In the populous countries of the developing world, people have been flocking from rural areas to cities for decades, and the pace continues to quicken as drought, conflict and economic collapse make living in the country less supportable.

Most poor families move into cities or on their outskirts because such locations offer more possibilities for income where wealth is being created and resources are being used, provided and discarded. Slums surround most cities in the southern hemisphere today and, though it would be wrong to claim that slum living is a good end for anyone’s life, some studies are finding threads of a silver lining in the innovative ways that people adapt to their self-made communities.

Stewart Brand has, for years, reminded us of this “major demographic event” as what he calls “squatter cities” formed as villages of the world empty out. Here’s his typically pithy TED conference presentation on the subject. In an essay written for the Long Now Foundation, which he founded, Stewart wrote:

Speed of urban development is not necessarily bad. Many people deplored the huge Levittown tracts when they were created in the ’40s and ’50s, but they turned out to be tremendously adaptive and quickly adopted a local identity, with every house becoming different. The form of housing that resists local identity is gated communities, with their fierce regulations prohibiting anything interesting being done by home owners that might affect real estate value for the neighbors (no laundry drying outside!). If you want a new community to express local life and have deep adaptivity, emphasize the houses becoming homes rather than speculative real estate.

Squatters – largely because they have no choice – have much to teach us about adaptive community. Though we probably won’t find ourselves desperately constructing settlements out of the discarded junk of affluence, we may very well be innovating new ways of collaboration and building to fit our changing circumstances.

Some quotes from an article in the Boston Globe, titled Learning from Slums:

Some frustrating parts of slum life – the close quarters and the need to cooperate with neighbors in endeavors like obtaining services – have an upside: they can contribute to a strong sense of community.

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There is an ethos of self-reliance in communities independently built and continually rebuilt by their residents.

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Meanwhile, some observers in the developed world have been asking, what if the laudable aspects of these informal communities could be disentangled from the unfortunate parts? To build housing for low-income people, [architect and professor at UC San Diego, Teddy] Cruz has drawn inspiration from Tijuana shantytowns for developments in Southern California, and is currently working on the one in Hudson. It will include communal porches and terraces, and spaces meant to encourage small start-up businesses – for example, providing room to store sewing machines. The intention is to integrate a poorer immigrant population into the area by creating openings for a community to evolve. He calls his vision “club sandwich urbanism – layering. It occurs through time. Our planning institutions never think about time.”

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Cruz and [author of "Shadow Cities: a Billion Squatters, a New Urban World," Robert] Neuwirth say we can also learn from the spirit of collaboration in informal settlements, and their ingenuity in the use of space. Their richness suggests to some that the dominant American mode of living, for all its suburban comforts, has come at a price. Municipalities might want to reconsider zoning laws to allow residences to double as businesses, says Cruz: he imagines small enterprises being run out of garages. In Werthmann’s view, we might also emulate the low-rise, high-density model, which is conducive to neighborliness and requires no elevators.