As many as one out of six people on earth is an illegal squatter. In Shadow Cities, journalist Robert Neuwirth describes his travels through the megalopolises of Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul, and Nairobi to discover what life is like for that 1 billion. What he finds defies many of the stereotypes of grime- and crime-ridden Third World slums.
The improvised shanties he visits on hillsides and along train tracks, though constructed illicitly, are often well tended. Neuwirth finds the “law-abiding outlaws” who inhabit them to be for the most part upstanding and neighborly. “People may be poorer here,” a woman tells him in one of Rio’s favelas. “But they pay their bills.”
Squatting is not simply trespassing, contends Neuwirth, but an inevitable phase of urbanization. “All cities,” he writes, “start in mud”: New York’s Upper East Side began as a shantytown, and Paris and London once teemed with the semi-homeless.
City governments should learn from this history, he argues. Instead of ignoring (or bulldozing) slums, they should provide squatters a fair stake in their de facto homes. Ultimately, Neuwirth has faith that the most daunting aspect of squatter cities — their size — will be their salvation, as their residents discover the sheer power of numbers.