Monday, March 9, 2009

Slum Economics

"Indeed, slums embody many of the principles frequently invoked by urban planners: They are walkable, high-density, and mixed-use, meaning that housing and commerce mingle. Consider too that the buildings are often made of materials that would otherwise be piling up in landfills...slums are by some measures exceptionally ecologically friendly."

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, "Learning from slums: The world's slums are overcrowded, unhealthy - and increasingly seen as resourceful communities that can offer lessons to modern cities," Boston Globe, March 1, 2009.

With 1 billion people living in "slums," preferrably called informal settlements, a number likely to double in the next decade, a variety of shantytown advocates felt like Slumdog Millionaire didn't tell the whole story. Comments range from the silly smart to the practical.

"In a recent speech, Prince Charles of England... praised Dharavi...for its "underlying, intuitive 'grammar of design' " and "the timeless quality and resilience of vernacular settlements." He predicted that "in a few years' time such communities will be perceived as best equipped to face the challenges that confront us because they have built-in resilience and genuinely durable ways of living."

And Stewart Brand of Whole-Earth Catalogue fame: "On a more basic level, these places can teach us about where, for better or worse, urban life appears to be headed. "Squatters are the world's dominant builders...If you want to understand what's going on in cities, look at squatters."

I'm not sure how relevant the physical planning elements of global informal settlements are for the U.S. It's the potential for grassroots entrepreneurialism in neighborhoods that probably holds the most promise. This grassroots economics already exists; the question is whether and how it will expand during the current recession and beyond. Will scarcity and a lower standard of living become facts of life and reignite survival economics?

A libertarian stimulus and recovery package would roll back zoning, allow chickens in backyards, encourage home businesses, throw out oppressive regulations, and hand over public land for farming.

Embrace the mess!

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