Today we are back in Delhi after a 16 hour train ride across the country. I’ve been thinking a lot about the many sights, guest speakers, and faculty sessions we’ve had since arriving in India. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest themes is the informal sector–it is estimated that 1/2, or approx. 8 million people, in the Delhi area live in informally constructed housing. These are mostly the same people who are getting by on verily little income and lack security in the form of land tenure from eviction without notice. It’s a precarious life in many ways, but people are resilient and find ways to make it work and find joy amidst the struggle. The response of the state, at the municipal level and the nation, has been to treat these communities as illegal and clear them, resettling the residents in new (often unserviced) concrete block buildings on the edge of town. From our American perspective it’s hard not to feel both parallels to the failure of urban renewal, but also to feel like these are communities that desperately need help.
In the face of this, one of our speakers made the fascinating claim: that the slums are not the problem, they are the solution. In a fascinating recapitulation of Jacob’s observation that poor areas can often “unslum” themselves given reasonable security and public service provision. In this sense, the ability of people to “make it work” should be seen as an asset and you ask, if we just stopped poking people so much and instead worked to provide incremental public services it would be more effective than wholesale clearance that also destroys sometimes decades of social and physical capital in the slum communities.
So the issue I am wrestling with is what is the role for the urban planner? If part of the problem is that the state is too involved in the “management” of the city what are we to do? One obvious answer is as the community supporter/civil servant that comes out of the community planning model? A second answer is to work on the provision of basic public services (water, sewer, transport, roads, etc.). But to do that efficiently, such that tax base can support services laid out in an efficient pattern, an iteration of land use planning and infrastructure planning must happen. And this challenges the notion that we should stay out of the business of managing the city and just let the people do it (“as they have for thousands of years”). And yet, it’s interesting because the private sector has always done the majority of the building. So maybe the real question is what is the transition from “formal” to “informal” and back?