An interview with Robert Neuwirth, the author of Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World

1. What’s the biggest problem that the people in slums/squatter cities – the cities of tomorrow as you say – face? Is there a solution to overcome it?

To me, the biggest problem is that squatters aren’t recognized as citizens, and that their communities aren’t recognized as normal parts of the city. The stigma that creates makes it almost impossible for even the most well-organized and well-developed squatter neighborhood to really knit itself into the urban fabric.

The solution has to be partnerships between the legal and illegal city. In most countries, squatters have demonstrated that they are ready to lead these partnerships in good faith. The problem lies with the rest of society, which resists treating these people as equals.

2. Which city has the best policy on squatters? Please describe that policy a bit.

It’s hard to say, because the policies change. The traditional policies of Turkey have long been pro-squatter—giving squatters due process and allowing them to create legal, popularly-elected self-governing authorities in their communities. But, in the attempt to bring their land laws into compliance with European standards, which is one of the prerequisites for joining the European Union and the common currency, I have read many reports of officials pushing communities out without due process.

There are cities in Brazil—Porto Alegre and Recife come to mind—where progressive governments have created what they call a participatory budget process, and have also attempted to work with squatter areas to create zoning controls and building standards. But it is unclear if these programs have been applied in a widespread way. In Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the governments are much more clientelist, and there have been evictions. With Rio set to host the 2014 world cup and the 2016 Olympics, there will be more pressure than ever on these communities.

So there aren’t all that many municipalities that have gotten it right.

3. What’s more important: actions from the city officials, or just cancelling the evictions and letting them be?

Well, the most important thing is not on your list—squatter self-organizing. Cancelling evictions is an important first step. But it doesn’t happen because governments are benevolent, but because squatters themselves demand to be treated with dignity. So best practice number one would be to encourage strong and vital organizations in squatter communities.

The second most important thing is also not on your list: squatters having access to the political decisions about infrastructure. In the 21st century, no one should live without water, electricity, sanitation, sewers. The way to do this is through local control. Rather than trying to force squatter communities to accept relocation, or to modernize and pay through the nose, a policy of gradually bringing in these things in way that people can organize and control and accept is the best.

For instance, you don’t have to evict people and create paved roads to collect the trash. You can start by designating several pick-up points on the edges of a community, where people can bring their trash once or twice a week for municipal pick-up. Or the community can buy a tractor and wagon and pay someone to pick up the trash and bring it to one of the pick-up points.Robert Neuwirth eating some smoked fish in Makoko, a Lagos, Nigeria squatter community.

4. You suggest the official cities to embrace the squatters who are powerful activists and builders of vital neighbourhoods. How should this be done?

The communities need to organize. Then they should insist that they be recognized on all official plans. One way to push forward with that agenda is for communities to map their homes and pathways, and to do a census to develop accurate population and workplace statistics. The National Slum Dwellers Federation and Slum Dwellers International, in India, have used these enumerations as an organizing tool. And, when you can quantify how many people live in area, and what their economic contribution is to the city, you can show that the community is a powerful and important part of the life of the city.

Microcredit is another tool the Indian groups have harnessed. The source of funds does not come from a bank, but from pooling their own resources. Families save as little as a rupee a day. But cumulatively, that adds up to a large amount of money which can be used for community purposes or lent to individuals for business development. Organized communities can work with utilities to plan for safe electrical hookups and the extension of water pipes through their neighborhoods. Ultimately, even electoral politics can play a role, as squatters, through their efforts in their own communities, may choose to run for higher office.

The ultimate goal, however, is empowerment and self-development and self-guided community development.

5. What do the cities of the developed world have to learn from slums and their residents? I.e. is there some urban design or practices that official, formal cities should consider?

First, the people are the solution, not the problem. That should be the mantra everywhere, not just in the developing world.

Second: It’s absolutely essential that people of all social classes and castes be included in all development decisions. If there’s a plan for a highway and there’s a squatter community along the road’s right-of-way, the solution is not to push those people out, but to work with them to sensitively determine their future.

Third: we should take an intensive look at how these communities work. Street markets, for instance, are a dynamic presence in many cities of the developing world. But we tend to legislate them out of existence here in the developed world. Is that a good thing? I think not. Squatter communities, interestingly, tend to follow some of the planning precepts of hill towns in Renaissance Italy: roads that take unexpected bends, houses that are cantilevered out over the public path on the second or third story, strange little piazzas that are created where two pathways meet. These are things that are often rationalized out of existence in many of our developments, creating cold spaces that often are not conducive to use by the community. Squatter communities have an opportunity to reconnect us with the historic patterns of the built-environment.

Fourth, we really have gotten away from the idea of self-development. The way that squatters at first build one floor, and then revamp their homes, one wall at a time, as they have the money, may be more conducive to the construction of affordable housing and the development of cities than building everything at once and being at the mercy of the mortgage market and the price and profit a landlord wants to collect. There’s a lot of lessons these communities can offer the fading industrial cities of the developed world. And there’s a lot that architects can learn in the global cities of the developed world that are rapidly gentrifying and trashing their local identities.

Squatter communities are not a solution to the problems of the developed world. But they offer lots of things to think about as we move forward to create a more sustainable human presence on the planet.