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Informal Cities II

Informal City Futures

by Will Doig - Next City’s international editor


We've heard a lot about global urbanization lately – about China's ambitious plans to move millions into cities, about booming metropolises doubling in size, from Bogota to Lagos. But in all the buzz about the massive quantities of people moving to cities, what gets lost is the arguably more important story: how those people are changing the cities they're arriving in.

These new arrivals are turning urbanization into a do-it-yourself endeavor, developing neighborhoods spontaneously, where and how they choose to, with little regulation. It's this kind of growth that has given us places like Old Fadama in Accra and Dharavi in Mumbai – areas that seem to be somehow separate from the formal city, both physically and psychologically.

But if these neighborhoods are separate, it's only because the cities they exist in have chosen to keep them that way, rather than extend to them urban services and formal recognition. This isn't always the fault of the authorities – often, these cities simply don't have the resources to absorb these new places, which are growing and multiplying too fast. Nevertheless, the failure to integrate them kicks a familiar cycle into gear: lacking basic sanitation, electricity or water, these neighborhoods become dirty and dangerous – and, in turn, seemingly more separate. The more separate they seem, the stronger the argument becomes for their outright removal. And soon we are talking about these places as if they were never a part of the city at all.

The problem with that argument is that, increasingly, these neighborhoods are the city. The skyscrapers and traffic lights of the formal districts may look more like what we've come to recognize as traditionally “urban.” But by the numbers, the informal city is, for better or worse, the true city of the future. From Nairobi to Karachi, virtually all new urban growth is occurring informally.

Once you start to reframe your perspective that way, it becomes awfully hard to argue that this type of growth – the fastest, most aggressive kind of growth in the history of the world – should be the growth that is, at worst, outlawed, or at best, neglected and pushed to the side. This is the form of urbanization that will define the 21st century, and cities that don't accommodate for it could find themselves capsizing under its weight. Some cities have been reasonably progressive in preparing for this future. Bangkok, for instance, has built community centers in its slums, and Medellin has given them transit and basic services. But other cities continue to apply the brute-force method, wishing away this growth and continuing to plan for the formal cities of yesteryear, cities that real life is so clearly drifting away from.

In the mid 20th century, many Western cities made terrible planning decisions. They defunded transit and built elevated highways. They razed neighborhoods and replaced them with isolated apartment towers. The city, in short, was over-engineered, given a hard shove toward a future that appeared more orderly and streamlined, but that didn't actually accommodate for the people that lived there. There are shades of that same phenomenon happening in many developing-world cities today. Mayors' and governors' offices are filled with dazzling renderings of gleaming central business districts and waterfront parks. Everyone wants to be the next Tokyo. What they forget is that even Tokyo was once a slum, a large informal neighborhood that developed incrementally to become the modern place it is today. A city is a work in progress, and the informal city is a part of that process. Whether it will be cultivated and allowed to grow will have vast implications for the urban future.



Will Doig is Next City’s international editor and is based in New York City. Previously, he wrote the “Dream City” column for Salon, was a senior editor at The Daily Beast and served as the editor-in-chief of Nerve. His writing has appeared in New York, the Advocate, Out and many other publications.




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