|"Slum" (Rio De Janeiro) and below ...|
|... international tourist destination (Riomaggiore).|
A New York times article, writing about the Mumbai slum that was the setting for the film "Slumdog Millionaire," describes how the visual complexity of these places is matched by their economic complexity and the resourcefulness of their inhabitants -- an inventiveness that recalls Jane Jacobs' observations in The Economy of Cities:
"Understanding such a place solely by the generic term “slum” ignores its complexity and dynamism. Dharavi’s messy appearance is nothing but an expression of intense social and economic processes at work. Most homes double as work spaces: when morning comes, mattresses are folded, and tens of thousands of units form a decentralized production network rivaling the most ruthless of Chinese sweatshops in efficiency. Mixed-use habitats have often shaped urban histories. Look at large parts of Tokyo. Its low-rise, high-density mixed-use cityscape and intricate street network have emerged through a similar Dharaviesque logic. The only difference is that people’s involvement in local development in Tokyo was seen as legitimate."The traditional response to such settlements by city and national governments, still common today, is to evict the inhabitants and demolish the structures. Uprooting the community in this fashion destroyed the energy and scarce resources that the residents had put into their dwellings, disrupted social and economic networks, while the construction of new public housing, intended to host at least some of the displaced residents, redirected government revenue that might have been used to improve the existing settlement to building an inadequate number of units which were poorly suited for people's social and economic needs.
More recently, in acknowledgment of the counterproductiveness of demolition, various South American governments, notably Mexico and Peru, have begun issuing formal titles to the possessors of slum properties. The stated purpose of this approach, advocated by economist Hernando de Soto and endorsed by none other than Milton Friedman, is to increase tenure security and to permit the land to be used as security for business loans.
So far, although titling of properties has led to an average 25 percent increase in land values, the promised access to capital has largely failed to materialize. Further, the awarding of formal titles has often served as an invitation to outside real estate interests to enter the market, futher inflating prices and potentially driving out the very people whose tenure the titling program was purportedly designed to protect. In Mumbai, this process took the form of large apartment towers sprouting in the low-rise Dharavi slum, adding height without necessarily increasing density (in any event population density in these areas appears to be exceptionally high even in the absence of buildings over three stories).
An alternative approach, adopted mainly in the Brazilian city of Recife, has been to provide tenure security not with titles, but by recognition of the community's claim to the land, combined with the implementation of what is perhaps the simplest zoning code to be found anywhere in the world: 1) a two-story height limit; and 2) a maximum lot size of 150 square meters (1,615 square feet). Informal exchanges of property, without deed recording or title transfer, continue unhindered, reducing transaction costs and encouraging an extremely flexible urbanism where boundaries and structures rapidly adapt to changing needs.
Mathieu Helie argues that the remarkable organic form of these slums is dependent on this openness -- an attempt to make them conform to a particular notion of property rights (that of individual freehold ownership by way of titles, deed recording and plat maps) is to deprive it of the flexibility that allowed it to take shape in the first place:
"After praising slums for their ability to generate economic opportunities, they are denounced [by a City Journal article] for not fitting into the conventional model of property rights. Yet it is precisely the use of more natural methods of property allocation that gives slums their organic morphology. ...
"Just like we can’t make the organic morphology of slums fit into the modern rules of property ownership, we can’t make traditionally emergent cities through the current planning system. (All efforts to produce traditional neighborhoods have so far produced only imitations of them.) ..."The question of how to produce such traditional or emergent environments in a developed country in the present day is one which people such as Christopher Alexander have devoted their careers to, but answers, in practice, remain elusive. The example of places like Recife does suggest the answer could be simpler than ever imagined.
Sources and Additional Reading:
Urban Land Tenure Options: Titles or Rights?
Regularization of Informal Settlements in Latin America
Secure Tenure in Latin America and the Caribbean
The Role of Urban Slum Titling in Slum Improvement