The Technium

The Choice of Cities


Cities are technological artifacts, the largest technology we make. Their impact is out of proportion to the number of humans living in them. As the chart above shows, the percentage of humans living in cities averaged about one or two percent for most of recorded history. (The chart’s Y axis is a logarithmic scale of percentage.) Yet almost everything that we think of when we say “culture” arose within cities. After all, the terms “city” and “civilization” share the same root. But the massive citification, or urbanization, that characterizes the technium today is a very recent development. Like most other charts depicting the technium, not much happens until the last two centuries. Then populations booms, innovation rockets, information explodes, freedoms increase, and cities rule.

Cities may be engines of innovation, but not everyone thinks they are beautiful, particularly the megalopolises of today, with their sprawling rapacious appetites. They seem like machines eating the wilderness, and many wonder if they are eating us as well. Is the recent large-scale relocation to cities a choice or a necessity? Are people pulled by the lure of opportunities, or are they pushed against their will by desperation?  Why would anyone willingly choose to leave the balm of a village and squat in a smelly, leaky hut in a city slum unless they were forced to?

Well, every city begins as a slum. First it’s a seasonal camp, with the usual free-wheeling make-shift expediency. Creature comforts are scarce, squalor the norm. Hunters, scouts, traders, pioneers find a good place to stay for the night, or two, and then if their camp is a desirable spot it grows into an untidy village, or uncomfortable fort, or dismal official outpost, with permanent buildings surrounded by temporary huts. If the location of the village favors growth, concentric rings of squatters aggregate around the core until the village swells to a town. When a town prospers it acquires a center — civic or religious — and the edges of the city continue to expand in unplanned, ungovernable messiness. It doesn’t matter in what century or in which country, the teaming guts of a city will shock and disturb the established residents. The eternal disdain for newcomers is as old as the first city. Romans complained of the tenements, shacks and huts at the edges of their town that “were putrid, sodden and sagging.”  Every so often Roman soldiers would raze a settlement of squatters, only to find it  rebuilt or moved within weeks.

Babylon, London, and New York all had seamy ghettos of unwanted settlers erecting shoddy shelters with inadequate hygiene and engaging in dodgy dealings. Historian Bronislaw Geremek states that “slums constituted a large part of the urban landscape” of Paris in the Middle Ages. Even by the 1780s, when Paris was at is peak, nearly 20% of its residents did not have a “fixed abode” — that is they lived in shacks. In a familiar complaint about medieval French cities, a gentleman from that time noted: “Several families inhabit one house. A weaver’s family may be crowded into a single room, where they huddle around a fireplace.” That refrain is repeated throughout history. Manhattan was home to 20,000 squatters in self-made housing. Slab City alone, in Brooklyn (named after the use of planks stolen from lumber mills), contained 10,000 residents in its slum at its peak. In the New York slums “nine out of ten of the shanties have only one room, which does not average over twelve feet square, and this serves all the purposes of the family.”

San Francisco was built by squatters. As Rob Neuwirth recounts in his wonderful book Shadow Cities,  one survey in 1855 estimated that “95 percent of the property holders in [San Francisco] city would not be able to produce a bona fide legal title to their land.” Squatters were everywhere, in the marshes, sand dunes, military bases. One eyewitness said, “Where there was a vacant piece of ground one day, the next saw it covered with half a dozen tents or shanties.” Philadelphia was largely settled by what local papers called “squatlers.”  As late as 1940, one in five citizens in Shanghai was a squatter. Those one million squatters stayed and kept upgrading their slum so that within one generation their shantytown became one of the first 21st  century cities.

That’s how it works. Over time slums gain permanency. Ad hoc shelters are upgraded, infrastructure extended, and makeshift services become official. What was once the home of poor hustlers becomes, over the span of generations, the home of rich hustlers. Propagating slums is what cities do, and living in slums is how cities grow. The majority of neighborhoods in almost every modern city are merely successful former slums. The squatter cities of today will become the blue-blood neighborhoods of tomorrow.

Slums of the past and slums today follow the same description. The first impression is and was one of filth and overcrowding. In a ghetto a thousand years ago and in a slum today shelters are haphazard and dilapidated. The smells overwhelming. But there is vibrant economic activity. Every slum boasts eateries, and bars. And most have rooming houses, or places you can rent a bed. They have animals, fresh milk, grocery stores, barber shops, healers, herb stores, repair stands, and strong armed men offering “protection.” A squatter city is, and has always been, a shadow city, a parallel world without official permission, but a city nonetheless.

The improvisation and creative energies unleashed by a squatter city are so attractive that we build them just for the pleasure of their raucousness. Take Burning Man, the arts festival arising every year in the Nevada desert. It is a bona fide squatter city built and run semi-legally by its inhabitants. It is, in essence, a slum with porta potties. It draws 40,000 residents who bang together huts, shanties, tents, and make-shift shelters, and then, like any other slum, trade, barter, and share their few skills and belongings. The owner-built architecture of Burning Man is thrilling, and the gift economy bracing. Because this futuristic slum is so dense and temporary, it has one of the highest concentrations of creativity I’ve seen anywhere.

Like any city, a slum is highly efficient. Maybe even more than the official sections because nothing goes to waste. The rag pickers and resellers and scavengers all live in the slums and scour the rest of the city for scraps to assemble into shelter, and to feed their economy. Slums are the skin of the city, its permeable edge that can balloon as it grows. The city as a whole is a wonderful technological invention which concentrates the flow of energy and minds into computer chip-like density. In a relatively small footprint, a city not only provides living quarters and occupations in a minimum of space, but a city also generates a maximum of ideas and inventions.


The squatter city at Black Rock, Nevada

As Stewart Brand notes in the City Planet chapter of his upcoming book Whole Earth Discipline, “Cities are wealth creators; they have always been.”  He quotes urban theorist Richard Florida who claims that 40 of the largest megacities in the world, home to 18% of the world’s population, “produce two-thirds of global economic output and nearly 9 in 10 new patented innovations.” A Canadian demographer figured that “80 to 90 percent of GNP growth occurs in cities.” The raggedy new part of each city, its squats and encampments, often house the most productive citizens. As Mike Davis points out in Planet of Slums, “The traditional stereotype of the Indian pavement-dweller is a destitute peasant, newly arrived from the countryside, who survives by parasitic begging, but as research in Mumbai has revealed, almost all (97 percent) have at least one breadwinner, and 70 percent have been in the city at least six years…”  Slum dwellers are often busy with low paying service jobs in nearby high rent districts; they have money but live in a squatter city because it’s close to their work. Because they are industrious, they progress  fast. One UN report found that households in the older slums of Bangkok have on average 1.6 televisions, 1.5 cell phones, a refrigerator; two-thirds have a washing machine and CD player, and half have a fixed line phone, video player and a motor scooter. In the favelas of Rio, the first generation of squatters had a literacy rate of only 5%, but their kids were 97% literate.

There is a price to pay for that growth. As vibrant and dynamic as cities are, their edges can be unpleasant. To enter a slum you need to walk down shit lane. There is human excrement rotting on the sidewalk, urine flowing in the gutter and garbage piled up in heaps. I’ve done it many times in the sprawling shantytowns of the developing world and it is no fun — especially for the residents. To compensate for this outer contamination and ugliness, the insides of squatter housing is often surprisingly soothing. Recycled material covers the walls, color abounds, knick-knacks accumulate to create a comfy zone. Sure, one room will house far more people than seems possible, but for many, a slum dwelling offers more comfort than a village hut. While the pirated electricity may be unreliable, at least there is electricity. The single water spigot may have a long line, but it might be closer than the well at home. Medicines are expensive, but available. And there are schools with teachers that show up.

It is not utopia. When it rains, slums turn to mud cities. The ceaseless call for bribes for everything is dispiriting. And there is the embarrassment that squatters feel about the obvious low-status of their homes. As Suketa Mehta, author of Maximum City (about Mumbai, and quoted by Brand) says, “Why would anyone leave a brick house in the village with its two mango trees and its view of small hills in the East to come here?” Then he answers: “So that someday the eldest son can buy two rooms in Mira Road, at the northern edges of the city. And the younger one can move beyond that, to New Jersey. Discomfort is an investment…”

Then Mehta continues: “For the young person in an Indian village, the call of Mumbai isn’t just about money. It’s also about freedom.” Stewart Brand recounts this summation of the magnetic pull of cities by activist Kavita Ramdas: “In the village, all there is for a woman is to obey her husband and relatives, pound millet, and sing. If she moves to town, she can get a job, start a business, and get education for her children.” The Bedouin of Arabia were once seemingly the freest people on earth, roaming the Great Empty Quarter at will, under a tent of stars and no one’s boss. But they are rapidly quitting their nomadic life and hustling into drab concrete block apartments in exploding Gulf-state ghettos. As reported by Donovan Webster for National Geographic, they stable their camels and goats in their ancestral village, since the bounty and attraction of the herder’s life still remain for them. The Bedouin are lured, not pushed, to the city because, in their own words: “We can always go into the desert to taste the old life. But this [new] life is better than the old way. Before there was no medical care, no schools for our children.” An 80-year old Bedouin chief sums it up better than I could: “The children will have more options for their future.”

The migrants don’t have to come. Yet, they come by the millions from the villages, or the deserts and scrublands. If you ask them why they come, it’s almost always the same answer, the same answer given by the Bedouin and slum dwellers of Mumbai. They come for opportunities. They could stay where they are. The seasonal droughts and floods are eternal. The hardship in planting and harvesting in the hills are ancient. And so is the incredible beauty of the land and the intensity of family and community support. If everything were equal who would want to leave a Greek island, or a Himalayan village, or the lush gardens of southern China? The young men and women could stay in the villages and adopt the satisfying rhythms of agriculture and small town craft that their parents followed. The same tools work. The same traditions would deliver the same good things. Very little in the country side has changed. It is all as it has always been — except the outside around it is new. Now the young have TV and radio and trips into town to see movies and they know what is possible. They could stay. But while their options in the village have not decreased, the options outside the village in the city have enlarged to such a degree that it makes the village seem a prison. They could stay, like the Amish choose to do. Or Wendell Berry. They could keep the minimalist ways going as their ancestors have for millennia. They could stay and not increase their technology. But they choose — very willingly, very eagerly  — to run to the city.

Some argue that they had no choice. That those who arrive in the slums are forced against their desires to migrate to the city because their villages lacked the options of education, jobs and opportunity. It is true there’s an imbalance of options — that’s the point.  But there is work in the villages; it is just that this work does not pay cash (by which to buy cell phones and movie tickets), and it is boring for many, although it can be very satisfying if one is patient. That livelihood of seasonal toil, abundant leisure, strong family ties, strong conformity, rewarding physical labor — all this treasure is unquestionably available to them. They could stay. But they do not choose it. They choose possibilities and opportunities.

They stream into the open-ended city aware of what they left behind.  I once spotted the classic Manhattan subway map on the mud walls of a Sherpa hut in the Himalaya. It was some trekker’s small joke, a nod to technological incongruity. But in many parts of Africa and Asia it is not incongruous to hear country-western music wailing from a radio in a quiet alley. Country music has an unexpected international appeal. Country star Kenny Rogers is the number one musician in Kenya, where there are more than one all-country-music radio stations. Dolly Parton sells out in South Africa. Modified versions of Johnny Cash cover songs can he heard in Afghanistan. Country music has fans wherever people are departing rural areas. In other words, worldwide. Turns out that the weeping tunes about better days can be understood even without understanding the lyrics. That crying slide guitar is the perfect accompaniment for the universal nostalgia that millions of migrants experience in their new urban homes. They miss the countryside they recently left, and they can hear their own yearning for it in Kenny Rogers’s deep longing. Country music began in America during the very period when vigorous farm towns dissolved into suburbia. It is played along highways, among factory workers, and in the low-rent fringes of urbanity as a comforting reminder of what has been lost.  Perhaps the songs serve as a charm to ward off further demise. The benefits of the city and technology are not free; they are paid with a sigh.

There are times and places when that pull of options is replaced by a involuntary push. I think there is nothing as disturbing as the sight of indigenous tribesmen, say in the Amazon basin or in the jungles of Borneo or Papua New Guinea, wielding chain saws felling their own forests. When your forest home is toppled, you are pushed into camps, then towns, and then to cities. That migration is not voluntary. Once in a camp, cut off from your hunter-gatherer skills, it makes a weird sense to take the only paid job around, which is cutting down your neighbors forest. Even though this job is a choice of sorts, the narrow options that constrain it are very clear. The despicable treatment of indigenous tribes by American white settlers really did force them into settlements and the adoption of new technologies they were in no hurry to use. But since not every colonial nation forced their indigenous subjects into urbanity, this forced migration is not inherent in urbanity. It is a policy that is freely chosen by a people, and not mandated by technology itself. Gratefully, forced migration happens less and less. Habitat for aboriginal tribes, however, is still being cut down, putting intense pressure on them to abandon their ancient lifestyles. A certain small percentage of the river of people streaming into the cities today are being pushed by the expansion of the technium. It is a horribly stupid policy to destroy natural habitat this way, and a horribly stupid policy to displace tribes. It does not have to be that way. Wiser people would not allow it.

But today, as in the past, most of the mass movement toward cities — the hundreds of millions per decade — is led by settled people willing to pay the price of inconvenience and grime, living in a slum in order to gain opportunities and freedom. The poor move into the city for the same reason the rich move into the technological future — to head towards possibilities and increased freedoms.


© 2023