 80 percent urban by mid-century is something new in history.
Population will peak by 2050, probably below 9 billion, and then decline rapidly. That’s never happened before, either. Unless climate change or some other calamity intervenes, city-driven wealth and technology will accelerate worldwide, the bulk of humanity will continue its climb out of poverty, and peasant life dependent on subsistence agriculture will nearly disappear. Such a world four decades from now would reflect nothing more radical than a continuation of what’s been going on for the last four decades.
Villages all over the world are emptying out as people flood into cities in search of opportunity. They keep coming because they are succeeding in town. Every year there are 70 million new residents in cities, decade after decade, most of them in the developing world, the “global south,” where five out of six of us live (5.7 billion). The ex-peasants often start in nearby small towns to acquire urban savvy and then head to big city slums. When the existing slums are full, they build new ones—squatter cities. A billion people live in such places now, and another billion is expected.
It can be rough. New shanty-towns lack sanitation, water, electricity, and organization. In the early years, the place stinks, water and power are stolen and irregular, organization is improvised and sometimes criminal, and the homes are hovels. The whole community is always under threat of being bulldozed out of existence. But the outlaw citizens find themselves in a cash economy at last, and it is vibrant. Every lane among the shacks teems with food stalls, cafés, hair salons, clothing racks, temples, health clubs, and mini-shops selling everything. Cell phones abound. Most of the economy is “informal”—no deeds, no licenses, no taxes. Everyone works, including the children, many of whom are also getting some education, often from private informal schools. Rupee by rupee, shilling by shilling, peso by peso, real by real, squatter families are working their way up in the world.
As they do so, they lift the world with them. Mumbai, a city of 17 million, is half slums, but it accounts for one-sixth of India’s domestic product. The new city dwellers form a vast, young labor force, unencumbered by large families. They are ambitious, resourceful, and entrepreneurial. They buy goods and services and provide an enormous new market for cash-crop agriculture back in the countryside. The women, liberated from the strictures of village life, become economic players themselves—the preferred customers for microloans, for example.
According to urban experts, squatters are now the dominant city builders in the world. Over time the tarpaper shacks are rebuilt of masonry, four and five stories high. The homes eventually have refrigerators, TVs, washing machines, and computers. Motor scooters multiply. Air conditioners require new levels of electricity.
Meanwhile the marginal-land subsistence farms the squatters abandoned are growing back—the trees and shrubs no longer cleared for crops or burned for cooking, the wildlife no longer eaten. According to a 2005 UN report, fifty-five times more rainforest is growing back as second growth in the newly empty rural areas than is being cut down from primary forest. In town, the squatters are the world’s most efficient users of energy and materials. They recycle everything themselves, and provide extensive recycling services for the city at large. Dharavi, the biggest slum in Mumbai, has four thousand recycling units and thirty thousand ragpickers.
All the great cities in the world once began as shantytowns. The difference now is scale and pace. London, Paris, Berlin, New York, and Tokyo continue to grow, but the new great cities—Lagos, São Paulo, Mexico City, Jakarta, Delhi, Shanghai, Karachi, Manila, Tehran, and many more—are growing three times faster and nine times bigger. A 2006 UN report says that “fully 85 percent of the world’s working-age youth, those between the age of 15 and 24, live in the developing world.”
So what’s new? For the next three decades we will have huge, churning new cities full of young people pursuing opportunity in the global south, contrasted with sclerotic old cities full of aging populations holding on to what they have in the global north. Where do you think the action’s going to be?