Home >> Volume 12 (Spring 2012) >> Contested Cities >> Lisa Gulesserian on "Planet of Slums"

Lisa Gulesserian on "Planet of Slums"

Cover of "Planet of Slums": Red and black

Mike Davis

Planet of Slums

Verso, 2006
228 pages

Reviewed by Lisa Gulesserian

Urban historian Mike Davis’s planet of slums is an apocalyptic hellscape of natural disasters, untrammeled corruption, and urban warfare. Adding fuel to Davis’s fire, in the six years since he published Planet of Slums, a number of new disasters that disproportionately affected slum dwellers have occurred around the world—2008’s oil pipeline explosion in Lagos, 2010’s earthquake in Haiti, and 2011’s fires in Mumbai. Even while Davis was busy publicizing Planet of Slums amidst glowing reviews in 2006, a group of Sunni militants were detonating car bombs in Baghdad’s Shia-majority Sadr City slum. Prior iterations of the aforementioned catastrophes make up the bulk of Davis’s investigation of slums around the world. In the book’s eight chapters and epilogue, Davis chronicles the growth of the millennial slum and the ensuing problems of slum life. A strident critique of neoliberalism and its apocalyptic effects on urban form (slummification, nightmarish urban renewal projects, mounting environmental insecurity, increased informalization, and urban guerrilla warfare), Planet of Slums remains remarkably relevant in urban studies, geography, human rights, and environmental justice circles. 

Davis begins his polemic in Chapters One through Four by outlining the growing slummification, not urbanization, of the globe due to neoliberal policies. According to Davis, “rapid urban growth in the context of structural adjustment, currency devaluation, and state retrenchment has been an inevitable recipe for the mass production of slums.” In this view, the national problems of countries subject to World Bank and IMF structural adjustment policies have been transferred to their poorest citizens, slum dwellers. With help from the research of urban planners and UN documents, Davis argues that slummification is the dominant urban trend for our century. Dismantling the modernist dream of architects like Le Corbusier, who envisioned a future of clean and efficient “towers in the park” instead of the existing dingy and overcrowded cities, Davis claims that the result of neoliberal policies are cities “constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood.” According to Davis, we are steadily moving towards a planet of slums built from detritus. 

The urban ‘renewal’ and environmental devastation in store for us in this planet of slums are detailed in Chapters Five and Six. In “Haussmann in the Tropics,” Davis connects today’s slum clearance with Baron Haussmann’s ‘revitalization’ of Paris in the nineteenth century. “Urban segregation is not a frozen status quo,” insists Davis, “but rather a ceaseless social war in which the state intervenes regularly in the name of ‘progress,’ ‘beautification,’ and even ‘social justice for the poor’ to redraw spatial boundaries to the advantage of landowners, foreign investors, elite homeowners, and middle-class commuters.” As in Haussmann’s Paris, the developers of today’s cities use urban ‘renewal’ to “maximize private profit and social control.” Yet, in the present, instead of Paris’s chic housing developments, many burgeoning metropolises have built high-class golf courses and shopping malls for the suburban rich. Such projects intensify the precarious situation of slum dwellers. Already threatened by their own city governments, they must now contend with the disrupted natural environment as well. In “Slum Ecology,” an oft-cited chapter in Planet of Slums, Davis describes the daily dangers of slum life. Whether in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, “Slums begin with bad geology.” Earthquakes, landslides, sinkholes, floods, and fires terrorize slum dwellers. Along with natural disasters, man-made problems like pollution, traffic, and sewage spills contribute to the insalubrious environment of slums. As most of this information is well-documented by the World Health Organization and various NGOs, Davis moves into analysis by arguing that “economic globalization without concomitant investment in a global public-health infrastructure is a certain formula for catastrophe.” 

Davis follows up his discussion of the dangers of urban ‘renewal’ and the environment with two chapters about the rapid informalization and neoliberalization of many national economies after the World Bank’s and IMF’s structural adjustment programs. In the last half of the twentieth century, instead of providing utilities and basic social programs for their citizens, many nations placed the onus of responsibility for these necessities on the urban poor. In another comparison to the nineteenth century, Davis argues that “If the informal sector, then, is not the brave new world envisioned by its neoliberal enthusiasts, it is most certainly a living museum of human exploitation. There is nothing in the catalogue of Victorian misery, as narrated by Dickens, Zola, or Gorky, that doesn’t exist somewhere in a Third World city today.” Along with the Victorian cause célèbre of child labor, Davis focuses on the feminization of the informal work force in maquiladoras and brothels. With statistics from UNICEF and Human Rights Watch, Davis unrelentingly documents the plight of the new urban poor, ending with a quick catalogue of recent coping mechanisms for slum dwellers. The rise of child witchcraft accusations in Kinshasa by parents too impoverished to provide for their children is the most striking of these survival tactics.

Though Davis paints a decidedly bleak picture of slum life worldwide in his final chapters, his epilogue ends with an ambiguous scene of urban warfare. In “Down Vietnam Street,” Davis reveals the significance of the future he prophesies. Discounting the “Portentous post-Marxist speculations” of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire (2001) as a theory that “remain[s] ungrounded in any real political sociology,” Davis sees some hope in that which he has spent the last two hundred pages bewailing—the chaotic, unplanned nature of slums. Although the Pentagon has developed a Military Operations in Urbanized Terrain (MOUT) program that trains soldiers for urban, rather than rural, guerrilla warfare, Davis insists that “if there is no monolithic subject or unilateral trend in the global slum, there are nonetheless myriad acts of resistance. Indeed, the future of human solidarity depends upon the militant refusal of the new urban poor to accept their terminal marginality within global capitalism.” Urban warfare between the poor and their oppressors is a “sinister and unceasing duet,” where “night after night, hornet-like helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions. If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side.” Whether implosion or continual resistance, there is a glimmer of hope at the end of Davis’s apocalyptic description of the new world (dis)order, no matter how slight that glimmer is in light of the rest of Davis’s argument.

With much detail and impassioned prose, Planet of Slums indefatigably chronicles the results of neoliberal policies since the 1960s: slummification, urban ‘renewal,’ environmental disasters, informalization, and urban warfare. By relying heavily on statistics and graphs about the unsafe and unsatisfactory living conditions of slum dwellers based on evidence from UN, UNICEF, IMF, and World Bank documents, Davis envisions a grim future for urbanity. This data includes no more than a whisper from the residents of the slums he so meticulously describes, however. For those interested in original fieldwork with slum dwellers, journalist Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World (2004)—told through the words of the urban poor in Istanbul, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Rio—is a less pessimistic, more on-the-ground complement to Davis’s well-researched diatribe. Another complementary source for scholars interested in learning more about the hopeful possibilities of slums given short shrift by Davis is the recent work of urbanist AbdouMaliq Simone. On the whole, though, Planet of Slums remains as relevant now as it was at publication six years ago. The horrific conditions detailed by Davis in his seminal book continue largely unchanged. Only time will tell whether his predictions—that we will end up either in a state of continual war or with a global implosion—will also stand the test of time. Here’s hoping the gods of chaos are kind, and neither of these possibilities materializes…