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  • Coda: In Defense of “Accumulated Chaos”
  • Christopher Shay (bio)

To those in power, homegrown neighborhoods have always had a whiff of danger to them—their residents denigrated as at once lazy and menacing, their streets derided as noisy, dirty, and confusing. In 1475, King Ferrante of Naples said he could never be the true master of his city until the dark alleys were widened and illegal porticos demolished. The French modernist architect Le Corbusier—who called poor city dwellers a “black clot of misery, of failure, of human garbage”—argued that as far back as ancient Rome, the urban disorder of the inner city was not to be trusted: “There sometimes came the hot gust of rebellion,” and inevitably, “the plot would be hatched in the dark recesses of an accumulated chaos in which any kind of police activity was extremely difficult.”

Ever suspicious of these so-called slums, political leaders are still trying to control them, often with the same centuries-old plan: flatten them and construct something easier to police and administer. Our authors urge the opposite approach: Instead of imposing top-down solutions that facilitate state control, governments should build up these communities and strengthen their ability to creatively manage themselves. There is no single, context-free solution to the problems of the city, but the residents themselves need to be part of the answer.

Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava write about Dharavi, an economically productive home-grown neighborhood in Mumbai. They renounce the term “slum” and show how “families and community networks can be the foundations from which a built environment emerges.”

In another article, Urvashi Kaul explores the use of Social Capital Credits, a tool designed to reinforce and create community networks in Kumasi, Ghana and other cities around the world. She writes of her experience implementing a program where people perform socially beneficial activities to earn credits that can be redeemed for goods or services. The concept is simple, but Kaul argues that Social Capital Credits can help bring about “a redefinition of wealth that takes into account the power of community.”

The third piece on innovative informal economies focuses on the popularity of bottled water in Chennai, India. The state’s failure to dependably distribute clean water has made black-market dealings a necessity, Kavitha Rajagopalan writes. But in such a poorly regulated environment, “clean” water is often dirty, putting residents at risk of disease. Rajagopalan puts forward a number of possible plans, including pani panchayats, or citizen-led water councils inspired by similar institutions in rural India.

This is a far cry from King Ferrante or Le Corbusier. In his book Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott critiques such disdainful views of urban governance. The goal of public policies, he writes, should instead be to “enrich local wellsprings of economic, social, and cultural self-expression.” A diverse, complex neighborhood can better resist market shocks than a commercial or residential monoculture mandated by the state. The lesson here is: Don’t only listen to politicians and experts; the locals might just have some ideas, too. [End Page 110]

Christopher Shay

CHRISTOPHER SHAY is the editor of “World Policy Journal.”



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