An intimate group of geographers assembled at a roundtable at University College London on Thursday, to celebrate the career of retiring Professor of Geography, Alan Gilbert.
Gilbert is a leading light in a British tradition of geographers studying urban poverty and housing policy throughout the developing world. Two of the academics advising The Global Urbanist studied under him early in their careers, as I and my fellow editors did under them, and I was proud to sit amongst this group and feel a part of this lineage.
Specialising in the world's most urbanised region, Latin America, Gilbert pioneered a methodological and critical approach to urban development that continues to define the field, which Sylvia Chant neatly summarised. Gilbert's work focused on "field-based, people-centred research" — interviews, case studies, detailed surveys — and extensive "comparative research within and between countries". This depth and breadth of empirical knowledge made him "a breaker of myths, received wisdoms and stereotypes".
He is well regarded for his critique of Hernando de Soto, the Peruvian author of The Mystery of Capital, popular in US foreign policy circles, who promotes the provision of formal property titles to the poor. De Soto argues that informal settlers are trapped within poverty because unlike residents of formal housing, they cannot borrow against their homes to fund new businesses and investments.
Gilbert showed that the poor have always found ways to borrow against their homes, albeit expensively, and that even when formal titles are provided, they rarely have better access to formal lending than before, making the exercise futile. The titling programmes are also extremely costly and complicated to perform, wasting resources and distracting governments from the hard task of improving the physical quality of housing and sanitation.
The dangerous rhetoric of a world 'without slums'
Lately Gilbert has worried that the word 'slum' has returned to public debate with ugly connotations that jeopardise the security of the urban poor.
In 1999, the World Bank and UN-HABITAT created the Cities Alliance, with the slogan 'cities without slums'. The suggestion is that 'slums' are an aberration on otherwise 'normal' cities — a disease that can and should be 'eradicated'. Governments such as Kumasi in Ghana use the rhetoric of 'cities without slums' to justify demolishing whole neighbourhoods without concern for the thousands made homeless as a result.
Western minds are susceptible to the word's rhetorical power as well. Deborah Potts, chronicler of Operation Murambatsvina, who spoke at the roundtable, is ashamed that when Robert Mugabe's government destroyed the shacks of 700,000 Zimbabweans, the international press were most concerned that formal housing had been demolished "as well".
The media attitude seemed to be that while demolishing 'slum' housing was regrettable, it was somehow more acceptable than demolishing formal housing. Those reports failed to understand that there was little meaningful distinction between 'legal' and 'illegal' housing in Zimbabwe, and that the real tragedy was the wave of homelessness and poverty suffered by 'formal' and 'informal' residents alike.
Another great danger is that the wide variety of developmental problems suffered by the urban poor in different regions are obscured by the single stereotypical image of the 'slum'. The word takes focus away from, for example, poor residents of formal tenement buildings, renters and lodgers in formal houses, residents whose housing is adequate but whose sanitation is not, and vice versa. Many 'slums' are well-established neighbourhoods that need nothing more than targeted economic growth, rather than the utopic transformation that 'cities without slums' suggests.
The reality is that slum areas and other expressions of urban poverty are always symptoms of broader economic failures within cities, and these must be addressed structurally before inadequate housing and sanitation can become a thing of the past.
Looking back, looking forward
After many warm statements from colleagues and protégés, Gilbert responded with a modest address he entitled "Regrets: I have a few".
He felt that he had "not convinced the British that Latin America is a place of interest for anything other than samba and football," that it is a place of intellectual and policy interest, rather than a holiday destination.
He regretted that he could never convince Latin American leaders to look beyond the US, the UK and the Netherlands for inspiration, or Brazilian leaders to look to their hispanophone neighbours, or South Africa to look to Latin America and South Asia. Developing-country leaders didn't appreciate how much they had to learn from each other, he thought, instead of always emulating the policies of wealthy nations.
And he had failed to convince leaders anywhere to consider real rental policy. Switzerland has two of the world's most liveable cities — Geneva and Zurich — yet neither of them are cities of home owners, with ownership rates below 40 per cent. Why then do leaders in Latin America and UK alike push so many residents towards ownership and indebtedness?
Gilbert had advice for the new generation of researchers. The young must read more of previous generations, lest old flawed policies are reinvented with new zeal. He said as much when I first met him last year, sending me off from his office with a list of books from the 1970s to correct my simplistic thoughts on marginality!
Unlike astrophysics and genetics, there are perhaps few real breakthroughs possible in the social sciences, he opined, "unless someone reinvents Keynes, or Milton Friedman". And with the rise of private research undertaken by finance institutions and large NGOs like Oxfam, the geographer must go beyond policy-focused investigations to specialise in longitudinal and comparative research, placing policy debates in context of space and time. At the same time, academics must engage more with politics, to influence policy for the better.
I have my own concerns. While the tradition Gilbert pioneered has changed how we understand urban poverty, I believe it has not fully explained how poverty is embedded in the broader economic dynamics of developing cities. It has not engaged deeply with local economic development, with transport and mobility, nor with urban affluence, the formal economy and the real estate sector. And I don't believe we will see an end to urban poverty until it does.
I think the rhetoric of 'cities without slums' comes partly from this tendency to study housing policy independently of broader economic policy. Nevertheless this is the challenge for my generation, not his, and I look forward to extending the frontiers of this tradition, in keeping with Gilbert's informed scepticism, empirical rigour and sense of history.