Thursday, September 11, 2014

Should Europe's city planners build slums?

When I was walking around Milan last weekend, I saw many homeless people.  Several parks that I walked through had a substantial number of park benches taken by sleeping men.  On some of the big avenues, others sat or slept next to a few bags of belongings. Kind of a buzzkill for the Ferrari show rooms or designer stores.

In Dhaka, we rarely talk about homeless people.  There are beggars, but there’s an assumption that they live somewhere.  We talk about “pavement/street dwellers” and even “railroad platform dwellers”, which if you think about it, is pretty much the same as calling someone a “park bench dweller.”  I’m not sure if the problem itself is different—recently brac started centers for street children to get a warm meal and a safe place to stay, which sounds a lot like a homeless shelter—but the way it’s approached is different.

Maybe part of the problem is that in wealthier cities, the available housing options are not low-end enough.  Dhaka’s creative residents have built options that start at the ground level and go up incrementally, to a plastic sheet over your head, to a plastic tent-like structure, to using cardboard and bamboo, to tin, to having a cement floor, brick base, and so on.  I doubt that the police and city officials across America or Europe would stand for this--they would clearly prohibit these types of houses and force people to go elsewhere, wherever that may be.  Park benches and sidewalks on busy avenues, perhaps.  Slums have plenty of problems, but they provide a foundation for many to start working their way up.  

Should Milan think about developing some slums to get people off the streets? 

For more thoughts on how we need to shift our thinking on urban design, especially to tackle the growing challenges posed by "mega-cities," check out the great, recent piece "Welcome to the billion man slum" by Joel Kotkin.