The world is over half urban. In 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2050, this proportion will increase to a staggering 70%.
The bulk of new urban population growth will be in the so-called Global South: Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, with an increasing number of people across the class spectrum settling in peripheral and suburban areas in both megacities and smaller towns. The nature of that growth, however, will not follow a familiar pattern. Dr. Malini Ranganathan, an Associate Professor at American University’s School of International Service and an expert on urban geography, says informality is the “new normal” of urbanization. This new kind of growth defies binary terms like “slum” and brings questions of equality to the forefront of the discussion on city planning and development, making the very concept of citizenship incredibly malleable and negotiable.
Ranganathan’s recent research focused on Bangalore, a city of over ten million people, where much of the growth is occurring in the so-called urban peripheries—the outskirts of town, where people are securing their claim to urban land through a series of negotiations and adaptions that while informal in nature are reshaping the very notion of “right to the city.” The discourse of the slum, Ranganathan explains, is incredibly limiting and doesn’t recognize informal land tenure. “We are referring to something akin to occupancy urbanism, where the people first occupy the space and then start to put in place the mechanisms of livelihood and the infrastructure. Many of these occupants might purchase what is initially considered farm land and then through negotiations and forming a relationship with bureaucrats are able to create a sort of an ambiguous ownership, which is in a sense advantageous to both the state and the inhabitants.” Much more noteworthy, however, is that while home owners associations in the United States are usually preoccupied (or rather, obsessed) with safeguarding property values, the ad-hoc neighborhood welfare associations she observed in Bangalore formed to make demands on the state. By banding together in groups, occupants gain the power to advocate for critical services such as water access and sanitation. As one of the residents described it, “The ‘we’ feeling has to be there.”
While informal urban growth seems to be especially prevalent in the developing world, it is certainly not foreign to the United States. Every day in American cities street vendors spread out their wares on sidewalks, food trucks serve lunch from the curb, and homeowners hold sales in their front yards. “Squatting” or adverse possession, as it is referred to legally, is becoming a little bit more prevalent, especially in cities like Baltimore and Detroit. “Baltimore is full of buildings artists have used over time to solve their problems," says Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. "Many of them live illegally in buildings where they rent studio space.” All of these ground realities would require urban planning to be less top-down and more responsive. “The question remains about the extent these lofty goals can stir political action—how can the right to the city be institutionalized and to not rely so heavily on tech fixes. This issue is not just an environmental or technical issue but also a heavily political and social one. It is about social dynamics such as making public transit more accessible, new sustainability initiatives, and providing more affordable housing,” says Ranganathan.
Ranganathan also discussed a recent shift in the discussion on urban inequity. ”Urban inequity is now front and center on the urban policy agenda. Inequality is proving to be bad for development, period.” At the most recent World Urban Forum, the theme was Urban Equity in Development—Cities for Life. The concept paper of the forum argues that, “unequal cities are all-around inefficient, politically volatile, unsafe, and unsustainable, and just plain bad for human development.” The recognition that inequality is detrimental to overall human well-being is a notable shift away from decades of mainstream development policy guided by trickle-down economics and top-down ideas meant to simply offer band-aid solutions to the have-nots while simultaneously focusing on them as the problem. More importantly, the notion that growth and equity are antithetical is fast losing ground: “The OECD dismissed the assumption that the benefits of economic growth automatically filtered down to the poorest in society. The Economist has just affirmed that inequality has reached a level which makes it inefficient and bad for growth. By the same token, the IMF has recognized that inequality slows down economic growth, weakens the demand and contributes to financial crises.” When Henry Lefebvre wrote about the “right to the city” in 1968, he was referring to far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources. Right to the city is a common rather than an individual right; it relies on collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. It is the right to inhabit the city, the right to produce urban life, and to right of inhabitants to remain unalienated from the urban life. Yet, on a practical level, making these lofty ideals a reality requires political commitment. Until the time the powers in place wake up to the trenchant realities on the ground, informal settlements and their safety issues and environmental hazards will continue to exist and workers who build glitzy skyscrapers in global cities will still only be able to live in them while working on their construction.