A tale of people’s settlements in the 21st century

Published: 22:26, Oct 16,2016 | Updated: 00:10, Oct 17,2016


The United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, Habitat III, opens its doors in Ecuador’s capital city Quito today. The decisions sanctioned in the course of the next four days by the member states, including Bangladesh, will guide national urban development policies and impact bi- and multilateral cooperation in the next 20 years. Are we, however, sure about their longer-term implications? Elisa T Bertuzzo writes

IN MANY years from now, whensoever human beings will talk about the cities we live in today, they will remember the settlements that the poor set up on their own all over the world.
In these settlements, the future inhabitants of the planet will ascertain the cultural values of our time. ‘These are the places at which people arrived from the countryside, from areas afflicted by conflict or destroyed by natural disasters; the places at which they found shelter and social support’, they will say. They will talk about the good ideas, efforts and dreams by which men and women shaped new livelihoods, working with their neighbours and, sometimes, with the city administrations; as well as about how the inhabitants of these settlements used a variety of things and assets together.
Beyond all that, what they will learn looking at these settlements is that in our time, the deprived built their own neighbourhoods even if they suffered evictions, even if they had to bear higher costs for services that for others were public, and even though they were not given land and due support by the state, busy attracting corporate investment for big projects. In fact, by the time our descendants will look at the settlements of our days, history will have shown unmistakably that if people built from scratch, at times against the law, their own houses and neighbourhoods, it was not out of some desire to be ‘smart’, but for the state and the elites’ refusal to plan our cities equitably.
Today, many still think that these settlements arise because certain countries are not enough ‘developed’, and that’s one reason why especially the speeches of politicians abound with promises of development. Yet at present, the number and size of these settlements are increasing both in the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world, delineating what to our descendants’ eyes, will look like a planetary trend.
They will, perhaps, compare the settlements built by the people with those built by the corporate and upper-class groups in our time. ‘Which ideas, which dreams could these residents have ever cherished, let alone shared with neighbours, their lives relentlessly reflected in black and white CCTV camera images? How could they have contributed to the rest of the city life, separated from it by wired walls and watchmen?’ they will wonder. As opposed to such cases, in the settlements shaped by people’s efforts they will trace the beginnings of the ways of living that helped overcome different crises — water, food, electricity… — in the course of the 21st century. And if for the future inhabitants of Planet Earth, collective access to resources will have become obvious, it’ll bother them that such ways of living emerged, more often than not, amidst unclear and even conflictual relationships with the state.
‘Strange how our ancestors, with the world verging on that tremendous collapse, didn’t notice that the people’s settlements were not only the most inherent settlement form of their ruthless time, but their only hope to get out of the mess’, they will muse. ‘Wouldn’t they have demolished so many of them to build glossy-looking “new towns” or IT villages; wouldn’t they have marginalised their inhabitants for so many years, treating them like idiots, criminals and even terrorists, or at best as victims to be helped in humanitarian missions…’, they’ll sigh, knowing how our era ended soon after.

WE LIVE in a time that produces cultural values in spite of itself: their birthplaces are settlements declared illegal by the state, considered to be of no use or of disturbance for urban development.
Let’s contrast these values with those formulated in the legitimate premises of cultural production — eg schools, research institutions, theatres — and democratic deliberation — eg parliaments, UN offices, not rarely also the conference rooms of five-star hotels. The intuitively clear distinction between the first and second set of values can be grasped intellectually by distinguishing ‘cultural’ from ‘cultured’ values. For anthropologists, sociologists and art historians, cultural values are the elaborate system of meaning and behaviour that determines a group’s or society’s way of life; everyday practice and traditions passed down for generations are directly connected to these values. The UN organisation for education, science and culture, UNESCO, assesses the cultural value of its World Heritage sites according to their capability ‘to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design’ and ‘to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared’ (among other criteria).
To define cultured values, we may draw on the difference between ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ culture developed by sociologists dealing with complex societies. Facing the inconsistency between people's actions and their professed values — put plainly, what people do and what they say — they highlighted the fact that the values and norms a society actually follows often clash with those it professes to believe in. While they conceived of this gap as one between ‘real’ and ‘ideal’ cultural values, it is probably more viable to straightforwardly call the first cultural and the latter cultured values. If cultural values mirror everyday practice and people’s experience, cultured values, produced in roundtables and parliaments, hint at what everyday practice and people’s experience could, or should, be.
What would emerge from a comparison between the cultural values produced in people’s settlements and the cultured values formulated in roundtables such as the Habitat III Conference? Which would reveal fitter to tackle the barbarism of our age of spreading, rather than diminishing, inequality and poverty, demonstrated by the expansion of these settlements — basti, favelas, bidonvilles... — and admitted in the opening remarks of the conference agenda itself?
In 1976, when the foundational event of the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, short UN-HABITAT, was held in Vancouver, Canada, the convenors held inclusion and rural-urban linkage as leading principles for future development. In 1996, during the second Habitat conference staged in Istanbul, Turkey, those principles were sidelined vis-à-vis the challenges of uncontrolled urbanisation. Habitat III, it seems, will be remembered for its full shift of attention towards cities. Not only does it pursue a ‘New Urban Agenda’ that projects cities as the more or less sole key to sustainable economic growth, but it also makes an explicit call to allocate funds in favour of urban development. Notions of equitability, justice and democracy — all of which play a role in the everyday negotiations of space in people’s settlements, although they might not be fully realised — are thereby treated as natural consequences of development. This attitude, characteristic of the capitalist and lately, neoliberal faith in economic growth, is obviously not simply optimistic but fully blind towards the above mentioned historical evidence of increasing inequality.
Pertaining to the people’s settlements, the ‘New Urban Agenda’ condemns their eviction and envisions their ‘gradual formalisation’. It doesn’t however specify how such a goal ought to be accomplished: the so-called informal settlements, for example, would have to be declared legal in order to be upgraded (if this is the meaning of ‘gradual formalisation’), but which government would commit itself to doing so, when the land prices in cities continue to increase and more often than not, politicians and land-dealing elites are tied in long-lasting coalitions? The Agenda also fails to introduce strict measures in favour of the (re)distribution of land and against market-driven land prices and land-based finance, which would be essential to tackle the phenomena of uncontrolled urbanisation reported since Habitat II.
In the light of these contradictions and shortcomings (among others), we cannot hope in the cultured values of the world’s governments, nor should we expect much from Habitat III. Instead, we should acknowledge the comparative success of people’s settlements in realising cultural values, which stand out whenever collectives appropriate space and manage to transform it — locally, by everyday struggles rather than in the wake of cyclical top-down deliberations, with persistence and determination. Yet we can also expect that their inhabitants aren't going to put up temporary huts, negotiate infrastructure, or protect tiny plots for ever. The more those who draft global agendas fail to acknowledge the cultural value of people’s settlements and their livelihoods, the more drastically will they have to stand up, take to the streets, and transform everything.

Elisa T Bertuzzo is a cultural scientist based in Berlin. From 2009 to 2016, with Habitat Forum Berlin, she developed the research project ‘Paradigmising Karail Basti’ in one of Dhaka’s self-organised settlements.

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