The Global Slum

Along with the emergence of global cities, we witness the emergence of slums. What is often overlooked is the critical economic role played by informal settlements. Slums give rise to new identities and support the formal economy by providing a structure from below.

Along with global cities, we can observe the emergence of the global slum. Most slums are not global, just like most cities are not global. But some slums are positioning themselves as actors on global stages, often with distinct political tactics and a sort of prise de conscience.

For instance, garbage pickers in these slums describe themselves as ecological entrepreneurs. Another indication of slum politics comes from recent developments in China where there is a growing movement among the urban migrant workers who are denied permanent residency in the cities. What they want from the government is land – to build their own houses, their water pipes, make their own little sub-economies. They are not asking for a bit more income or more services from the government.

A breeding ground for politics and identity

Global slums are the other side of many global cities, especially in the global South. In its most extreme format, each global city has a global slum, either next to it or in its center. The bigger and more powerful the global city, the bigger and more mobilized its slums.

One key element is economic – the active articulation between the advanced economic sectors and backward-looking sectors, i.e. sectors that seem like an anachronism in an advanced urban economy. But many of these so-called backward sectors are actually servicing the advanced economic sectors and their high-income employees. Parts of the traditional small enterprise sector and of the informal economy service particular components of the advanced sectors in a city. The visual orders of global cities make the articulations between different sectors of a city invisible. The increasingly homogenized landscapes and built environments of the glamour zone tend to obscure the fact that a city’s current thriving, advanced economy is often fed by its older urban economic history which gives it particular specialized advantages.

Support from below

The other link that is lost, is between advanced economic sectors and material economies. Urban manufacturing is today a critical component of multiple knowledge sectors, from design industries to the cultural sector. Urban manufacturing, both formal and informal, thrives in cities and could, if properly recognized, contribute to create a more distributed type of economy—producing more mid-level jobs and firms with medium rather than hyper profits. This kind of urban production is mostly highly specialized, but in ways that the “knowledge economy” analysis simply overlooks. Unlike mass manufacturing, it needs to be in urban areas because it is networked and it needs direct contact with customers. Moreover, it varies enormously across cities, thereby reflecting the particularity of a city’s economic history.

The most extreme space for these material economies is the global slum. At a time when high-income gentrification displaces more and more small low-profit enterprises and modest income households, the slum next to the global city becomes a critical space where these older material economies can thrive. Yet urban manufacturing is often unrecognized by economic development experts and planners, or misunderstood as an anachronism because its connection to the advanced knowledge, design and cultural sectors is not noticed. In cities with extreme inequalities, where the advanced economy captures a disproportionate share of income and profits, more and more components of urban manufacturing shift to slum areas.

The rise of these alternative industries opens a whole new urban terrain, which I see as part of our global modernity.

Read more in this debate: George Hazel, Ross von Burg, Lee Stuart.

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