Planet of Slums, by Mike Davis

Urban disaster on the global screen
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The Independent Culture

In City of Quartz, the radical historian Mike Davis established himself as the Raymond Chandler of urban geography. With a cinematic gaze that evoked the shadows and duplicities of film noir, he mapped the grotesque inequalities and dirty politics of greater Los Angeles. In Planet of Slums, Davis's genre is the global disaster movie, as directed by the chroniclers of Victorian poverty: Engels, Booth and Dickens. The scale of modern squalor revealed in his brilliant survey dwarfs its predecessors. They are but sepia-tinted melodramas measured against the urban apocalypse now underway.

Davis's starting-point is simple but acute. Urban dwellers will soon constitute the majority of humanity for the first time in history. The overflowing cities of the South will have to absorb another four billion people before the global population peaks at around ten billion in 2050. Do the maths and weep.

Mumbai, already the most densely populated and ecologically impossible city in the world, is heading for a peak of 33 million. The cities of the West African coast are fusing into an urban giant that rings the Gulf of Guinea and will exceed the size and population of the US Eastern seaboard.

However, unlike their Western predecessors, these monstrous agglomerations are growing without widespread industrialisation, infrastrucure provison or formal job creation. What were once considered necessary precursors of urban growth have in some zones disappeared altogether. A vast urban underclass is being warehoused in slums: two billion today, perhaps five or six billion in 50 years.

The villains of the piece are the usual suspects, but Davis casts them with rational malevolence. To begin with, the post-colonial state failed to spend the resources garnered from international banks or raw material booms on urban infrastructure for the poor. Where resources have been spent on housing, they have invariably been poached by state employees and the connected urban middle-classes.

The poor, confined and corralled in self-built dwellings on peripheral land and toxic dumps, have been squeezed further by the disastrous consequences of IMF "structural adjustment" programmes. Their legacy are not merely a decimated public sector but, under the current unfair trade regime, the effective destruction of the peasantry of the South, who have been reduced to demographic cannon fodder for urban charnel houses. In the most potent passages, Davis describes the gruesome realities of personal hygiene and human dignity in communities that are actually drowning in their own shit.

The elites of the South have responded to the threat of the slums with the wall, the bypass and the bulldozer. Everywhere, gated communities and militarised suburban enclaves have been established. City centres have been abandoned to street dwellers and squatters. Elevated motorways in Lagos and Buenos Aries cut across the sea of pitiable humanity, connecting a network of privilege.

Where the slum cannot be bypassed, it can be eradicated. Clearance and deportations are key policy tools in the armoury of authoritarian urbanism. From Olympic Beijing to Mugabe's Harare, violence and force have beautified cities, made space for gentrification, or dumped opponents with a brutality even Baron Haussmann of Paris would have found breathtaking.

Davis wonders whether the opening scenes of the "war on terrorism" are really the overture to a conflagration that pits the insatiable desires of Western consumerism against the unfullfillable needs of the global slum. He will never sell the script to Hollywood, but the Pentagon, with its new doctrines of urban warfare, may have taken out an option. There is another, more hopeful movie to be made on this subject, but those who write such an epic better start with Davis's coruscating tragedy.

David Goldblatt's 'Football Yearbook' is published by Dorling Kindersley