Why Are Squatter Cities The 'Cities Of Tomorrow'?

Jun 15, 2012

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Future of Cities. Watch Robert Neuwirth's full Talk — Our Shadow Cities — on TED.com.

About Robert Neuwirth's Talk

Author Robert Neuwirth spent two years exploring one of the most profound trends of our time: the mass migration of the world's population into urban shantytowns. Life in a favela, slum or shantytown is hard: no water, no transport, no sewage. But in the squatter cities of Rio, Nairobi, Istanbul and Mumbai, Neuwirth discovered restaurants, markets, clinics and effective forms of self-organization.

In this Talk, Neuwirth demonstrates how the world's squatter sites — where a billion people now make their homes — are thriving centers of ingenuity and innovation.

About Robert Neuwirth

American journalist and author Robert Neuwirth wrote Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World, describing his experiences living in squatter communities. He has written articles for The New York Times, The Nation and Newsday.

In his latest book, Stealth of Nations, Neuwirth challenges conventional thinking by examining informal economies close up. He spent four years living and working with street vendors and traders working within these informal economies to capture their scope, vigor — and lessons. He calls it "System D," arguing that these are not hidden economies, but visible, growing and effective ones that foster entrepreneurship and represent nearly 2 million jobs worldwide.

Our challenge, Neuwirth says, isn't to end squatter cities or shut down gray markets — but to engage and empower those who live and work in them.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart. And today we're talking about the future of our cities.


STEWART: Our next guest, Robert Neuwirth, is rethinking our assumptions about community, poverty and the shape of cities in the 21st century.


ROBERT NEUWIRTH: This is Hosinia, the largest and most urbanized favela in Rio de Janeiro.

STEWART: Deprived areas around big cities - call them barrios, favelas, slums or shanty towns - are super concentrations of urban poverty.


NEUWIRTH: That's Kibera, the largest squatter community in Nairobi.

STEWART: Neuwirth is a journalist who spent two years living in villages on the outskirts of Rio, Istanbul, Mumbai and Nairobi. In 2005, he shared some of his discoveries at TED, experiences chronicled in a book called "Squatter Cities." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The name of Neuwirth's book is "Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World."]


NEUWIRTH: They are what I consider to be the cities of tomorrow, the new urban world. Now, why do I say that?

STEWART: Robert Neuwirth, here in our studio, why do you say that?

NEUWIRTH: Well, first of all, it's approximately one in six or one in seven people on the planet are squatters living in shanty towns or self-built communities. And the trends are that world migration is going to continue, that we're going to have more and more and more people living in the cities. And no government, no developer, no Donald Trump out there is going to be able to build for people at a price that they can afford.

So these communities are going to continue to grow and expand and new communities are going to be formed. And, in a very pragmatic way, these represent the urban neighborhoods of the future.

STEWART: You go on to quantify it a little bit further on in your talk. Let's take a listen, just so people understand...


STEWART: ...the numbers.



NEUWIRTH: Here are the statistics: Today, a billion squatters, one in six people on the planet. 2030: two billion squatters. One in four people on the planet. And the estimate is that, in 2050, there'll be three billion squatters, better than one in three people on the Earth. These are the cities of the future and we have to engage them.

STEWART: So what is the consequence of not engaging these populations? Specifically not engaging them in a way that recognizes them as cities?

NEUWIRTH: Well, first of all it leaves people living in really deprived conditions, because although people succeed in building a house for themselves, infrastructure's a different story. And so there are many communities around the world that have no water, no sewers, no sanitation. And that requires municipal engagement.

If the municipalities would engage these communities and work with them, I'm sure we could, all-around the world, very quickly sort out how to bring water and sewers to communities that need them. Electricity as well.

STEWART: This brings me to my next question, and you may have answered it in there, but I'm going to - I'm going to ask anyway. There have got to be people who say to you - who just don't accept your premise...


STEWART: ...that we shouldn't think about these as cities. How can you think about them if they're not - they don't have organization, they don't have governance, they don't have services. You have to have some sort of order. How do you respond to people who say - that they just reject the premise that this is a city?

NEUWIRTH: Well, go. When you go there, you discover that they're not disordered. We're not talking about places that are completely lawless. They form their own organizations. Every squatter community has residents' associations. Every neighborhood has its informal associations of who leads it. In fact, many of the communities were built by a kind of cooperative or mutuality, where 10 families would get together and build 10 homes.

So this is not something that comes without structure. That's the first point. The second point is that we make the mistake of thinking that these communities are outright deprived. One of the huge surprises I had when I went to Kibera and first came into the community, this is the, basically, largest mud hut settlement in sub-Saharan Africa, is how much commerce there is there. The main drags are just loaded with stores, all run by the squatters themselves.

There's bars, there's, you know, health clinics, there's grocery stores, there's places where you can buy just, you know, the average necessities, drug stores. So this is a tremendously thriving economy, even though each store may be worth very little. In aggregate, it's a huge amount of commerce.

And people are negotiating what their rights are, let's say. So can you have a bar there? And can you have a grocery store here? And is it OK for a cigarette shop to be located here? Or a church to be located there? So they're sort of proto-zoning, if you will.

So the communities are basically organizing themselves and that says to me that they are communities and they are creating structures that we can work with and that are adaptable to working in partnership with the city.

STEWART: How long did you live in each community?

NEUWIRTH: Three to four months in each community.

STEWART: How did they differ? Or let me ask it a different way: what's the same... (laughter) as you went around the world? In all of these communities...


STEWART: ...is there something that's similar?

NEUWIRTH: Well, the self-reliance and the - the way that micro communities have been created. People have to lie - rely on their neighborhoods. So there is a tremendous sense of community and cohesion in every one of these places, including the most materially deprived. So, for instance, the mud - huge mud hut sprawl of Kibera in Nairobi.

Not all, what, 500,000 or 700,000 people who live there know each other, but within each little compound that exists, folks are very communitarian and they help take care of each other.

STEWART: At your TED Talk, you - you broke with TED etiquette...

NEUWIRTH: Yeah (laughter).

STEWART: ...we call it TEDiquette (ph). And you read from your book...


STEWART: ...but it really was helpful, because it helped...


STEWART: ...illustrate what you were talking about in the first person...


STEWART: ...so let's take a listen to that passage and then I want to ask you a couple of questions on the other side.



NEUWIRTH: (Reading) The hut was made of corrugated metal set on a concrete pad. It was a 10-by-10 cell. Armstrong O'Brian, Jr. shared it with three other men. Armstrong and his friends had no water - they bought it from a nearby tap owner; no toilet - the families in this compound shared a single pit latrine; and no sewers or sanitation. They did have electricity, but it was illegal service tapped from someone else's wires and could only power one feeble bulb.

(Reading) This was Southland, a small shanty community on the western side of Nairobi, Kenya. But it could have been anywhere in the city, because more than half the city of Nairobi lives like this: 1.5 million people stuffed into mud or metal huts with no services, no toilets, no rights.

(Reading) Armstrong explained the brutal reality of their situation. They paid 1500 shillings in rent, about 20 bucks a months, a relatively high price for a Kenyan shanty town, and they could not afford to be late with the money. In case you owe one month, the landlord will come with his henchmen and bundle you out. He will confiscate your things, Armstrong said. Not one month, one day, his roommate Hilary Kibagendi Onsomu, who was cooking ugali, the spongy white cornmeal concoction that is the staple food in the country, cut into the conversation.

(Reading) They call their landlord a Wabenzi, meaning that he's a person who has enough money to drive a Mercedes-Benz.

(Reading) Hilary served the ugali with a fry of meat and tomatoes. The sun slammed down on the thin steel roof and we perspired as we ate. After we finished, Armstrong straightened his tie, put on a wool sports jacket and we headed out into the glare. Outside, a mound of garbage formed the border between Southland and the adjacent legal neighborhood of Langata.

(Reading) It was perhaps 8 feet tall, 40 feet long and 10 feet wide. And it was set in a wider, watery ooze. As we passed, two boys were climbing the Mount Kenya of trash. They couldn't have been more than five or six-years-old. They were barefoot and, with each step, their toes sank into the muck, sending hundreds of flies scattering from the rancid pile.

(Reading) I thought they might be playing King of the Hill. But I was wrong. Once atop the pile, one of the boys lowered his shorts, squatted and defecated. The flies buzzed hungrily around his legs. When 20 families, 100 people or so, share a single latrine, a boy pooping on a garbage pile is perhaps no big thing.

(Reading) But it stood in jarring contrast to something Armstrong had said as we were eating: that he treasured the quality of life in his neighborhood. For Armstrong, Southland wasn't constrained by its material conditions. Instead, the human spirit radiated out from the metal walls and garbage heaps to offer something no legal neighborhood could: freedom.

(Reading) This place is very addictive, he had said. It's a simple life, but nobody is restricting you. Nobody is controlling what you do. Once you have stayed here, you cannot go back. He meant back beyond that mountain of trash, back in the legal city of legal buildings with legal leases and legal rights. Once you have stayed here, he said, you can stay for the rest of your life.

STEWART: Something struck me when I - when I heard this. I don't have nearly the experience you do, but I've...


STEWART: ...been to Nairobi and...


STEWART: ...been to these areas...


STEWART: ...and, you know, kids are huffing glue on the street and I can remember a little boy reached in the car to try to get my luggage. I wasn't angry at him, I just knew he knew he could make money somehow...


STEWART: ...if he got my luggage.


STEWART: And I'm not sure accepting this is the right thing. Just on a sort of personal...

NEUWIRTH: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

STEWART: ...moral level, like...


STEWART: ...should I accept this as his - a way of life? Shouldn't I be trying to figure a way to... help the situation? Help him not have to steal to feed himself?

NEUWIRTH: Absolutely. You should. It's a question of what the way is to help people not to steal. Now, first of all, I want to in some way quarrel with your premise, which is that not all squatters are criminals and not all squatters are sniffing glue, although some may be.

STEWART: Didn't mean to suggest that.

NEUWIRTH: No, there - there's crime, look, but the - the answer to crime is figuring out how to empower people so that they don't have to turn to crime. You can put those people in jail, but that's not a solution that's sustainable over time. I'm not talking about accepting the realities. I say in the book there's no mud hut utopia. And - and - and people should not be without water in the 21st century. People should not be without electricity in the 21st century. People should not be without sewers.

Frankly, they shouldn't have been without all those things - in the 19th century, maybe, you know? The point is to just assume that these places need to be driven out of existence, is not the answer. These communities exist for a reason. The question is how to empower people to grow their communities and improve their lot and get more economic opportunity, so that their communities are sustainable and begin to be able to have the infrastructure that everyone should take for granted in the 21st century.

STEWART: What would be the first step towards that empowerment?

NEUWIRTH: It's just about engaging the community and saying, look, you're not going to be summarily evicted. We're accepting de facto your presence here and we're going to find some ways of interacting. Or it may be a kind of payment in lieu of taxes arrangement, where we'll bring the water in and, no, you're not paying property taxes but - because you don't own it. But your community in some way is going to have to participate in the municipal revenue stream and you're going to have to pay water bills...

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

NEUWIRTH: ...when you get water. These are kind of sensible approaches on how municipalities could come in and work productively with these communities.

STEWART: In these communities that develop, whether they be in Rio or Istanbul...


STEWART: ...do the communities develop around people who are like-minded?

NEUWIRTH: Well, I mean, yes. Neighborhoods of them start out that way. I mean, you - you - you know, I'm not going to - if I - if I'm moving from the rural area to the city, I'm not just going to hook up with some other guy I never met before and trust that we're going to be able to be neighbors.

So people tend to work with folks from their hometown or folks that they know from their hometown or extended families or - so there are networks that have developed where people come together and develop trust and build.

STEWART: A lot of it must be about trust.


STEWART: Or at least about self-policing...


STEWART: ...internally? Did you see that at all?

NEUWIRTH: Sure. Yeah, I mean...

STEWART: In what way?

NEUWIRTH: ...people talk to each other about their informal rules, about if - if I want to build a cer - you know, the Hosinia example that I used. If I want to sell my large (ph) so someone can build two stories higher on my house, well, I have to get the approval of everyone who lives around me. And so I have to sit and talk with my neighbors and break bread with them and see whether they'll approve this or not.

And they may have problems with it because they have a, you know, a roof that gets sun that might not get sun. So, you know, you have to work with your neighbors and you have to come to some sort of resolution and trust that that resolution is going to be accepted by everyone.

STEWART: Sounds like a modern day co-op.

NEUWIRTH: In a way, it is. I mean, these communities are like informal cooperatives.

STEWART: You wrote this book...


STEWART: ...and then your next book...


STEWART: ...it doesn't dovetail, necessarily, but...

NEUWIRTH: It's a brand extension is what I - I call it (laughter).

STEWART: (Laughter) That's an excellent way to put it.

NEUWIRTH: From informal communities to the informal economy.

STEWART: Yeah. Explain to me what your second book's about. This idea of underground economy...

NEUWIRTH: Yeah, what...

STEWART: ...as a power.

NEUWIRTH: ...what I call System D in a phrase I pirated from the French - French African, the French Caribbean. But basically, all the economic activity that flies under the radar of government and doesn't get registered and doesn't get incorporated and doesn't pay taxes and - but isn't criminal activity. And so...

STEWART: What's an example? Just (unintelligible).

NEUWIRTH: Street markets...

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

NEUWIRTH: ...in most cities around the world. Cash businesses. Who knows who is reporting what and how much money they make? Mobile phone air time in most of the developing world is sold by people at the side of the road. You don't buy monthly plans, you just buy pay-as-you-go airtime and the airtime's sold all over the place by unlicensed merchants or motorcycle taxi drivers in the developing world.

It's huge and we're talking about a massive part of the economy. I mean, I - I ran the numbers that the economists and statisticians give out about this economy. And, if you do the math, you come up with the fact that it's worth $10 trillion a year. You know, small bits of exchange that in aggregate are worth $10 trillion.

And that's an extraordinary thing, because that would make it, if it were allied in a single political structure, the second largest economy in the world, after the United States.

STEWART: Can you describe what you think in 50 years from now these cities that you describe, these cities of tomorrow, what they might look like?

NEUWIRTH: Well, they're going to be highly developed with all the infrastructure that we take for granted in New York or Washington or wherever we're from. The street planning will still be a bit different, because they'll have developed according to the way that they were built initially.

But they'll have the street grid of a Renaissance hill town in Italy, but with the poured concrete and brick construction and all the infrastructure that we take for granted in, you know, modern day Western cities.

STEWART: What will take their place if they develop into these new entities?

NEUWIRTH: Well, you know, there will be - first of all, they will become more dense, because there will be some higher density housing. And so more people will be living in those communities. And then there'll be new communities that form in the outlying area of cities, which are already forming. And those will go through the same process of self-development as they gain both staying power and political connectedness.

STEWART: Robert Neuwirth, thanks for coming by the studio.

NEUWIRTH: Yeah, thanks very much for having me.

STEWART: Robert Neuwirth is the author of "Shadow Cities" and, more recently, "Stealth of Nations." You can find links to Robert's blog and find out more about the squatter cities in which he lived. Go to ted.npr.org.


STEWART: We've heard some big ideas about the future of our cities. Now let's take a moment to hear what your cities sound like. Right now.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The sound of Chicago is a man playing a saxophone under the Michigan Avenue bridge.

STEWART: We put out a call to our listeners asking you to send us some iconic sounds from your cities.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The sound of Los Angeles is an immigrant rights march.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The sound of New York City is an a cappella group singing in a subway car.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The sound of my city every morning from Fort Hood, Texas, is the sound of soldiers training.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: And the sound of Torino, Italy is the celebration of a winning game.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Seven, six, five, four, three, two...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: The sound of Cape Canaveral, Florida is a crowd watching a rocket launch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Here we go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...one and launch.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: I'm stunned. Look at that. Wow. Oh my God. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.