Earlier this year, the UK-based Prospect magazine featured an article by Stewart Brand (publisher of the Whole Earth Catalogue) entitled “How slums can save the planet”.

The article looks at lessons that can be learned from the organic arrangement and efficient reuse of slums, as well as making the controversial claim that cities are the actually green. As architect Peter Calthorpe suggests:

“The city is the most environmentally benign form of human settlement. Each city dweller consumes less land, less energy, less water, and produces less pollution than his counterpart in settlements of lower densities.”

It’s an interesting polemic to conventional wisdom, although it is hard to know how much it relies on ignoring the rural and overseas industries working to provide for the cities.

For slums in particular, there are some green practices imposed by needs:

Squatter cities are also unexpectedly green. They have maximum density—1m people per square mile in some areas of Mumbai—and have minimum energy and material use. People get around by foot, bicycle, rickshaw, or the universal shared taxi.

and

…in most slums recycling is literally a way of life. The Dharavi slum in Mumbai has 400 recycling units and 30,000 ragpickers. Six thousand tons of rubbish are sorted every day.

As some of the post comments point out, Brand has a particularly romantic idea of the transformative element of living in the cities. While he acknowledges that cities “concentrate crime, pollution, disease and injustice as much as business, innovation, education and entertainment”, he also sees new residents as naturally “progress[ing] from hick to metropolitan to cosmopolitan”, with everything that entails.

If nothing else, it is an interesting call to investigate City Planning practices against spaces defined by a lack of planning. But as always a system that develops as highly responsive to specific needs – such as a shanty town – may have difficulty incorporating less immediate needs such as protection from Earthquake or fire risk.