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Slums and tent cities

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jeffc | Mar 23, 2009 03:00 PM

Urban planners love the fact that slums are “walkable, high-density, and mixed-use,” as The Boston Globe recently reported about Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums. In the article, reporter Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow says many governments are beginning to “mitigate the problems with slums rather than eliminate the slums themselves.”

The general consensus is that informal communities (read: slums, tent cities, squatter villages, etc.) arise out of neglect from surrounding communities. And at the same time, some local governments are at least willing to address the issue, if not throw some money at it.

In the case of the tent city in Ontario, CA, mentioned in Scott Bransford’s recent HCN article, officials spent $3 million to work with the situation, rather than simply raid and destroy. The story points out that the campaign formalized the living situation, and in the process, made it sort of an exclusive camp. Some were pleased; some were not.

 Dignity Village

Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon - Photo courtesy of Portland Ground

So if U.S. officials are trying to regulate these communities in a mutually beneficial way, what are some possible solutions? (Read on and feel free to express your thoughts below.)

I asked Bransford about his ongoing research on the topic, and he emphasized that there isn’t one universal solution to the world’s tent cities, because each occurs under different circumstances. However, one thing tent cities in the U.S. lack is establishment. Tent cities that crop up in the U.S. generally occur in contested spaces, Bransford says, “places of tension.” That means that at some point, the improvised communities meet resistance and the inhabitants get moved off the land.

In Brazil and India, slums have existed for many years. And their existence isn’t under any large threat – most of the time. In fact, urban developers often look toward slums as model communities for their wealth of ingenuity and community affability.

That’s why developers often face difficulties when they want to change the physical landscape of established slums. In Dharavi, one developer wants to build high-rises for slum dwellers so all the extra space that was once occupied by improvised housing could be used for commercial space. The idea? "The poor get a home in a block in a prime location, the companies make money and Mumbai's residents get a posh new city quarter." But then, how would poor households run small businesses with a storefront up in the apartment complexes?

One example of a tent city that's established itself in the U.S. is Dignity Village (referenced in Bransford’s article). It’s sort of a tent city turned intentional community for the homeless in Portland, OR, and it deserves a second look. After they were able to negotiate a piece of land a few years ago, people in Dignity Village began upgrading from tents to housing with sturdier walls. And with mandated volunteer hours from residents and other rules (no drugs or alcohol), their housing and community model seems to be working well.

Architects and planners are always on the lookout for innovative new housing opportunities. Bransford mentioned Tumbleweed Tiny House to me. Another is the Micro Compact Home. These tiny houses go for around $40,000. And here in Paonia, there’s a guy who once built a house with $700 of material. So obviously, there are different price values for similar solutions. And some planners are just out to make a buck for themselves.

Bransford says the precursor of slums is the "demise of affordable housing." In the Boston Globe article, Tuhus-Dubrow reports that about 1 billion people worldwide currently live in slums, a number that’s projected to double by 2030. She quotes Stewart Brand, whose latest book covers some issues regarding slums. “It’s a clear-eyed, direct view we’re calling for – neither romanticizing squatter cities or regarding them as a pestilence," says Brand. "These things are more solution than problem.”

If tent cities become more established in the U.S., the government may be more willing to provide running water and transportation services, as in some Latin American countries. And though many people in slums moved away from agrarian lifestyles in the country, urban gardens could be established to feed families.

If officials can provide an established piece of land for tent city residents, we might be doing ourselves a favor. A recent NPR segment featured Arvind Subramanian from the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He said that India isn’t affected as much from the poor global economy for a couple reasons:

1.    India exports only 21% of their GDP, compared to China’s export of nearly 50%.
2.    India grows most of its food locally.

Now, that’s a large example, but it speaks to the need for more localized industries to sustain a population and to be more resilient in a bum (no pun intended) economy. And if tent cities are somewhat self-reliant as Bransford says, perhaps they'll have more resilience.

So, let's not lie to ourselves. Our government needs to accept the fact that tent cities (or slums) could be here for the long haul, and it may not be a bad thing in the face of a tumbling economy. Their small environmental impact and sense of community shouldn’t be overlooked.

Oh yeah, tennis is also one of those things that have escaped the economic downturn. So the obvious solution: Bring tennis tournaments to each city and sell overpriced tent-city-grown crops to the tennis teams.

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