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Book Summary

Davis, Mike. 2006. Planet of Slums. London: Verso.

In his sobering Planet of Slums, Mike Davis describes the gradual growth of slums and transformation of cities into agglomerations of shanty towns with populations in the tens of millions. Rapid urbanization has caused a new kind of inequality between the residents of megalopolises that have burgeoned in population. Slums extend beyond their urban roots; amorphous urbanization often overtakes the countryside, so that rural traditions are disrupted and villagers are forced to take on non-traditional employment and lifestyles. Simultaneously, says Davis, breakneck urbanization has not resulted in parallel industrialization growth; although we see a trend towards urbanization, we also see that the urban economy is shrinking at a rapid pace. As such, this stagnant economic framework is ill-equipped to handle this massive influx of urban population.

A Working Definition

Davis spends the early chapters of the book describing the nature of the slum and citing its growing global prevalence. He defines a slum as a situation of overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure. While they are not always poor, about one-quarter of slum residents live on less than $1 per day. According to this classification, our author estimates the global number of slums to be 200,000, varying in scale and population.

Davis develops a geographical framework for these slum residents, grouping them into two baskets: Metro Core versus Periphery. Metro Core slums offer several forms of housing, ranging from tenements to open-air and on-street shelters. By contrast, Periphery slums are primarily comprised of squatter settlements where residents must pay rents or bribes. Occasionally, private landlords capitalize on this trend of pirate urbanization by providing legal title to subdivided lands that do not conform to zoning. These two classifications come together to provide a crucial space -the societal impact zone in which the urban population and countryside collide. The population influx from the Metro Core often causes polluting, illegal industries to spill into the Periphery, thus further blurring the delineation of the urban center.

Impact of the State

By Chapter 3, Davis begins to examine the causes for the growth of urban slums, first focusing on the state. Davis argues that unsustainable urban migration was widely promoted by states beginning in the mid-20th Century. Previously, city growth was checked by systematic control of the poor under European colonialism, Asian Stalinism, and less systematic controls in Latin America. Our author presents several examples of state policy that prevented the rural poor to migrate into the cities and subsequently state strategies that forcefully urbanized the same population en masse. In many instances, these controlled growth strategies were dictated by the labor needs of a growing industry. Yet, by actively fostering a policy of urban growth when it economically desirable, the state failed to provide for the increasing numbers of urban poor. Davis also proves that the creation of slums was not the inevitable urban future in the eyes of the state. Indeed, many public assistance projects such as public housing were not adequately provisioned or failed outright. Those that were implemented mostly failed to provide the level of service necessary.

Impact of NGOs

Moving beyond the state, Davis argues that World Bank policies in the latter half of the 20th Century contributed to the creation and growth of slums in developing countries. Because of its tremendous financial support to third world nations, the Bank came to leverage national urban policy and impose its own theories. The World Banks housing policy in the 1970s was characterized by self help, simply providing basic infrastructure services. It failed to help the poorest residents because it did not produce the expected cost savings and was disconnected from the employment market. Likewise, the Banks shift to soft imperialism, which focused on coalition-building and micro-entrepreneurship, largely ignored the poorest residents.

Although Davis admits that NGOs have had some positive impacts, their unintended contributions weigh heavier. Their market-driven policies often caused excessive land inflation due to high rents, leading to excessive property speculation and eventually fueling property bubbles. This acutely impacts poor residents, as slum investment is often the most profitable form of real estate investment. In addition, squatting can be utilized as a means to raise slum land values; land owners argue for public subsidies on the pretext to provide infrastructure to squatters, who are subsequently evicted when the land prices rise. Each of these features contributes to the vicious cycle of high rent and overcrowding present in urban slums.

Slum Power Structures

Moving into the second half of the book, Davis surveys the nature of slums in different countries, their origins, and the power structures behind their perpetuation. The first section explores the nature of urban inequality in the Third World where - in cities like Nairobi, Dhaka and Mumbai - the vast majority of the population occupies a small fraction of the land. The origins of this discrepancy in living standards lies in colonialist roots; after independence from imperialism, the indigenous elites were quick to occupy the privileged position of their former rulers, thus preserving the squalor in which the rest of the natives lived. It was in the interest of the local elites to perpetuate this system of exclusion and inequality via state power to promote stability.

This dichotomy naturally creates a tension between the state and the slum dwellers. Slum clearance is a ubiquitous tool of the state in developing countries, where property rights are weak and market pressure mounts as land values escalate. Due to this precarious tenancy situation, those who can afford to leave retreat to highly fortified, private neighborhoods, perpetuating the isolation of poor neighborhoods. These off worlds are effective replications of gated, US suburbs and are prevalent across the Third World.

Slum Ecology

According to Davis, the urban poor are thus sorted into niche areas in the citys ecology which, because they are so hazardous and unattractive, offer some protection from rising land values. These areas are often geographically undesirable, located in areas with unstable hillsides, high seismic risk, or within floodplains. Deadly hazards are created by man-made features such as toxic industries, traffic, and collapsing infrastructure. In such areas, housing often suffers from degradation, inadequate repair, aging, neglect, and corrupt government safety/permitting agencies.

At this point, Davis critiques the role of local transportation planning forces, which often give preference for destructive policies that finance roads over rails and privatization over public provision. As urban housing pressures increase, slums have begun to invade vital ecological sanctuaries and protected watersheds. This systematic pollution and destruction of crucial environmental support systems has led to widespread health concerns and a lower quality of life. In particular, Davis critiques the underlying neo-liberal policies that encourage privatization of basic needs: excessive user fees for water and sanitation services exacerbate the problem of the urban poor.

Structural Adjustment Policies

Many of these neo-liberal policies have been aggressively championed by NGOs such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank through structural adjustment policies (SAPs), as discussed in Chapter 4. SAPs often include dramatic reductions in public spending, mass privatization, trade policy modifications, and the devolution of centralized state power in return for large state loans. Through a number of cases spanning South America and Asia, Davis highlights several negative impacts of SAPs: burgeoning urbanization and urban poverty, declining average incomes, the flight of capital across international borders, soaring prices, and the collapse of manufacturing industries.

These consequences are attributable to the lack of regard paid to differences among recipient nations, as well as external factors such fluctuating commodity prices and demographic shifts. Regardless, these outcomes have caused the income disparity between the rich and poor to rise dramatically both within and across nations. While Davis admits that SAPs and globalization have sponsored a few success stories, such as certain regions of China and India, pervasive global inequality has been the defining result.

In conclusion, Davis argues that the neo-liberal strategies put forth by states and NGOs are simply wrong. Urban centers in developing countries have become a dumping ground for the poor. These centers foster a growing informal economy that Davis estimates employs over one billion poor residents. While neo-liberal advocates may champion such a market-based solution, Davis is quick to point out that this informal system is marked by exploitative labor, a lack of upward mobility, and is prone to dwindling incomes as scarce employment is increasingly subdivided. Davis argues that the imposing presence of urban slums is unarguable. Their rapid growth, coupled with increasing global income disparity, will continue to be one of the greatest challenges facing our world in the 21st Century.