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Free Thinking : The world

From New Delhi, writer Rana Dasgupta

Mike Davis: Planet Of Slums

  • Rana Dasgupta
  • 8 Sep 06, 02:15 PM

One of the most important thinkers about contemporary cities is Mike Davis, a radical urbanist who teaches at the University of California in Irvine.

His recent book, Planet of Slums, is essential reading for anyone who wants to get a deep sense of what the future of the global city looks like. Essentially: it is crowded, it is built by hand out of corrugated iron and other such materials, it is dominated ideologically by radical Christianity and Islam, and it is a "warehouse" for the immense labour resources of the global economy.

I've posted a detailed summary of the book's argument by Mike Davis himself on my site. Here is an extract:

In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with populations over one million; today there are 386, and by 2015 there will be at least 550. The present urban population (3 billion) is larger than the total population of the world in 1960. The global countryside, meanwhile, will reach its maximum population (3.3 billion) in 2020 and thereafter will begin to decline. As a result, cities will account for all future world population growth, which is expected to peak at about 9 billion in 2050.

Ninety-five percent of this final build out of humanity will occur in the urban areas of developing countries, whose populations will double to nearly 4 billion over the next generation. The most celebrated result will be the burgeoning of new megacities with populations in excess of 8 million and, even more spectacularly, hypercities with more than 20 million inhabitants. By 2025, Asia alone could have ten or eleven conurbations that large, including Jakarta, Dhaka, and Karachi. Shanghai could have as many as 27 million residents in its huge estuarial metro-region. Bombay meanwhile is projected to attain a population of 33 million, though no one knows whether such gigantic concentrations of poverty are biologically or ecologically sustainable.

But if megacities are the brightest stars in the urban firmament, three quarters of the burden of population growth will be borne by faintly visible second-tier cities: places where, as U.N. researchers emphasize, "there is little or no planning to accommodate these people or provide them with services." In China the number of official cities has soared from 193 to 640 since 1978. In Africa, likewise, the supernova-like growth of a few giant cities such as Lagos (from 300,000 in 1950 to 10 million today) has been matched by the transformation of several dozen small towns and oases such as Ouagadougou, Nouakchott, Douala, and Antananarivo into cities larger than San Francisco or Manchester.

The dynamics of Third World urbanization both recapitulate and confound the precedents of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe and North America. In China the greatest industrial revolution in history is shifting a population the size of Europe's from rural villages to smog-choked, sky-climbing cities. In sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, however, urbanization has been radically decoupled from industrialization, and even from development per se. This "perverse" urban boom contradicts orthodox economic models that predict that the negative feedback of urban recession should slow or even reverse migration from the countryside.

The global forces pushing people from the countryside-mechanization in Java and India; food imports in Mexico, Haiti, and Kenya; civil war and drought throughout Africa; and everywhere the consolidation of small into large holdings-seem to sustain urbanization even when the pull of the city is drastically weakened by debt and depression. At the same time, rapid urban growth in the context of structural adjustment, currency devaluation, and state retrenchment has been a recipe for the inevitable mass production of slums. Much of the urban world, as a result, is rushing backward to the age of Dickens.


  1. At 10:45 PM on 08 Sep 2006, Richard O'shea wrote:

    Interesting stuff, although I must say that it has been a while since I read something so verbose. Money makes the world go round, or so they say. Personally I think it will stop it in its tracks.

    I know this may sound stupid to some; but the other day, by way of an explanation to a friend, I took out a ten pence piece from my pocket -luckily I had one. Then I explained how I had once observed a similar coin for 3 days in the anticipation that I would catch the beast inflation red handed and give him a good telling off. Needless to say the coin did nothing, why? Because inflation doesn't exist does it.

    When currency was attached to goods and services we welcomed in a monster, and ever since this monster has been eating away at our moral defenses, playing on our greed. Money was invented by a greedy man and woe betide the little begger. The statistics that describe the distribution of this suff 'money' make for depressing reading and frankly made me anxious.

    A war between rich and poor is certainly one way to describe it, the 'haves and have nots' of society duelling it out to gain or to sustain, all the while inflicting so much pain. The article described cities as supernovas, I always saw them as black holes. Giant gravity wells consuming those with less influence, where all information pertaining to their existence is destroyed.

    The most annoying thing for me is that we know the answers to our problems, yet we are afraid to free ourselves of a system that has enslaved us. Daily the bell tolls and daily we march into oblivion. I accept that this is a bleak view of the world, but I also have to accept the evidence. Turning a blind eye will help no one and only serve to diminish the voyeur. Yet so many are blind to the world -blinded by contentment- that they barely seem cognisant of their own existence.

    An event will occur in time that will change this situation, I say this because it must.

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  2. At 12:05 PM on 09 Sep 2006, Kala Rao wrote:

    The implicit argument here is that urbanisation is bad, and forced on most people by the big bad global forces (although what currency devaluation has to do with it beats me). Why is that the case? Particularly when it offers an escape from an increasingly unsustainable subsistence farm; from the soul-destroying existence as an outcaste or offers young people an opportunity to get a better education, more diverse economic choices or simply to live a different life. Shouldn't we focus on how we can make cities more sustainable?

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  3. At 02:42 PM on 09 Sep 2006, Richard O'shea wrote:

    Currency is the big bad force. None of the things you are claiming to be important are dependent on money, none of them. You just went off and made it that way, and shame on you all for doing so.

    "Particularly when it offers an escape from an increasingly unsustainable subsistence farm; from the soul-destroying existence as an outcast or offers young people an opportunity to get a better education, more diverse economic choices or simply to live a different life."


    If money is so vital to the welfare of the Human race, why is it so clearly evident that this money is not being distributed fairly. 90% held by the rich 10% by the poor - FACT. Is it the subsistence farmers fault? And how the hell did we survive all those years without it?

    The 'implicit' argument in the article that I read (by following the link) was about the failiure of the global economy to drag from the bottom up the very people it exploits to generate this wealth. You speak of making cities more sustainable - for whom exactly?

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