Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Planet of Slums

Architects, are you reading this?

Pandemics and the Planet of Slums

Mike Davis, a recipient of the MacArthur "genius" award, is author of The Planet of Slums. The following is adapted from an interview with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels.

" The global pandemics we see today tend to originate and spread from impoverished slums that push humans into close proximity with animals and food sources, thus providing an incubator for viruses that would otherwise die out or go dormant. Pandemics are thus closely linked to the emergence of "hot zones" in what I call "the planet of slums."

Using conservative definitions by the United Nations Habitat office, there are today 1 billion people living in slums globally. A slum is defined by substandard housing with insecurity of tenure and the absence of one or more urban services and infrastructure—sewage treatment, plumbing, clean water, electricity, paved roads and so on.

While only 6 percent of the city population of developed countries live in slum conditions, the slum population constitutes a staggering 78.2 percent of the urban population in less-developed countries—fully a third of the global urban population.

The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks and scrap wood. Much of the 21st century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement and decay. Indeed, the 1 billion city dwellers who inhabit postmodern slums might well look back with envy at the ruins of the sturdy mud homes of Catal Huyuk in Anatolia, erected at the very dawn of city life 9,000 years ago.

What makes today's slums different from the Dickensian inner-city tenements of London in the 19th century is that they are peri-urban—that is, they are largely on the far edges of established cities, neither countryside nor city, usually about 20-30 miles from the city centers.

These sprawling outer zones one sees in China, Indonesia and across Latin America house not only peasants coming to the city, but people being forced out of the cities by eviction or rising rents.

Not only are today's slums larger than in the 19th century, but they are more dense. Though they are low-rise structures, the square footage is tiny with a lot of people living in each shack. They are built haphazardly along narrow footpaths, not the broad grids of the inner city. A small fire can spread to destroy 1,000 units of housing in 15-20 minutes. Infectious diseases travel rapidly in such an environment.

Slums as contiguous swaths of settlement are largest in Latin America—the largest being on the southeastern edges of Mexico City.

There are similar settlement patterns outside Bogota, Colombia, and Lima, Peru. Bombay has the largest slums in South Asia, with about a 500,000 population. But in general the pattern in the subcontinent is more fragmented and less contiguous, as we see in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where a sea of poverty surrounds middle-class enclaves.

In Africa, we see megaslums in Lagos, Nigeria. Gaza in Palestine is one of the world's largest slums. Sadr City in Baghdad is not only one of the largest, but one of the newest, filled with Shiite refugees from when Saddam drained the southern swamps. Port au Prince in Haiti is not a particularly large city, but it is surrounded by the megaslums of Bel Air and Cite Soleil.

Already 15 years ago, bioscientists such as David Baltimore, the Nobel laureate and former president of Caltech, recognized that globalization was changing the ecology of infectious disease. One of the ways that ecology has changed is, with slum conditions, food sources are concentrated in unsanitary conditions in higher numbers and greater density than at any time in human history. Sanitation is a huge—perhaps the biggest issue—in the slums, where clean water and toilets must be shared by thousands. Ninety percent of Latin America's sewage flows untreated into streams and rivers.

In Mumbai, women band together to go to the public toilets between 2 and 5 in the morning for privacy and to avoid sexual assault.

Nairobi is a sanitation nightmare.

In Kinshasa, Congo, the only way people have been able to survive the collapse of the state and the economy is by bringing agriculture into the city. There are chickens and other animals roaming everywhere. These kinds of conditions transform the whole ecology of disease, speeding up transmission among animals and enabling the leap to humans. They create linkages and causal chains that weren't there before.

One example: Urbanization in West Africa has increased demand for protein in diets. At the same time, European companies have driven West African fishermen out of their traditional fishing zones, which provided most of their protein. Without fish for protein, people turned to the bush meat trade in the big logging countries such as Gabon. That demand for bush meat, for example from monkeys or chimps, has broken down all the biological species barriers for disease. People are eating wild mammals that carry exotic diseases like the Ebola virus or HIV.

Recent studies have shown that what HIV required to obtain the critical mass to become a world pandemic was Kinshasa—a hot breeding ground. People out in the bush had been getting HIV from chimpanzees for a long time, but it quickly died out before it could be widely transmitted.

Through today's connections of migration, travel and transport, diseases incubate in such hot conditions, then go global. "

via Archinect

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Low Tech

It seems that talk of "authenticity" has begun to make it's rounds in these here parts lately. With talk about sub cultures being true to some lifestyle (or brand,) everyone is in on having "real" experiences, "real" food, "real" clothes, etc.

It's quite intriguing, for in this country, what exactly is authentic? Take, for instance, a barbeque I was lucky enough to be invited to the other night: I was speaking to a French gentlemen about how incredible the process of American barbequing is. He was confounded by the time, smell, and taste of those meats sitting in the smoker. Insisting that nothing came close to this in any western european country, he hit on an important point. Barbeque might well be one of the only truly authentic "American" foods.

A certain trend has erupted here in NYC over the past five years, and that is the old school look specifically perpetrated in the restaurant scene. There are more and more new places that seek to transplant the consumer 100 years back, where 3 or 4 layers of brand new paint may create something that looks like an original Brooklyn soda fountain, where old tin ceilings are reconstructed to add layers to a purposefully constructed history. Basically, there is a trend in the use of expensive materials to make spaces look like they had been there forever, and selling it as "authentic." So again, what exactly does this mean for us as we search for our own expressions?

For starters, the projects below demonstrate a wonderful, functionally driven aesthetic firmly entrenched in place. Materials are totally local, not marketed to be. These low tech structure are ecologically conscious because they have to be.Soe Ker Tie House in Noh Bo, Tak, Thailand by TYIN Tegnestue

From the authors, "
Through the course of
the last year TYIN has worked with planning and constructing small scale projects in Thailand. We aim to build strategic projects that can improve the lives for people in difficult situations. Through extensive collaboration with locals, and mutual learning, we hope that our projects can have an impact beyond the physical structures."Yes, these are pissers made out of car tires.Safe Haven Bath house in Ban Tha Song Yang, Thailand by TYIN Tegnestue

All images above come from the always fascinating Arch Daily.