Wednesday, July 26, 2006


A reader dropped this big question in a comment on a prior post and I figured I'd open it up here. So, blog readers, have at it. Yea or nay? Why, why not? Let's get a discussion going.


Teo Ballvé said...

My first instinct is that in some, if not most, cases they're not because they occupy land that is prone to seismic activity, landlslides or other "natural disasters" that make the land undesirable. Caracas and Mexico City show the dangers. Though, I remember reading in Robert's book that in Turkey the last big earthquake left many squatted areas untouched.

I suppose there is a difference, too, between "durable" and "sustainable"; the latter being a much more charged term with a lot of baggage, regarding environmental impact and human habitation. How sustainable is open sewage? Not very. But people can live in conditions of squalor for a long time, but I wouldn't qualify that as an indicator of "sustainability."

Are they sustainable because they recycle materials, filter trash, consume less and have a high population density that minimizes the ecological footprint on an area?

My best guess is that they are no more and no less sustainable than the rest of their urban surroundings. It's us that are unsustainable.

e-tat said...

That's a good start AFAIAC. Asking what kind(s) of sustainability we're discussing makes sense to me, as does drawing attention to the contrasts between them.

It also makes me wonder how one would begin to answer the question in relation to any of the sustainabilities under consideration. Is there an index of sustainability? Can it be applied to geology, sewerage, per capita resource consumption, and so forth?

When I first heard the question, I thought about it in terms of longevity, of how these types of settlement persist over time. Is it possible that squatter communities will be the default mode of urban settlement? The urban village of the future? This seems to be in line with your idea of durability.

That way of thinking about it isn't so explicit in the usual notion of sustainability, but it seemed like a point worth considering.

Anonymous said...

Appart from squats where people burn coal for cooking and heating, squatter communities are highly sustainable. Because they use things that the better-off throw away. Because they do'nt use airplanes and highways. They do'nt - because they ca'nt afford to - live the wasteful lives most of us lead. They often grow food themselves and recycle food thrown away by restaurants and shops, instead of depending solely on supermarket foods. Did you know that in the US, the average food product found in supermarkets travelled 3500 km by truck or airplane (Worldwatch institute)? I spent 8 years squatting in Geneva, Switzerland, living with a 6th of the official poverty income thresholéd. But my quality of life was good and I contributed almost nothing to greenhouse gas emissions. Last thing I'd like to add to this very interesting debate, squatter communities that I have seen do not use cement or DOW chemical panneling to build, simply because they are expensive. By the way they also require a lot of energy and pollution to manufacture. So they use or re-use materials, requiring no new manufacturing. End of the line, we affluent societies are not mature enough to intelligently spend our money. And the more we spend, the more we feed an unsustainable way of life.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy the point on ecological sustainability and the slum. Makes for interesting thoughts. I'm currently working on my thesis, trying to debate the benfitial aspects of slums though I find myself quite confused with the aspects of whether debating sustainability/durability...

e-tat said...

Knut, beneficial aspects of slums is an interesting topic. If you've got more to say somewhere, please let me know.

As for the enduring/sustainable issue, I find it helpful to remember that sustainable includes 'traditional' lifestyles from peasant and tribal cultures around the globe. With urban communities it seems that part of the issue is a question about exactly what sustainable means. It makes me wonder whether we think of urban and rural sustainablities in the same way, when perhaps they are different things.

In this regard, urban sustainability seems to focus on reducing resource consumption, as with Philippe's mention of coal consumption. But is urban sustainability only about resource consumption? I think not. It seems to also be about sustaining communities. This is where it becomes interesting to consider the tensions and equilibriums between impoverished communities, enduring communities, and sustainable communities.

Anonymous said...

Re: the debate between sustainability and durability.
How about a comparison with the durability/sustainability of "official" cities ?
Modern towns, at least european ones where the overwhelming majority of people live in buildings, have a high population density. This, as well as our modern lifestyle, makes towns very much dependent on a vast system to provide food, water, sewage, energy, waste evacuation etc. Such a concentration of people living with a high level of energy and material consumption is possible only with a low to moderate price of oil. Now that everyone finally aknowledges the geological fact that cheap oil is coming to an end, it is the sustainability of modern cities that must be put into question. For example, how will New-Yorkers feed themselves when the barrel of oil will reach 300$ ? Alexandre Desmarets, CEO of Total, a world leader in oil industry, recently said we need to prepare today for a 300$ barrel.

This does not mean that living in shacks is all very well. Enabling or alowing slum dwellers to develop their house and community is self-evident (although the news on this blog often shows that municipalities do not share this view).

I often see squats as involontary experiences, experimentations by their inhabitants to survive, or to live, after the opulence that most of us know comes to an end. Hopefully, there are places where the authorities enable or simply authorize shackdwellers to improve the place they live in. When this is done in good comunication and mutual trust between squatters and the municiapl authorities, I am confident that truly inovative, succesful and sustainable communities can take shape.

Given the quantity of favelas, shantytowns, townships, etc, there must be places like that in our vast world. They are the hope for our post-opulent cities to be.

Anonymous said...

'Hopefully, there are places where the authorities enable or simply authorize shackdwellers to improve the place they live in. When this is done in good comunication and mutual trust between squatters and the municiapl authorities, I am confident that truly inovative, succesful and sustainable communities can take shape'.

Philippe, this is intruiging, and I would think that Robert probably shares this vision.

But as you say, the reality is quite different. When has a populist leader come to power in a nation with huge shantytowns/squatted areas, and subsequently taken the kind of initiative you indicate? Did anything of the sort happen in the Phillipines after Marcos was deposed? In which places have some sort of amnesty been granted, and what has come of it?

Anonymous said...

e-tat, I'm sure Robert is the one to answer your question. But I'll give my bit:
What I have seen (South Africa, Switzerland) and read for other countries, is that people living in squats or slums are the first ones who want to improve their homes.
1. They do'nt know how long they will be able to stay there. So it takes courage and determination to put time and effort into a place that might be taken away anytime.
2. The authorities often stop them from adding another floor.
3. The authorities and utilities refuse to do their part of the job: provide connection to water, sewage and electricity to the homes.
4. If you do not have a property document on your shack, you do not legally exist.
5. For the authorities, shacks often are'nt marked on the official maps or on policies for the next years.

These reasons and probably others leave very little opportunity, let alone incentives, for squatters to improve their homes. And improve them they could, even with no or very little cash.

Solutions to liberate the inhanitants' power of change exist, some have been posted on this blog, are in the book "Shadow Cities", or I've seen elsewhere:
- Grant property rights to squatters, so they can for example take a mortgage on their square feet of land, and finance home-improvement. They can then rent out part of their home.
- Use participative budget schemes, where the citizens, squatters included, are consulted for the investment budget of municipalities. Very interesting experience in Porto Alegre.
- Let the informal economy exist, untill the self-employed can take an employee, open a counter and bring economic life to the slum.
- The municipality gives a "Right to Use" of 70 years on publicly owned land for the squatters, in the name of a coop of inhabitants (Geneva).
- The provincial authority builds new homes with electricity and water and provides them to shackdwellers registered on waiting lists (South Africa).
- The utilities provides subsidized eco-light bulbs and fridges to people in favellas, in exchange they subscribe to a legal electricity connection (Communitary electricians programme, Brazil).

Leaving ecology aside, and keeping only durability in mind, slums can last and improve if the "official city/community" recognizes its existence and works with the people instead of evicting, illegalizing and treating the inhabitants not even as statistics.

e-tat said...

Philippe, thanks for that series of points. Would you say, based on that analysis, that the economics of ignoring/periodically smashing squats is more costly, or less, than the economics of developing a comprehensive scheme like the ones you've outlined? In short, can you make it an economic argument as well?

Anonymous said...

It depends if you look at it in the short term or in the long term.
In the short term, what people see is costs and time being spent in rebuilding trust between authorities and squatters. With no immediate results.

If you see the situation in the long term, its investment you're talking about. Investing for benefits (in this case, eradicating poverty) reaps results over a number of years for the most part of slum dwellers. The measures I refer to in my previous post reap a number of social benefits that are difficult to measure in financial terms:
These benefits are:
Making place for a community based economy
Reducing transport needs to go to the "official town"
Increasing health and hygiene
Reducing unemployment
Reducing crime
Reducing illegal tapping into utility systems
Restoring hope and social peace

South Africa is in a favourable political position to work on such policies, the state is rich, the ANC can count on being re-elected and can think of reaping results with long-term policies, the nation is still in a mood of reconstruction after apartheid rather than in a state of apathy. Eradicating poverty is something that the media talk about in SA.

One example of this is in a feature article I wrote for a swiss daily. It compares what can be expected from acquiring new nuclear power plants versus develping local energy efficiency schemes and renewable energy production. With the same amount of public spending and the same energy output, the nuclear scenarion creates 14 times less jobs. But the government is not adding unemployment costs (and treatment of radioactive waste for thousands of years)
in the balance when it studies the nuclear scenario. Here again, it depends what you count in and what period of time you use to compare differing costs and benefits between two policies.

David said...

IMHO, it would make more sense to discuss how squatter communities fit into the overall structure of metropolitan / megacity areas. This is similar to the rather strident (and tedious) debates about the relative merits of suburbs and dense cities; it is usually ignored that the two urban forms are usually the result of the same larger metropolitan forces and patterns. For example, can anyone name a squatter city that isn't clustered around an existing city center?

Squatter cities exist because immigrants from agricultural areas move into cities faster than urban form and formal planning can develop. Rather than talking about the relative environmental impact of squatter cities now -- since they depend on inflows of people drawn by the opportunities offered by the city -- the question should be, how and can squatter cities be made sustainable in the future? What's our vision of what these communities will become?

One of the things that I liked about Shadow Cities is that it is relatively hopeful about the prospects for squatter cities, because they develop organization and infrastructure in ways that we don't always recognize as planned or even intentional.

Anonymous said...

There's no real reason that slums have to be "unsustainable" - or that squatters can't have a good quality of life with the majority of their essential needs taken care of.

It's a technology problem, most of the technologies are already developed, and companies which package and sell low-priced infrastructure packages to these communities seem inevitable, at least from my point of view.

I attach an outline of one such approach, from the Hexaurt project.


Electrical System
Substitute for national grid or heavyweight solar with:
* 1 80 watt panel per 40 adults,
* connected to a 15 minute AA battery charger (i.e. the new gen rayovacs)
These items connected into a "power pillar" - a walk-up charging station where people come with their empty NIMH batteries, drop them into the charger, wait 15 minutes, then take them home. Assuming a 10 hour charging day, that services 40 sets of batteries.

Appliances for this system include:
* lighting: cold cathode fluroescent lights (see: ), LED headlamps, etc.
* communication: cell phone chargers, FRS-type radios, other battery powered radios etc.
* entertainment: pretty much any general purpose device can be found in a AA configuration, like televisions (
* wood gassification stove (see below)

What won't work:
Heavy-draw mains appliances (toasters, video projectors)

Financial model:
$400 for the panel, $100 for the charger and pillar. ($12.50 per adult)
$10 for 8 fast charge AA batteries for each adult.
$10 or less for each lighting unit. ($32.50 total)

$50 per adult should comfortably buy everything required for basic electrical services. A bare bones system (lighting and stoves only) would be less than $20 per household.

Sewage System
Substitute for pit latrines, septic systems or conventional sewage handling with:
* area-appropriate composting toilet design

Financial model:
Possibly as cheap as $20 per household in warm areas, assuming shared toilet banks. Practical, realistic designs have not undergone the "value engineering" necessary for this application yet, so are still too costly, although clearly a cheap, basic, functional unit for any given climate could be created.

Water System
Substitute for water purification plants and pipes, or trucked in water with:
* Solar water pasteurization.
Build a simple solar cooker into the side of each hut, using the same building materials as the rest of the unit (reflective insulation boards). Primary use of the cooker is heater water to 160+F for the full day to sterlize it (and the container). Remaining issues around reliable indicators that the water has been fully treated are being worked on by a variety of groups.

I do not suggest cooking on the solar cooker as a core technology. General field reports seem to indicate solar cooking doesn't go over terribly well in many areas.

Financial model:
$10 or less per household for the solar cooker.

Gas System (cooking and heating applications)
Substitute for natural gas infrastructure (pipes and plants, trucked in propane) with:
* Wood gassification stove ( - see follow up email with the papers)

Wood gassification stoves use sophisticated combustion engineering realized in the form of cheap sheet metal forced air stoves. Two AA cells power ten hours of cooking, with a peak heat output of 3KW from finger-sized twigs. Wood gassification stoves are low emissions because the fuel is burned either as gas (volatiles boiled out of the fuel) in super-abundant oxygen blown in by the fan, or as charcoal similarly burned in abundant oxygen.

WG Stoves are rated as 10 times more efficient than open fires, and three times more efficient than high efficiency clay stoves.

Financial model:
$20 per stove, one per household
Fuel costs are low, perhaps $1 per household per week or less.
In the context of a small and well insulated shelter or home, even this relatively moderate heating device should provide most or all of the heat required even through the winter in most climates.


Plausible? Could this really happen?

I see nothing here that looks implausible. $200 for all services is probably high: I suspect that something more like $50 and a lot of sharing is how this would get done in the real world, and people would buy and accumulate that infrastructure one item at a time over years.

rn said...

Great post Vinay. And yes, it's likely that much of this could work.

Of course, another question might be why we expect a squatter community to be as efficient as the one you sketch out while we do not expect other communities, with more money and greater reach, to create a plan like this.

A second point is reach. Most squatters don't know about this stuff and things like AA battery chargers and wood gasification stoves are not sold in nearby stores. So your suggestion would require a distribution and communication network to let people know about these things. And my guess is that major appliances that can run on those double-A's are also not generally available and are probably more expensive than their standard current counterparts.

A third: it would be very tricky for people living in newer squatter settlements to adopt your suggestions. Why? Because when authorities come in to smash everything, they smash the infrastructure, too. Wires are easy (and cheap) to replace. Battery chargers are not. Ditto for plastic pipes. And the same is true for the hexayurt, by the way, unless people build it from scavenged materials. Also, the hexayurt has no provision for expansion. A reinforced concrete home can expand upwards, as is standard in Brazil's favelas and Turkey's gecekondu.

Finally, though tapping into the electric grid and bringing in piped water may not be as 'sustainable' as your plan, in the long run, they function as markers for permanence for a community, knitting it into the legal framework of community services. Infrastructure then becomes a bargaining chip to prove that the community is decent and above board. And that gives people staying power as they negotiate with the political system.

e-tat said...

Interesting scheme indeed! I would think it very well suited to emergency situations, in that any absent infrastruture could be temporarily supplanted by these standalone resources. But it also raises the question of colonisation. What happens when an existing community becomes mobile through these technologies? Does that make things better or worse?

Ryan said...

At first I thought of the question in relationship to the reuse of materials, and in that light I would not find it too hard to say that squatter communities are sustainable. Then I started to think about the 'big picture'. Sustainable development - meeting the needs of the current group while also not compromising the ability of future generations. First off I don't know much about squatter communities, but I will make an assumption that they are meeting their needs (food, shelter . . .) What about hygiene needs, clean water, appropriate separation of people from raw sewage et. al. In light of the last three areas I would say that squatter communities are not sustainable plus the life expectancy of person living in squatter communities is reduced substantially.