Thursday, March 10, 2011

Are shantytowns a normal form of urban residence?

People’s views of shantytowns—areas of informal settlement, often by squatters—have varied greatly over the years. Squatters settlements appeared almost overnight around many cities in the developing world in the mid-twentieth century, due to population growth, poverty, and inadequate construction industries. The early reactions were negative: these were seen as chaotic places of high crime and social breakdown. Then fieldwork by anthropologists who lived in these settlements painted a different story: people built their own houses and they worked hard in order to get ahead in the world; crime was low, and family organization remained strong. Although poverty and employment were and are real problems, many scholars and observers came to have a more positive view of shantytowns (Turner 1991).

Although a more positive or tolerant view of shantytowns and their inhabitants became common, many observers still saw the informal and unplanned nature of these settlements as an aberration. In Latin America, for example, Spanish colonial cities had highly planned, rigid, grid layouts, and these created the urban structure for modern city form and expansion. But then came the messy shantytowns. These were seen as a modern development whose lack of planning and organization was attributed to poverty and other forces of the modern world. Traditional cities are well planned, according to the orthodox view, and shantytowns are a chaotic deviation from that pattern.

Some urban scholars, however, pointed out that shantytowns are actually quite an ancient form of urban settlement. The great Argentine urban historian Jorge Hardoy (1982) was the first to suggest this idea, which was then taken up by architectural historians Peter Kellett and Mark Napier (1995), who noted that “The phenomenon of informal urban housing is  not new. Throughout history, the poor have constructed their dwellings around the urban centers of the rich and powerful” (p.8). In his book  Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, Robert Neuwirth (2004) goes even further: “the history of cities teaches that squatters have always been around, that squatting was the way poor built homes, that it is a form of urban development (p.179).
Hattusas, Turkey: informal housing next to a temple.

My research on ancient cities bears these ideas out. Some ancient cities did have carefully planned orthogonal layouts of their residential zones (particularly Greek and Roman cities, or places like Teotihuacan), but in many more cities, housing was uneven and informal. Here are four examples of this, two from the Old World and two from the New World. The ancient Hittite capital Hattusas (in Turkey) was laid out on a mountainside. Next to a temple compound are a series of irregular house foundations (in the area circled in red in the photo). The contrast with the much more regular layout of the temple is striking. (Bryce 2002; Neve 1996).
Tell Asmar, and early Mesopotamian city

Moving back in time to ancient Mesopotamia, the birthplace of the Urban Revolution, most commoner housing at these cities is densely packed and irregular in size and layout. Tell Asmar is fairly typical. It looks like individual families built their own houses without much planning or direction from city authorities. (Hill 1967; Ur n.d.)

Chan Chan, Peru.
This kind of urban informal housing is the dominant form at most of the ancient cities in the New World. Chan Chan, the huge capital of the pre-Inka Chimor Empire on the coast of Peru, contains ten large walled royal compounds. Outside of these, informal housing was thrown up, often against the outer wall of the compound. (Moseley and Mackey 1974; Topic 1982)

And finally, the scattered nature of housing at Classic Maya cities provides a strong contrast to the carefully planned pyramids and palaces of the city centers. At Copan in Honduras, the huge Acropolis was the center of government and state ritual, and the nearby housing shows an informal pattern. Now some of my Mayanist colleagues may object to calling Maya cities shantytowns. After all, the Mayas were the "Greeks of the New World," a people with advanced intellectual and aesthetic abilities. That may be, but these were self-built, unplanned and informal neighborhoods, clustered around the city center. This sounds like a
Copan: informal housing adjacent to the royal acropolis.
shantytown to me. (Andrews and Fash 2005; Webster et al. 2000).

Unfortunately, archaeologists have been slow to analyze ancient urban housing, and comparisons with modern shantytowns are in their infancy; I discuss the situation in Smith (2010). But it is clear to me that Hardoy and the other scholars quoted above are correct that shantytowns or squatters settlements were important parts of the urban landscape in ancient times. They pre-dated the carefully planned orthogonal housing of the Greeks and Romans, and so perhaps we can call shantytowns "a normal form of urban residence." They are certainly a big part of the wide urban world.


Andrews, E. Wyllys IV and William L. Fash (editors)
2005    Copán: The History of an Ancient Maya Kingdom. SAR Press, Santa Fe.

Bryce, Trevor R.
2002    Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hardoy, Jorge E.
1982    The Building of Latin American Cities. In Urbanisation in Contemporary Latin America: Critical Approaches to the Analysis of Urban Issues, edited by Alan G. Gilbert, pp. 19-34. Wiley, London.

Hill, Harold P.
1967    Tell Asmar: The Private Home Area. In Private Houses and Graves in the Diyala Region, edited by Pinhas Delougaz, Harold P. Hill, and Seton Lloyd, pp. 143-181. Oriental Institute Publication, vol. 88. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Kellett, Peter and Mark Napier
1995    Squatter Architecture? A Critical Examination of Vernacular Theory and Spontaneous Settlement with Reference to South America and South Africa. Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 6(2):7-24.

Moseley, Michael E. and Carol J. Mackey
1974    Twenty-four Architectural Plans of Chan Chan, Peru: Structure and Form at the Capital of Chimor. Peabody Museum Press, Cambridge.

Neuwirth, Robert
2004    Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World. Routledge, New York.

Neve, Peter
1996    Housing in Hattusa, the Capital of the Hittite Kingdom. In Tarihten Günümüze Anadolu'da Konut ve Yerlesme / Housing and Settlement in Anatolia: A Historical Perspective, edited by Yildiz Sey, pp. 99-121. Tarih Vakfi, Istanbul.

Smith, Michael E.
2010    Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20:229-253.

Topic, John
1982    Lower-Class Social and Economic Organization at Chan Chan. In Chan Chan: Andean Desert City, edited by Michael E. Moseley and Kent C. Day, pp. 145-175. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Turner, John F. C.
1991    Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments. Marion Boyars, London.

Ur, Jason
n.d.      Bronze Age Cities of Southern Mesopotamia. In Blackwell Companion to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, edited by D. T. Potts, pp. _____ (in press). Blackwell, Oxford

Webster, David, AnnCorinne Freter, and Nancy Gonlin
2000    Copán: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Maya Kingdom. Case Studies in Archaeology. Harcourt College Publishers, New York.


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  2. Thank you for this very helpful archaeological perspective, which I'm happy to refer to in My research is on the architecture of informal settlement as a source rather than a problem. Perhaps you like to have a look ...

  3. @Syste - Your blog is very interesting. And the photographs are fantastic; they capture relevant themes and features, and are also of high aesthetic quality. Thank you for the link!