Cities as centres

NOV cities from scratchCities from Scratch: Poverty and Informality in Urban Latin America
Edited by Brodwyn Fischer, Bryan McCann and Javier Auyero
2014, Duke University Press
293 pages, plates, paperback


OURS has become a world of cities, whose unrestrained growth is now seen as the great challenge – but perhaps also as the great hope – for humanity.

In a recent article the prominent LSE economist Nicholas Stern – author of the highly influential Stern Review on the economics of climate change, which established firmly the relationship between market failure and environmental degradation – placed cities at the very heart of the battle against global warming.

That is because by 2050 there will be 3 billion more people living in cities – making them crucial to the future of our planet from the point of view of controlling emissions.

In Cities from Scratch, this centrality of the city is firmly established: most Latin Americans live in large cities, whose growth and success is shaping almost every aspect of the region’s future.

It is, however the role of their informal barrios – the sprawling but often indistinguishable neighbourhoods that cluster around and within the urban centres – and their relationship with the “formal” areas of the city, that will determine the character of that success.

As Brodwyn Fischer points out, this informality often exercises a magnetic attraction over social scientists, offering a potent symbol of marginalisation and exclusion in the polemical debates about poverty and equality that distinguish this region of the world.

Yet it is precisely within the informality of the shantytowns that much of the success of Latin America’s cities reside. As she writes: “ … poor informal cities largely survive because their inhabitants are so adept at making these places function, in ways that usually link their fates to established networks of power and profit. Portraits of the informal cities that focus only on their pathologies, or their transformative potential, can easily miss their constitutive role in extant urban cultural and power relations …” [p.2]

Where the book provides a fresh vision is by stepping outside the context of “presentism” in which urban informality is so often studied to offer new historical and theoretical perspectives on a very old and global issue. This enables the authors to examine the evolution of informality within the broader context of local political processes. The result can be surprising: Emilio Duhau’s chapter on Mexico City, for example, argues persuasively that informality in some areas promoted certain forms of social mobility and urban integration that actually lessened socioeconomic segregation over time, by contrast with a more contemporary shift to the more formalised construction of low-income housing that actually runs the risk of increasing segregation and marginalisation.

The book’s most thoughtful consideration of the environmental dimensions of informalism is provided by Javier Auyero in his chapter on the Flammable neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. Auyero describes the environmental risks and unsanitary living conditions endured by communities, including Flammable, along the banks of the Riachuelo river that flows through the southern part of the metropolitan area. Flammable is surrounded by a hazardous-waste incinerator, an unmonitored landfill, and one of Argentina’s largest petrochemical compounds.

Auyero explores how informal communities such as this always seem to be waiting for something to happen, a condition that begins to define their very existence – and waiting for positive change, often promised but rarely delivered.

The community’s lack of control over the conditions they live in – and their powerlessness in the face of environmental degradation – illustrate why the focus on cities is so important in the greater discussion of how to address climate change, because the environment offers a good example of the limitations of formal politics and democratic structures to address our planet’s most pressing problems. Indeed, it alludes to the need for fundamental political change if we are, in fact, to ever tackle this existential threat.

Auyero writes: “Once we ethnographically till the soil of residents’ subjective representations, we realise that both waiting and politics are lived as phenomena that escape these residents’ control. Further, even if the particular – and to a certain degree extreme – relationship between waiting and politics in the midst of toxic suffering is peculiar to Flammable, I believe that this relationship is a general phenomenon applicable to all those who live in territories of urban relegation. Powerless waiting, in other words, is a recurring and almost model experience among the destitute.” [p. 258]