- The Desire Called Dystopia
“The slums have a brilliant future” (151). This is the stark assessment of Mike Davis’s most recent book, an account of the “worldwide catastrophe of urban poverty” (21) that catalogs with impressive concision the brutal disparities of contemporary urbanization at a time of the world-historic shift from a majority rural planet to a majority urban one. Yet, as Davis notes, this emerging urban world is not what an earlier generation of urbanists imagined it would be: “Instead of cities of light soaring toward heaven, much of the twenty-first-century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement and decay” (19). As a portrait of the urban present, Davis’s account is bleak—one out of every three people who live in cities lives in poverty—but the book is driven by a vision of an even more forbidding crisis looming on the near horizon. “Slum populations are growing by a staggering 25 million people each year, yet the frontier of squat-table land has closed, replaced by squalor for rent at rising prices, and the informal economy, which provides poor people their limited livelihood, is becoming as densely overcrowded as the slums themselves.” What are the geopolitical implications of vast, unprecedented concentrations of poor people living in deplorable and deteriorating conditions in sprawling impoverished “cities without jobs”? This is the animating question of Davis’s book, the question that gives his book its [End Page 153] palpable urgency and drives its pacing and prose.
The impetus for Planet of Slums was a 2003 United Nations report that Davis identifies as the “first truly global audit of urban poverty” (20). The landmark report coordinated the work of more than 100 researchers, synthesizing statistical data from more than 231 cities and incorporating that with household-level survey data. Davis first drew attention to the UN report in an essay he wrote for the New Left Review, and that 2003 essay contains in miniature the arc and argument of the present book. Davis nods to the fraught heritage of his book’s key term, but he largely sidesteps the analytic problem of defining “the slum” by adopting the operational definition that guided the UN study. The UN study, he suggests, discards the “Victorian calumnies” that attended nineteenth-century studies of urban poverty but preserves the “classical definition of a slum, characterized by overcrowding, poor or informal housing, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, and insecurity of tenure” (23).
With the UN study as a starting point, Davis has scanned and synthesized a truly astonishing array of the available scholarly literature on global urban poverty; he has condensed this research into a stark and at times breathless account of just over two hundred pages. His pages brim with foreboding statistics and charts as he recounts the uneven process of slum urbanization in the “exploding cities of the developing world” (5). All across the Global South, slums are growing faster than cities, and cities are growing faster than the population itself. Mumbai is predicted to have 10 million slum dwellers by 2015. And by that same year, Africa is expected to have 332 million slum dwellers, “a number that will continue to double every fifteen years” (19). More than 78 percent of the developing world lives in slums. The starkly uneven process is amplified by the unprecedented pace of urbanization itself: in the single decade of the 1980s, China urbanized more rapidly “than did all of Europe (including Russia) in the entire nineteenth century!” (2).
Davis describes both the sprawling urban agglomerations that are engulfing their regional peripheries at unprecedented rates and the new modalities of urbanization—“dramatic new species of urbanism” (10), the “pathologies of urban form” (128)—that such rapid urban expansion has spawned. He cites the example of the “the giant amoeba of Mexico City,” which is extending “pseudopods that will eventually incorporate much of central Mexico . . . into a single megalopolis with a mid-twenty-first-century population of approximately 50 million people—about 40 percent of the national total” (5). Throughout the world...