Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, billions of people have moved from bucolic country to teeming metropolis? Why would someone uproot his family from a natural farm setting to a cardboard shack in the squalor of a Rio favela or Calcutta slum?
The numbers reveal much about the compelling lure of the city. Refugee crises involve millions, but this greatest of demographic trends involves billions. Many are driven to cities for refuge. A Rwandan friend fled his country for the South B slum in Nairobi. From there he eventually made his way to the U.S., where he now lives a life of wealth and opportunity unimaginable to the people he grew up with.
But most of these billions move to the slums by choice. When I visited the South B slum in Nairobi last year I was surprised how orderly things were. I expected the smell of raw sewage, but I only encountered strong whiffs of it when I walked along the slick mud slopes of the Nairobi “River” (something we’d deem a stream). In South B you could get pretty much anything you need, including cell phones, the latest electronics, TVs, Internet connections, business services, fresh produce, clothing both traditional and hip, music, hair stylings and beauty treatments.
As I walked the narrow pedestrian alleys that penetrate every corner of South B I heard children singing and reciting lessons in their classrooms. Though super-densely peopled, South B is quite domesticated. Many the dwellings had concrete foundations and sturdy walls and roofs made of corrugated steel. Heavily laden clotheslines snaked through the alleys and, just above that, power lines. No need for phone lines in this age of ubiquitous cell service.
So if you live in a developing country and want access to water, education, health services, and other mod-cons, the city’s the place to be, even if it means living in a slum. To our rich sensibilities, the slums seem squalid and claustrophobic, but to new arrivals, the slums–and the nearby modern city centers–teem with possibility and opportunity: work, education, health care, goods, entertainment, and participation in the wide world.