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Success in the Slums?

A blueprint for urban development drawn from some of the world’s poorest communities

Salem Alaton

Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the World

Jeb Brugmann


342 pages, hardcover

A century ago at the marshy edges of what is today Mumbai, Muslim traders from Tamil Nadu and Gujarati claimed land for the beginnings of a hub to process animal skins.

Rural workers were brought in from the traders’ home districts and set up shacks on the wetland. Specialized functions related to the tanning trade were developed in commercially potent proximity to one another, offering new economies of scale. Dharavi, as the migrant district was known, would eventually evolve from a loose network of village-like outcroppings into a giant slum with a stupefying density up to ten times that of the adjacent city of Mumbai, already the most densely populated city in the world.

In an epic narrative of ad hoc development, the countryside labourers recruited to come to Dharavi found themselves in living and working conditions almost any westerner would deem dire. Yet the draw was an opportunity to earn enough additional small coins in an hour to send money home while moving by minuscule increments to better prospects in the teeming migrant town. There were prospects enough to eventually bring their families to join them and further seed a startling urban fecundity, for without any real planning or support from government or any other entity, Dharavi became a major economic centre featuring some of the most valuable land in India.

“Dharavi, it seemed, was a Rosetta Stone for understanding the workings of urban advantage free of imported ideas and plans, foreign capital, government regulation, and investment schemes,” writes Jeb Brugmann, a Toronto-based strategist for development through urban initiatives, in Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the World. “Here, in Dharavi, the basic logic of city building was laid bare.”

While Brugmann consults around the world on how cities may be nurtured to help transform regions, countries and the planet itself, he describes in Dharavi something close to an urban-migrant DNA code. That would be the drive of the newcomer to create conditions for subsistence and something beyond, to achieve what Indians call “upliftment.”

At the core of the urban advantage in Dharavi’s case is sheer density. Brugmann describes a highly concentrated economic leverage with low transportation costs, high mixed use of property, mutually beneficial association among inhabitants and the proximity of manufacturers to suppliers and specialized production concentrated in individual neighbourhoods. While the compressed circumstances of life in Dharavi may continue to resemble those of an extended slum, Brugmann finds something entirely remarkable here, a city built by migrants that has “achieved the most advanced practice of urbanism: the design, construction, and evolution of what I call a citysystem.” 

And so lands Dharavi among a number of cities in Asia, Europe and the Americas where Brugmann settles into his real-time anthropology to detail the layers by which urban environments are identifiers of our economic, political and social present and serve as harbingers of our future. His revolution has compelling numbers: within 30 years, as over two billion new migrants arrive in urban centres, two thirds of the global population will be living in cities. That is less striking in the West where just 10 percent of Britons, for example, live rurally today. But it augurs enormous change among rapidly transforming development giants such as India, where more than 70 percent of the population remains rural.

The impact across a range of pressing global concerns is tectonic in scope, from the 70 percent to 80 percent of world energy consumption that is based in cities to the inter-urban networking of criminal organizations and rapid dissemination of new diseases such as SARS.

But Brugmann is interested in something more nuanced, and at times maddeningly elusive, than the brute force exerted on human affairs by our growing concentration in a global network of mushrooming cities. Although his concerns secondarily encompass those of North American–style urban planning that pursues cultural and esthetic urban dynamism, his ever-implicit passion is upliftment. On this he is a post-modern revolutionary, admiring of unplanned, nearly uncontrolled, slum-based entrepreneurialism—the slum is “the poor migrant’s first tap root into the city’s raw urban advantage”—yet eager for conditions conducive to social wellness and even justice, measures of which are attained in cities under a spectrum of regulatory and economic arrangements.

An analogy with jazz music could be made, where free form and structure have an ongoing interplay. Brugmann’s citysystem may employ many kinds of civic administering and even shaping of the urban tableau so long as these are scrupulously responsive to what is sui generis to the community. Even discussing sidewalk width, for example, he remarks that the right size is not known other than through the consensus gained from retailers, community activists, civic leaders and others on the ground: “These details cannot be left to the experts.” Engineers, architects and planners must exercise their roles through intensive community interaction. The contrasting failure is the world’s many slum clearance projects that have created alien blocks of big new residential and commercial structures that are economically dormant.

The preferred conditions are not readily attainable. One of Brugmann’s three chosen models of the strategically most successfully reshaped and regulated cities in the world is Chicago (the others are Barcelona and Curitaba, Brazil). There, civic advancement is greased by having a degree of control invested in the mayor (a Daley dynastic heir) that almost no other major North American city would countenance. In Curitaba, such enlightened gestures as making urban development accommodate the existing rivers rather than the reverse, were similarly made possible by a concentrated power in the top municipal leadership.

The happy paradox for those communities has been a very strong lead figure—Richard Daley Jr. in Chicago, former Curitaba mayor Jaime Lerner—who worked collaboratively with community interests while having the muscle to bring big business aboard and pass progressive legislation. Lerner, for example, consolidated the services of private bus companies to leverage planned corridors of urban development while Daley empowered residents’ councils as urban planning committees while reworking municipal taxation to help finance their initiatives.

All this has a marked element of “Jane Jacobs gone global”—an intense focus on local, self-regulating systems that produce something that can feel like anarchy but in fact provides true engagement and democratization. Brugmann’s thesis here is that when this occurs and the natural benefits of density are present, people thrive. “Urban advantage,” he declares, “is a classic form of public good.” 

In relying heavily here both on the power of the market economy and the reign of benign autocracies in city hall, however, Brugmann opens himself to political, economic and ethical objections. Who among us is positioned to pronounce on the acceptability, let alone desirability, of living conditions in Dharavi? What happens in such districts when economic vitality sags? Meanwhile, the world-leading market economy of the United States has always exposed the harshest vicissitudes of the same, most wrenchingly in its inner cities. Can these be explained as urban planning failures?

Brugmann does offer a frank accounting of the national American disgrace that is Detroit, where more than a quarter of the land parcels stand empty today. The pathological division of race accounts for a good deal of that particular calamity, with 82 percent of the Detroit downtown being black and 95 percent of its suburbs white. Brugmann traces how the national race divide became the civic one in Detroit, with white migrant groups steadily gaining exclusionary dominance in trade unions, city hall politics and the police force, all to the disadvantage of an African-American community that has seen half its children in recent decades fall from the middle class to poverty. Although Detroit’s municipal politics historically enforced race divisions, it is unclear a shift of urban dynamics could restore prosperity there. Brugmann believes world problems emanating from cities can be transformed into global solutions, but the equation seems both right and toweringly difficult to attain.

He is an informed and substantive thinker while more than a little wonky. Wanting all cultures to achieve “progressive ends within the unique local context” sounds lovely yet does not allow that the local context may be inimical to anything we would call progressive; or he will assert that the “progressive transformation [of cities] is values-driven,” but his book hasn’t the scope for any real parsing of those values and without that, wariness is in order.

Harder to contest is Brugmann’s core assumption that we must concentrate much more on what is happening with the world’s cities, as they have acquired such a dominant hold on all human affairs. As world urbanization creates a new social order, runs the brief of Welcome to the Urban Revolution, the urban landscape merits a kind of world attention it has never enjoyed.

Indeed, there is often hostility to cities. New York City is famously resented and disliked in much of the United States, not only because of its individual wealth and economic power but also because the cultural influence it exerts is heterogeneous in ways that create acute discomfort elsewhere. Creatively vibrant cities like New York naturally agglomerate what previous generations would characterize as dissidents, bohemians, homosexuals and minority racial, religious and ethnic groups. The big city allows all these a megaphone while simultaneously providing terrain for a fearful array of predation.

During my years as a Globe and Mail arts correspondent in Manhattan in the late 1980s, every gesture against convention was outsized in ways geared to repel the American mainstream. A corn-fed visitor emerging from the Port Authority bus terminal off Times Square would first spot a large sign for the Chicks with Dicks Lounge. He had arrived in a jurisdiction tallying nearly 2,000 murders annually in those years (almost triple the current rate), where much civic decor came out of aerosol cans (some of it impressive) and where Wall Street malfeasance (specifically insider trading) helped in October 1987 to trigger the largest single-day drop in the history of the Dow Jones. Meanwhile, the stridency of social identity politics made it more than ever appear that people who seemed hardly to figure in the U.S. heartland—Jews, blacks, Latinos, gays, even Catholics—had engulfed the metropolis, whose “alien” values in turn threatened to erode and ultimately engulf the larger culture.

Yet when Brugmann writes about even the most problematic cities as “massive generators of opportunity,” he is referring not only to those extra rupees going from Dharavi back to the farm but to social, cultural and political opportunity. Even a transgender club is a not insignificant manifestation of the democratizing possibilities latent in the city environment; New York’s Stonewall Tavern, emblematically the birthplace of the U.S. gay rights movement, remains a short ride from City Hall and Wall Street to this day.

In fact, urban democratization extends to incubating major social and political ferment. Brugmann effectively sets out how such events as the dissolution of eastern bloc regimes and the Soviet Union were developed in urban networks. No matter how extensive and vehement the surveillance and repression, even the Soviet state apparatus could not ultimately track every conversation, every hand-printed flyer. (A significant gap in the book is the almost complete absence of the Internet and its new possibilities in both diminishing and leveraging the importance of urban concentration.)

The inherent uncontrollability of a major city is such that Hitler himself never learned to like Berlin, notwithstanding its role as the nerve centre of the Third Reich. And all this, too, despite the fact that Europe’s countries in many instances only developed as nation-states subsequent to being city-states. The capitals of England, France, Italy and other countries were not snuggled-away, bucolic villages, as Ottawa and Washington once were.

Nor have these currents of mistrust and disdain for the city become anachronisms even in the most developed cultures. Torontonians have in the last 15 years begun to chaff noisily at their neglect by upper levels of government, with federal authorities and even the province of Ontario often acting as if the success or failure of the nation’s biggest city was a matter of indifference. That’s a popular Canadian perversity. Hitchhiking across Canada as a teenager, I learned first-hand that Toronto was disliked everywhere else, and found it not hard to empathize with the complaints. These centred on the point that self-aggrandizing Hogtown wielded an absurd amount of wealth and power in the Canadian context while being socially and spiritually pinched in the manner of the banking sector that had essentially founded it. Continued diverse migration to Toronto has certainly enlivened the city on a number of levels, but I sense the wraiths of loan officers past when a student of mine from Kenya writes: “I can see the multiculturalism but I don’t feel it.”

Brugmann deems Toronto a “great opportunities city,” which he promptly explains is not as great as it sounds, the category comprising a city that “lacks a basic strategic capability to face and shape its final phase of growth.” Whatever organic development Toronto has achieved in spots toward the evolution of Brugmann’s citysystem, it has just as often gone after development through the imposition of city models, meaning such standardized planning products as subdivisions and shopping malls. Having largely grown up in the once-renowned Canadian prototype of a model planned community, Don Mills, where sprawl and the autocracy of the automobile set the rhythms, I found Brugmann’s objections to these persuasive.

Most resonant is his intent that urban life should emerge from something that has taken root in the terrain and not simply be a product of controlled spawning in a Petri dish. In painting migration in search of niche advantage as a timeless, essentially instinctual human impulse, Brugmann evokes something evolutionary in its sweep. The revolutionary part hinges on the tipping point we have reached, where the greater part of the whole world has become decisively urban or is rapid becoming so.

Brugmann appears hopeful about this urban revolution, perhaps necessarily so as his professional stake is in guiding cities to better futures. But although he demonstrates effectively that cities can become centres of substantive advantage for their populations when the leadership is there and able to operate with latitude, he does not have much to say about how these public goods can be achieved if that enlightened leadership does not exist. Or about what is going to happen in a world with two billion new urban migrants if we don’t get it right.

Salem Alaton is a former Globe and Mail arts reporter and features writer.