New Hope for Slums

by Jiawen Fang, China, ELP 2014
Written on July 25, 2014.

 
I am really surprised and excited after Ananya Roy’s lecture Urban Planning for Sustainable Development. The ideas of regarding slums as a place with socio-economic dynamic just resonated for me, and helped me to deepen my thoughts over this issue.

World-class city VS Slums
The relationship between the elite people who enjoy the benefits of the world-class city and poor people in slums are very complicated, with conflicts and dependence. On the one hand, these two groups share informality/illegality. Extravagant resorts or golf courses sprawl to the rural areas, occupying farm lands illegally, so the farmers are forced to be packed in a small space without any infrastructure and public service. On the other hand, the elite people in the world-class cities want to clear out the slums because of its bad effect on the city’s image and security, but actually, the city is built by the poor people in slums. There is a great example in Beijing, which I have done a research in. There are many golf courses located in the northwest of Beijing. These golf courses illegally occupy a large area of land and resources, pushing farmers packed in slums (see in Fig. 1). The owners of the golf courses tried to clear the nearby slums, but the construction of the courses relies on the cheap labors living in slums. The paradox there shows the inequity of the poor and the rich, and that is why world-class cities cannot really solve the problem of slums. Our planning is always driven by money and power so we see this world from the perspective of elite people.

Rethink slums as a new economic center
In fact, slums are places with wisdom and creativity. People living in slums build houses and infrastructure all on their own. The “design” of the house and the wisdom of making spaces in full use are just amazing. When we did field research in the slum in Beijing, we got a lot of inspiration from it. To our surprise, people in the slum, or to be accurate, the village in the city, do not only just live for survival, but they enjoy life! For example, the porch is covered with fur, like a bear’s, as a shelter. The yard is decorated in a mixed Chinese and Greek style. In the place with narrow road and high buildings, there are bridges connecting the both sides (see Fig. 2).

In China, many people living in slums are actually civilized immigrants from other cities. They have the competence and the wisdom to increase the development of the slum, but there is no reliable organization. In Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, there is a slum called Dafen Village, which is revitalized to be an art village, specializing in the making of large numbers of replicas of oil paintings by masters such as Van Gogh, Dalí, da Vinci, Rembrandt or Warhol. These replicas were sold in many countries for relatively low prices. The endeavor was quite successful and the demand for replicas increased. In order to fulfill the demand, more and more artists took up residence and started to make a living, the estimate (2006) being in the thousands. Some of the artists started to make originals in the latest two years. And now, the whole village is much more like an art gallery rather than a slum (see Fig. 3). The success of Dafen Art Village shows the possibility of revitalizing slums to be dynamic economic centers. Usually, slums start their own community-based economy with art because the atmosphere of slums usually attract people who are kind of crazy and sensitive to creativity in life.

I believe that slums will be where creative economy grows, giving light to urban development.

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