back to the future

Note: I am particularly envious of the discipline and the prolificacy of bloggers like caffeine_sparks, ExpectoRants, village idiot savant and Senor Enrique who seem to have something new and significant to say everyday (Resty seems to have 4 everyday!). I, on the other hand, struggle to keep up with just with the comments -especially when they (That's you Peter. That's also you, Fred.) deserve well written responses.

True, they often deal with very current issues, while I opt to be an opinionated bystander. (I definitely don't fence sit -but most of these issues fall outside the scope of topics for this soapbox.) Still, their ability to sit and churn out interesting blog posts leaves me (self) wanting.

It's not for lack of effort, I must have two-dozen unpublished and unfinished draft post.

Here's one that's almost a year old (updated, of course):

If you've got an hour an twenty minutes to spare, and you're really interested in understanding why our megacity (like other megacities) grows squatter colonies, check out Robert Neurwith's June 2005 lecture at the Long Now Foundation's Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

Neurwith is the author of (the highly recommended) "Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World" that chronicles the two years he spent living in squatter colonies in four continents. (He also runs the squattercity blog.)

"The 21st-century Medieval City," Neurwith's SALT lecture encapsulates his experience over the two years. Here's the link to the audio via MP3, or if you prefer, Ogg-Vorbis. (You can also subscribe to the whole seminar series via iTunes.) There's also a video via Google. And the slides are available here.

If you don't have 80 minutes to spare, you can always read Stewart Brand's summary notes from the lecture.

Neurtwith's thesis: squatter colonies are the future of humanity -with three billion people, a third of humanity, living in such cities by the year 2050.

If that sounds depressing to you, consider that most cities began as "warrens of illegal settlements." -They matured, in time, into permanent, organized settlements -which is the reference to medieval cities -most of these also began as settlements around the shadow of feudal fortifications.

(You also have consider that the concept of urban land as "private property" is fairly recent (perhaps since the 1500s) in the history of cities. Land, in most cities, were property of the crown or the potentate. -And this is a can of worms, as it will lead us to a debate about the concept of property.)

Neurwith's point is that we need to embrace and understand the dynamics of these settlements if we are to solve the challenge that will face a third of humanity in the coming decades. In Neurwith's view, squatter settlements are, "a legitimate form of urban development."

Some excerpts (from Brand's notes):
"What brings them from the countryside is the hope of economic activity, and it abounds. Restaurants, beauty shops, bars, health clinics, food markets. No land is owned, but a whole low-cost real estate economy takes shape, managed without lawyers or government approval. (Hernando de Soto is wrong about land ownership being necessary for growth.) People build their house, a wall at a time when they have a bit of money, and then sell their roof space for another family to build a home there, and so on up, story after story. Devoid of legal land title there are prospering department stores and car dealerships in the older squatter towns of Istanbul. Forty percent of Istanbul, a city of 12 million, is squatter built."
Forty percent! What's the number in Metro Manila? 30% of the population, but maybe just 10% to 15% of the land area?

As to criminality, Neurwith had interesting notes on the role of criminal syndicates in the favelas of Rio:
"Rio is a famously dangerous city, for tourists and natives alike, except in the squatter neighborhoods where no police go. There security is provided by drug gangs, who have become surprisingly communitarian, building day care facilities and soccer fields along with providing safety on the “streets”— narrow stairways kinking up the steep mountainside amid overhanging upper stories looking indeed medieval. There are wires and pipes everywhere carrying stolen electricity and water. (Enlightened power companies realized the thieves are potential customers and are making it easy for them to buy into legitimate service.)"
Finally, Neurwith has this insight and proposal:
"Neuwirth pointed out that squatters “do more with less than anybody.” All that the rest of us have to do is meet them halfway for their new cities to thrive."


Dominique said...

Hi, Urbs: having ADHD and a bit of Asperger's helps. ;-)

I'm dealing with intellectual property groups and one thing that keeps popping up with respect to indigenous groups is the "commons." So I think this has a lot to do with the concept vis-a-vis private property.

Also: not sure if it happens elsewhere but we also have the phenomenon of "professional squatters" usually said to be operating as part of a criminal syndicate.

Eugene said...

You might be interested to read up on a major insurance company's take on megacities: "Megacities: Coping with chaos" (http://www.allianz.com/en/allianz_group/press_center/news/business_news/insurance/news_2007-08-09.html)

sparks said...

uy, salamat sa papuri. pasensya ngayon lang nagawi. kayo pala yung urbano'ng nabanggit ni r.o. sa blog n'ya. :)

ayon kay mike davis na sumulat ng 'planet of slums,' ang trajectory sa mga susunod na dekada ay ang tuluyang paglaki ng megacities. ang projections yata ay 2/3 ng populasyon ng mundo ay titira sa mga lungsod.

Urbano dela Cruz said...


I think I got the ADD and dropped the H.

I remember a Mangyan elder asking us (young college activists) "How can you own something that will outlive you?"

Professional squatting happens everywhere -and so do criminal syndicates profiting from the demand for cheap housing. (you should see the very organized land "invasions" in Peru.)

Urbano dela Cruz said...


thanks for the link to that article

Urbano dela Cruz said...


tama ka. (uy, visions of Ping and Jopet Sison in "Kapag May Katwiran, Ipaglaban Mo")

tuluyan nga ang paglaki ng mga megacities at ang pagrami ng populasyon na taga-lunsod. kaya nga kailangang mangibabaw ang mga suliranin at pangangailangan ng mga "urban areas"

Hindi lang ang mga megacities ang naghahanap ng mga kasagutan. Ganap ng 1/4 ng katauhang taga-lunsod ay maninirahan sa mga mas maliliit (kulang sa 500,000 katao) na siyudad.

dave (",) said...

hi urbano, i noticed that you've linked to my blog, thanks, it's an honor :)

we're just the same on the infrequency of posting, and yes, i too blame the ADD for that. let's just say the rarity makes our entries even more precious, hehe.

Urbano dela Cruz said...

hi dave,

likewise -thanks for listing me in your blogroll.

Maybe blogs have personalities. Or more aptly, we carry our personality into our blogs. I find myself less voluble as I age.


koikaze said...

Good Morning, Urbano

Regarding your "can of worms" ...

Although the concept of "property" has not often occupied my mind, I did once hypothesize that the weaker members of prehistoric society must have banded together to limit the dominance of the stronger members of their group, and that

"They (the stronger members) did not stand idly by and allow the weaker members to take from them. They participated in the formation of a solution. They used their strength to protect as much of what was 'theirs' as they could.

"It is here that we have the foundation of the concept of 'ownership', and, by extension, the concept of 'greed'. Ownership was claimed by the strong and the attribution of greed was laid by the weak. This is the most important, but least acknowledged, aspect of the relationships which led to the origin and structure of civilization."

Your "can of worms" comment led me back to the subject and I've thought a bit more about it. I'm making the (perhaps improper) assumption that at least one of the authors you cite views the concept of property with disdain, if not active opposition.

As I thought about the probable characteristics of squatter communities, what struck me is the likelihood that the first arrivals will take the best locations available (presumably without deed). Thereafter, as newcomers arrive, the firstcomers will consider the location they've seized as "theirs" and will resist efforts by newcomers to displace them. In other words, the concept of "property" will exist, whether or not a legal framework exists to support it.

I mention this for two reasons:

First, to suggest that contempt for the concept of property probably flies in the face of human nature, i.e., the natural pursuit of self-interest.

Second, to point out that the problem with property is not the concept itself as much as it is the monstrosities imposed on us in its name. For example, it is my opinion that allowing corporate (i.e., non-human) entities to garner and control real estate is extremely unwise for the humans among us. Corporations do not die, so the property they acquire is permanently removed from the resources available to the people.

Even more reprehensible ... and easier to see ... are the extensions on the concept of property that have been imposed on us. We (in the United States) have had patent and copyright laws virtually since our inception. In the past twenty or so years, those laws have been perverted to what are now called "Intellectual Property Rights". These abominations, imposed on us by our elected representatives ... at the behest of the vested interests that control them ... are extortionate.

When people oppose the concept of "property", I think we will all be better served if they distinguish between the concept of property itself and the outrages imposed on us in the name of "property".

Wiggle, worm, wiggle.


peterangliongto said...

I think the idea of discounting property rights as a basic foundation for development is oversold. While it's true that certain informal communities around the world have developed certain types of services, mostly done by an informal shadow government above (or usual under) the law, the reality is that in the long run integration with the mainstream socio-economic framework would hasten development in the area and lower costs for individuals as the efficiencies of the legal scale economies can be applied to them.

Urbano dela Cruz said...

Hi Fred,

Interesting proposition.

"Ownership was claimed by the strong and the attribution of greed was laid by the weak."

Is that your own thesis or are you quoting someone?

It is a can of worms -and it is important to differentiate between "property" and "land as property" which is where the political systems/analysis/idealogies differ.

(Far right libertarians are hardcore private property fundamentalists, the social libertarians prescribe some sort of "use it or lose it" time constraint, the far left communists see all property as communal property, the royalists and statist see it as ultimately the domain of the state...so on and so forth.)

I pointed out the issue of "land as property" only to show that what we assume is "natural" -(private property) has not always been a given in history (greed and self-interest, aside).

If we can hold that assumption as such -only an assumption (and not gospel truth), then maybe we can come up with creative responses to the issue of squatting.


Urbano dela Cruz said...


I agree with you that bringing the market forces in is probably the most efficient solution. The current economic regime rests on property rights -so unless we can find a new system -any solution must hold those rights in place. It is in the approaches to the purchase(or compensation) or transfer of those of rights that is our creative space.

Plain usufruct arrangements or outright land grants basically condemn the occupied land to low rise, high density development.

The assumption I question is whether awarding a quick track to "home ownership" (be it in situ or through relocation) is the correct response.

I think a combination of building incentives for developers and inclusionary housing policies to generate more rental options for the poor AND middle class would go much further.

Second, we have someone equated "uplifting the quality of life" of the poor with homeownership. When it is really a placeholder for stability of place and residence. Quality of life has public as well as private dimensions. -but more of that in my next post (when I get around to it.)

Quick Links

Notable posts on the metro