Stewart Brand “How slums can save the planet” Prospect Magazine (Feb. 2010)
Positioning his article for the reader in the tranquil, if not the somewhat serene environment of a houseboat in the quiet town of Sausalito right north of San Francisco, Stewart Brand suggests that squatter cities that have emerged globally can teach us about future urban living. As an introduction, Brand illustratively sets the stage using the fact that the architect Peter Calthorpe gave up San Francisco, where he had tried and failed to organize neighbourhood communities, and moved to a houseboat in Sausalito. In fact, the author himself lives on one of the about 400 houseboats in this community, which apparently thrives in friendliness and peacefulness, everyone knowing each other and each other’s pets. The crucial elements of design that Calthorpe identified was the dock itself as well as the density of the community, which he concluded worked as a community because it was walkable. In 1985, he and several others founded a new urbanism in an article called “Redefining Cities” that was published in the Whole Earth Review, introducing the concept walkability. According to Brand, ever since, new urbanism became a focus in city planning, promoting high density, mixed use, walkability, mass transit, eclectic design and regionalism.
In this context, it is obviously important to understand what a squatter city means. Thus, a common definition of squatting refers to people occupying abandoned or unoccupied areas of land, or buildings that the so called squatter does not own, rent or otherwise have lawful permission to use. Even if the people in the houseboat community of Sausalito own their houseboats or legally rent them, the fact that they do not own the water or the dock generally would make it qualify as a squatter community based on this understanding. However, the leap between the picturesque Sausalito houseboat community to enormous areas of slum like the Bangkok or Rio slums referred to later in the article, highlighting that most inhabitants have color TV, computer and microwave as if they reside in more than acceptable standards of living, is more than questionable. The inference being made that slum is a desired or a good place for those who live there can be read as ignorance at best. It even reminds of certain recent political rhetoric in this country, used in attempts to convince the general public that the poorest of our population have more than anyone needs and, therefore, is in no need for support. The structure of the article and the way Brand promotes what may be a real and valid point about urban living hidden in this text, romanticizes slum communities globally. Perhaps Brand has never visited any of these areas around the world he refers to because if he had, he would have seen the despair, the unhealthy, unemployed, starving people making up these unsanitary slum communities that in essence can qualify as disease incubators. He would also have seen the animals roaming around hungry, spreading disease, not to mention that in some places the residents will actually eat those cute little cats Brand suggest that squatter communities such as the cute one in Sausalito care for with such pride.
Brand’s comment that the main ideas of how this new dominant force in city planning was derived from the houseboat community is rather confounding to anyone grown up elsewhere, for example in Europe since virtually every single European city was built based on such ideas. However, that is not to say that for this part of the world, those ideas were novelties. Brand does have good suggestions for healthier and more sustainable urban living, but in order to find them in the text, whether it was his intention or not, the article has to be read from a perspective of him providing a deliberately simplified analysis, written in cynical or perhaps sardonic rhetoric that is aimed at engaging the reader at some level through its contentious delivery. Or else, the substance of the article makes little sense.