Monday, June 19, 2006

U.N. Issues Global Slum Population Report

The misery takes the headlines. And it's true: the number of squatters is increasing, and there is no excuse, in the 21st century, for so many people to be living without necessary infrastructure. But the dispatches, like this Associated Press report printed in the Guardian miss the interesting news.

Consider: "Approximately one-fifth of slum households live in extremely poor conditions." That means lacking three or more of what the UN calls "basic shelter needs"--including a permanent structure, sufficient space, access to potable water, access to sanitation, and security of tenure.

Sounds awful, right? But it also means that 80 percent of the world's shanty dwellers don't live in extremely poor conditions. Memo to the UN: take a look at those communities.

All squatter encampments start in squalor, in mud, in despair. But 80 percent of them improve and grow and develop. What is it about the communities that improve that we can apply to the communities that haven't.

My observations from my two years living in squatter communities around the world: squatters need two things for their communities to grow:

1. some guarantee that they won't be evicted.
This doesn't have to be a title deed or 'security of tenure' in some legal sense. The favelas of Rio de Janeiro and most of the gecekondu communities of Istanbul don't have legal security. They have only customary security. But everyone has accepted that they will not be evicted and so their communities have been able to improve and grow and develop and are now true functioning neighborhoods.

2. some access to politics.
This can be seized from the system through tough-minded organizing or made use of because government reaches into the communities to forge partnerships. But communities need to work the political structure if they are to get some of the infrastructural goodies that only government can provide: water, sewers, garbage pick-up, electricity.

If the world can offer these two things, squatters will build and wire and pipe their communities and turn them into the cities of tomorrow.

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