Make Poverty History

Article excerpt

Empowering Squatter Citizen: Local Government, Civil Society and Urban Poverty Reduction, Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite, editors, Sterling, Virginia: Earthscan, 2004.

Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, Robert Neuwirth, New York: Routledge, 2005.

What exactly is a slum anyway? In September, 1971, I arrived in London as a very naive 21-year-old with a backpack and an address: 24 Myrdle Street, Whitechapel. My Vancouver landlady had arranged for me to stay with her widower father. Mr. Brooker lived in row housing in this east-end neighbourhood made famous by Jack the Ripper. I was astonished to find the toilet outside at the back of the small garden, no hot running water, and no heat except for one tiny gas heater and a warm brick at the end of my bed. It sure didn't look like home, but nonetheless it felt like a neighbourhood to me.

Within a day, it seemed as though everyone on the street knew who I was and greeted me as I left in the morning for another day of exploring London. I didn't know I was supposed to be afraid of Whitechapel because much of it was considered a slum in 1971. Far from feeling threatened, I felt perfectly safe.

Where did we get the idea to fear slums? And who decided that Whitechapel was a slum anyway? Certainly not Mr. Brooker and his neighbours.

Two recent books on cities challenge many of the myths surrounding slums and also turn the field of urban planning on its head. Although very different, both maintain that the world's estimated one-billion slum dwellers or "squatter citizens" are often the real urban planners, the ones who quite literally shape the cities of tomorrow. Far from being hopeless cesspools of crime, these places, which are home to so many, are where hope lies.

The books are aimed at different readers. Empowering Squatter Citizen, a collection of essays by a diverse, international group of individuals involved with urban issues in the South, is directed at urban development theorists, planners, development professionals and academics. Shadow Cities, by American journalist Robert Neuwirth, is aimed at a more general readership. Both are valuable contributions to the literature of urban planning in developing countries.

Empowering Squatter Citizen is edited by Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), the organization Dame Barbara Ward founded in London after the ground-breaking Habitat '76 conference in Vancouver on human settlements. Its essays cover general ground (as in the chapter "Understanding Urban Poverty") as well as the more specific (for example, a case study of a community mortgage program in the Philippines). It is valuable to have the in-country perspective of many of the contributors (including the internationally respected Thai architect and activist Somsook Boonyabancha). But because there are so many different authors, the quality of the writing varies. Some of the prose suffers from the academic curse of convoluted syntax and irritating obfuscation.

The strongest essay is on the South African Homeless People's Federation. In accessible language, the authors discuss the weaknesses of certain approaches to urban poverty and how these are changing through federations of slum dwellers. Some lines from this compelling essay are worth quoting:

  The fundamental reason why poor communities must set priorities is not
  that they are always correct. …