Unsettling the slums

As the teeming cities of the developing world increasingly exclude their slum-dwellers, John Gravois reports from Phnom Penh, where a new prosperity is transforming what was once a city of squatters.

As the teeming cities of the developing world increasingly exclude their slum-dwellers,

John Gravois

reports from Phnom Penh, where a new prosperity is transforming what was once a city of squatters.

The other kids from the relocation site were setting fire to the rice fields again. Sous Srey Khuoch, a brooding 15-year old, watched from the seat of her bicycle, parked on the edge of the low concrete settlement 20 kilometres outside of Phnom Penh, at the spot where the streets dead-ended and the farmland resumed. Curlicues of dark ash blew in, swirled and collected around her bicycle tyres. It was a typical afternoon in late January - the Cambodian dry season had supplied another washed-out blue sky, another steady breeze. The plonking, elliptical music of a funeral ceremony carried in from somewhere across the farms, while the vandals' handiwork sent a thin white smoke over the fields.

Srey Khuoch understood the impulse. Slouching on her bike, she peered out from under the rough edges of a shaggy pixie cut, wearing a brown striped hoodie with a v-neck T-shirt. The outfit was dingy but suggested a sense of style mismatched with the countryside - which pretty well summed up how Srey Khuoch felt herself. It had been just over a year since she arrived at this paved-over patch of farmland in a sea of rice paddies and sugar palm trees, along with her family and hundreds of their neighbours. Suffice it to say the move had not been their idea. Since the early 1990s, they had lived in a shanty town that stretched - via a series of wooden gangways and stilted homes - over the southern end of a large, polluted downtown lake in the capital called Boeung Kak. Then in 2008, a property-development company brought in machinery and started filling the lake with sand.

The government, it turned out, had leased the lake and the territory surrounding it - all publicly owned - to a shadowy, Chinese-backed firm for a term of 99 years, with an official mandate to create "pleasant, trade, and service places for domestic and international tourists". Households living around the water were given the option of taking an $8,500 (Dh31,450) buyout or accepting a replacement house at a semi-rural relocation site called Borey Santepheap II. "City of Peace", the name meant. And sure enough, ever since Srey Khuoch's family had arrived, the peace had been suffocating.

On the crowded, mosquito-infested, haphazard lakefront, Srey Khuoch's family had reliably been able to earn around $5 (Dh18.5) per day as street vendors in an area flush with commerce; some of the city's busiest markets and guest houses were nearby. Srey Khuoch attended school with kids from all strata of Phnom Penh society, and she could work for the family business when money was short. Her friends were all close by; they played around the lake and danced together on the gangways.

Here the houses were made of whitewashed brick and the air was clean, but everyone was broke. Business was all supply and no demand. Her parents were lucky if they could earn half as much selling sweet noodles as they did in the city, and commuting was no solution - the daily cost of transport to Phnom Penh cancelled out most of what they could earn there. So the family slid into debt. There wasn't enough business to keep Srey Khuoch occupied, and, worse, there wasn't enough money to send her to school. After a year on its outskirts, she hadn't once gone back to Phnom Penh; 20 kilometres might as well have been 200. Meanwhile, life on the relocation site was a mix of tedium and anxiety.

Boredom had reached epidemic proportions at Borey Santepheap II. Occasionally, missionaries would drive past the long rows of one-room terraced houses in a white 4x4 with a loudspeaker mounted to its roof, broadcasting a squawky Christian evangelical message in Khmer. When they distributed wallet-sized comic books about the life of Jesus, kids all over the settlement could be seen poring over them for the next hour. Hence the burning fields: for kids accustomed to the stimulations and industry of slum life, petty arson was one of the few entertainments the countryside offered this time of year.

Srey Khuoch got off her bike and and threw a few stones hard into the fields. She picked up a piece of clay from the ground and wrote on the white outer wall of a house: "If you don't love me, why do you pity me?" The line came from a song she liked. "I'm so sad. How can I continue?" - she had come up with that one herself. After a while, Srey Khuoch walked over to a nearby window and leaned her face through the bars. The houses in this part of the settlement were still empty - awaiting a new wave of evictees - and when she leaned her face into the bars and sang into the open rooms, it sounded like the reverb at a karaoke parlour in the city.

Back in 1990, before Srey Khuoch was born, her parents moved to the city from a hopeless farm in the provinces, unwitting participants in an unprecedented wave of urbanisation that has swept the developing world. Millions of new migrants poured into teeming African and Asian cities seeking the relative prosperity of employment at the lower rungs of rapidly developing economies. Economic growth in Cambodia, which barely registered in 1990, had reached double-digit rates since Srey Khouch was born. Skyscrapers began to rise; cyclos (rickshaws) gave way to motorcycle taxis, which gave way in turn to tuk-tuks and saloon cars.

Then something happened: a second wave caught Srey Khouch and her family, and suddenly they had washed back up in the countryside along with their neighbours - displaced by the forces of development that once drew them in. This pattern has repeated itself all across the developing world, as the slums that helped to fire the engine of economic growth are replaced with more upscale emblems of progress. For the new residents of Borey Santepheap II, however, progress remains back in Phnom Penh: one by one, the new houses have emptied out as families trickle back into the city, rejoining the still-relentless flow of new migrants from the countryside.

At some point in late 2007 or early 2008, according to UN projections, the balance of the world irreversibly turned on its head: for the first time, more humans lived in cities than outside them. It was, the urban theorist Mike Davis wrote, "a watershed in human history, comparable to the Neolithic or Industrial revolutions". Chances are good that the migrant (or newborn) who tipped humanity into the urban era arrived in a city in Africa or Asia - where breathtaking urban growth has transferred vastly rural populations into some of the densest cities in the world. The icon of this growth, however, is not the skyscraper or the shopping mall: it is the shanty town. By 2030 some two billion people will live in the urban informal settlements we call slums, and most of this growth is taking place not in "megacities" like Mumbai and São Paulo but in small and medium-sized places more like Phnom Penh.

This human torrent has had a mesmerizing effect on observers in the West: some see shades of the apocalypse in the rise of precarious, poisonous megacities, while others see an almost sanctified drive and entrepreneurialism waiting to be unlocked in the vast urban informal sector. An unknown future is being wrought under a billion faraway zinc roofs. Large informal settlements go hand in hand with the rapid development of cities. They filled lower Mannhattan in the 1850s. They dominated East London during the industrial revolution. During the American Gold Rush, San Francisco metamorphosed virtually overnight from a small coastal town into a metropolis overrun with tents and shanties, where gun battles over land erupted between the original owners and the newcomers.

In this regard the ongoing struggle for land in Phnom Penh is no different from in hundreds of other cities, but for one crucial fact: 30 years ago, every man, woman and child in town was essentially a squatter. When the Khmer Rouge seized the Cambodian capital on April 17, 1975, its first move was to summarily empty the city of its inhabitants at gunpoint. Over the next four years, as Cambodia suffered through one of the 20th century's most depraved experiments in communist social engineering, the capital remained a virtual ghost town. Nearly two million people - 10 per cent of the population - perished under the regime's misrule, but city-dwellers took pride of place among its enemies; some estimates suggest 80 per cent of Phnom Penh's former inhabitants were killed.

When the Khmer Rouge fell to the Vietnamese army in 1979, Phnom Penh lurched back to life. From the countryside, a dazed, starved and stressed population began gradually seeping into the city limits; the re-urbanization of Cambodia had begun. Faced with administering the wretched transition, the Vietnamese made a bold, perhaps brilliant move: they rendered all prior property claims in the city null and void. Functionaries of the new state were given first dibs on housing, but the rest of Phnom Penh was opened up for settlement on a "first-come, first-serve" basis. All property still technically belonged to the state; real estate transactions were illegal.

This period of "spontaneous resettlement" produced an otherworldly urban landscape. What qualified as a dwelling was left up to the imagination; the city essentially presented a set of containers and surfaces. And so, for example, more than 15,000 people across Phnom Penh still live on rooftops; the largest such settlement, called Bloc Tanpa, was home to more than 1,000 people, who lived in a dense shantytown atop a single apartment building until it was destroyed by a fire in 2002. The rooftop - located just a few blocks from the city's Central Market - boasted its own local government, schools and a village square, all connected to the street below by a single dingy stairwell.

In the northern part of the city, an old French colonial church initially served as an orphanage for children whose families had died in the genocide. As the children grew up, their rows of mosquito-netted beds gave way to wooden partitions and then to brick walls. Now the interior of the church is filled with single-family homes, one of them a prim two-storey structure with glass double doors. Not far away, an ornate century-old Chinese Buddhist pagoda looks as if it is wading through a sea of zinc-roofed homes - built by people who took shelter under the open-air pavilion after the Khmer Rouge fell. And perhaps most strikingly, in the centre of town, a defunct movie theatre harbors a village of 100 families.

The vast majority of Phnom Penh's urban poor arrived after those unorthodox spaces in the city centre were already full. The latecomers settled into the kinds of urban interstices that have become a kind of global standard for squatters: on public land along railway tracks, along river banks, in areas prone to floods. Around Boeung Kak lake, where Srey Khouch's family lived, new shanties clustered slowly in the 1980s and multiplied rapidly in the 1990s. Land prices surged after the introduction of private property in 1989, and the struggle for territory escalated accordingly; Somithearith Din, the head of UN-Habitat's office in Phnom Penh, remembers gun battles between settlers and police over the Boeung Kak waterfront land.

In the absence of both urban planning and a functioning real estate market, Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge became a kind of uncontrolled laboratory for informal settlement. At the cinema - called Hemak Cheat - rows of shacks line the floor and stage of a former single-screen auditorium. One of its high walls is dramatically corroding from the steady flow of tik s'oeuy - literally, "dirty water", or raw sewage - cascading down from another settlement on the roof. Hundreds of bats squeal constantly overhead, and the residents share the space with a large pile of their own garbage. Darkness is permanent, and the cobwebbed shacks sag and lean like laundry. The cinema is among the most squalid settings in the city, but its residents are in no hurry to leave: positioned a few short blocks from the city's posh riverfront area and its Central Market, they live in a land of opportunity for scavengers, cyclo drivers, fruit sellers, waiters, dishwashers and beggars.

For the urban poor, property takes a back seat to proximity: when I visited the cinema several years ago, people were quick to point out the advantages of their location. "Here it's difficult to live but easier to make a living," said Ros Sarom, a 38-year old former soldier. His neighbour, a woman named Chem Saroeun, tending a charcoal brazier nearby, agreed: "If you miss a meal in the countryside, you can't even borrow from someone else, because they're poor as well. Here, if we miss a meal, we can just go downstairs and pick up some beer cans and sell them. We can make a living even from that." These weren't idle speculations: they were contemplating the downside to suburban living because they had just been served with notice of their own pending relocation.

When I returned to Phnom Penh this January, Hemak Cheat was still there: the cinema itself was largely unchanged, if a little more dilapidated. But what did seem different was its reputation in a city that was growing slowly more prosperous. When I mentioned Hemak Cheat to friends in Phnom Penh, they knew it only as a haven for drug addicts. The new stigma wasn't lost on the cinema's residents: "People outside," a woman named Srey Sophon said, "think of us as bad people."

This disdain for slum-dwellers is nothing new: the urban migrations that transformed England and America in the 19th and early 20th centuries unleashed repeated bouts of paranoid hostility. "Who can wonder that every evil flourishes in such hotbeds of vice and disease?" the British Congregationalist minister WC Preston wrote in an 1883 pamphlet called The Bitter Cry of Outcast London. "The low parts of London are the sink into which the filthy and abominable from all parts of the country seem to flow."

Such sentiments have come late to Phnom Penh, riding a new tide of economic growth and the recent emergence of a stable middle class. For decades, Cambodia's instability kept its economy lagging behind that of its neighbours in Southeast Asia. When I lived in Phnom Penh ten years ago, there were no ATM machines, and the country's tallest building was a 15-floor hotel. Today Cambodia is building its own stock exchange, to be located in a new development outside Phnom Penh whose renderings show a half-moon shaped array of structures on a waterfront, with a man-made island and a few Dubai-style angular high-rises. Meanwhile, in the centre of town, construction is underway on the city's first skyscraper, a twinned pair of towers the colour of gold ingots. Until the financial crisis, Cambodian economic growth exceeded 10 per cent for three years - and lured thousands of people into cities like Phnom Penh. But the crest of that development - and the consequent boom in real-estate speculation - has driven prices up and migrants back out.

The denizens of the Hemak Cheat cinema remain among the estimated 70,000 people in Phnom Penh living under a hanging threat of eviction. Cambodian human-rights groups say about 140,000 residents of the city - about 11 per cent of the population - have been evicted since 1990, most of them during the fast times of the past few years. David Pred, the head of a Cambodian NGO, described "forced displacement" as the country's "most pervasive human rights issue". Others have been more forceful: when the 4,000 families living around Boeung Kak lake - Srey Khouch's among them - were threatened with eviction in 2008, an Amnesty International official observed that the move "would be the most large-scale displacement of Cambodians since the time of the Khmer Rouge."

"I heard on the radio that the area will have a university, a hospital, hotel, flats, playgrounds and a supermarket," said Ou Lon, a 58-year old motorcycle-taxi driver with a toothy grin. He was squatting leisurely next to a railway track one recent afternoon, looking out over Boeung Kak lake. Most of the waterfront was still lined with a necklace of wood-and-tin homes, but the lake's southern bank - where Sous Srey Khuoch and her family once lived - had been replaced by a wide apron of blank sand.

To prevent settlers from re-invading the lakefront, the developers had hired security crews - men with walkie-talkies and crisp blue uniforms - to police the site. "We see guards every day patrolling the sand," said Ou, pointing toward at an officious blue speck in the distance. "When we're washing and drying our shirts, they won't even allow us to put up a clothesline." Ou lived along the railway tracks hugging the lakeshore, which were densely lined with small, self-built wooden homes. Kids played with fireworks on the sand out in front of us; women walked by with baskets full of snacks for sale; and two men nearby sat at a low table stradding the railway tracks, playing a game of chess. Ou surveyed the scene dispassionately. "All of us will be evicted," he said. "It's the plan."

A growing trove of research shows that slums, shanty towns and squatter settlements are not what the middle classes think they are. The urban poor are a vital, if fragile, feature of burgeoning urban economies - but as cities in the developing world continue to grow at breathtaking speed, local elites still regard the slums as an uncomfortable reminder of the poverty and underdevelopment of the past.

Geoffrey Payne, a prominent British urban development consultant, told me about a meeting he had with a senior Bangladeshi official to discuss housing policies in Dhaka not long ago. When Payne presented the case for consulting with slum dwellers rather than evicting them - listening to their infrastructure needs, and introducing basic municipal sanitation and services as well as some guarantee of secure tenure over their land - the official quickly grew impatient. "The basic trouble," he replied, "is that if we help the poor in urban areas we'll only attract more of them."

The cities of the developed world have their own long history of slum clearances, botched relocations and forced evictions - but the scale of today's urban growth may punish such mistakes more harshly. As Mike Davis points out, "London in 1910 was seven times larger than it had been in 1800, but Dhaka, Kinshasa and Lagos today are each approximately 40 times larger than they were in 1950." The current population of the Jakarta metropolitan area is larger than that of the world at the time of the French Revolution. A wave of humanity this large cannot be excluded forever, and the future of the developing world may depend on whether its cities make peace with the slums in their midst.

After a while, Srey Khuoch flipped the hood of her sweatshirt over her head, maneuvered her bicycle around to face the relocation site and began wheeling it back home. The settlement was a giant concrete pad the size of a few farmers' fields, with parallel recessed gutters describing the grid of streets. Each row of terraced houses was faced with an uninterrupted curtain of metal accordion doors.

Srey Khuoch's family had built a kind of antechamber in front of their house, made out of spindly, irregular bamboo latticework - a touch of the shantytown on the monotonous relocation site. That seemed to be where they spent most of their time. The interior of the unit had gleaming tile floors and just a few pieces of furniture, plus a TV, pushed against the back wall. Srey Khuoch went inside and started watching a Taiwanese programme dubbed in Khmer.

"I miss it too," said her mother when the subject of Phnom Penh came up. I asked her if they had contemplated returning. "We want to," she said, "but we don't know how to find a place to live. In 1990, it was easier." Now Phnom Penh was beyond capacity. Nonetheless, she estimated that more than half of the families who had relocated with them had cut their losses and gone back. And sure enough, walking through the rest of the settlement, I passed areas where it seemed virtually every other house was vacant. "They went back to Phnom Penh!" shouted a woman who was washing some cabbage under her awning, when she saw me peering into a unit across the street.

I went over to talk to her, and after a few minutes her husband rode up on his motorbike. Like many men at the site, Thol Poe had been a motorcycle-taxi driver in Phnom Penh. He was trying to continue the same work here, with little success. Leaning on his bike, he reported his earnings: "Today, nothing." So it was surprising when he said he preferred life on the relocation site; in fact, he was the only person I met there who said so. A tired-looking man in a baseball cap that said "Cosmic", Thol liked the clean streets and white houses. "It was a very bad environment in Boeung Kak," he said. "Here, there's a truck that takes away the rubbish."

But the comfort of a proper home would not suffice to keep him there. Finding a way to make money remained a daunting challenge, and he didn't have much of an idea about how to do it. Nevertheless, it is true that for a few, even a jarring relocation can work out well. In a programme presided over by Sanjay Gandhi in New Delhi in the mid-1970s, hundreds of thousands of inner-city squatters were evicted and placed in relocation colonies well outside of town. Inevitably, a huge number of them drifted back into the city for lack of work and squatted again where they could find purchase. But for those who could afford to weather life out on the relocation colony - withstanding the high transportation costs and the limited job opportunities - the future did not turn out to be so bleak. Slowly but surely, as more and more Indians drifted into Delhi, the city drifted outward to the colonies. Thirty-five years later, those relocation sites - near Qutb Minar on the south side of town - are located in an inner suburb of Delhi's megacity, and their property values are significant.

So if Thol can somehow manage to make ends meet and secure his property, he may eventually prosper. All he needs is to survive, and for the city - as it surely, inexorably will - to keep expanding. John Gravois is a senior editor at The Review.