Spontaneous communities

October 6, 2005 | Homes, Informal, Land use, Primer posts, Slums

What should we call neighborhoods of self-built homes?


“Well, it was a hole in the ground cuvvered wi’ a sheet o’ tarpaulin, but it was a house to us.”

Rich Yorkshireman, reminiscing over a glass of Chateau La Chassela.


Use and invention always precede standardization and regulation, and so before there was zoning, there were homes.  But the law is absolute unto itself, like mathematics, and lawyers and accountants are Newtonian fanatics in pursuit of perfect standardization.  So as we civilized, we documented — the Pharaonic tombs are decorated with scenes of tribute to the Pharaoh or to the gods. 


Thoth, the god of scribes, writing, and knowledge


In between the supplicant and his idol is the scribe, counting the number of wheat sheaves, cattle, severed hands, and slaughtered male members, because all of these have meaning only when recorded, when counted, when acknowledged.


Settlement preceded towns, and towns preceded zoning, but in the modern world where every plot of land is bespoken, and even the cubic spaces above the land may be bounded and divided and owned, we have a tendency to presume that the writing is the object, and without the writing the object is illegitimate.  So the words we use to describe the dwellings form a grid or reference frame. 


What then are the neighborhoods of self-built homes?


·         Squatter camps.  We hear squatter camps comprised of squatter shacks.  In that word ‘squat’ we have the presumption of intrusion, of unauthorized occupation, adverse possession — a sense, in short, that before their arrival the land was pristine, and here sat the interloper, and camped.  As in temporary, makeshift, known by all to be a blemish to be removed at some happier future time.


·         Shantytowns.  Better, in that it adds the word town and so implies something of a community.  But shanty still emphasizes impermanence, and highly inferior quality.


·         Informal settlements.  The term most favored by reform-minded policy bodies, multilaterals, and parastatals, as it acknowledges that there is indeed a settlement.  And ‘informal’ has been consciously chosen to be a distinction without imposing a pejorative judgment.  It does invite, or at least anticipate, that an improved condition – formalization — awaits, and in this it expresses a wish that the place change. 


That’s good, and reasonably fair, but at the same time it still defines the settlement by what it is not (formal) rather than by what it is (a community!).


Is that housing going or coming?

Which is why I like this term:


·         Spontaneous communities.  At last we have a term that captures what has happened here.  Before, no one lived in the place, and yet a community sprung up spontaneously.  Indeed, such communities spring up, unstoppably, anywhere human beings can make a living nearby.  Along the Nile banks, the living was agriculture, and even today the homes abut the sugar cane fields.


Hamlet alongside the Nile, somewhere south of Luxor, Upper Egypt


Today’s fertile soils are the cities, where money is made, but the principle is the same.  From Harare to Kibera to Soweto, the spontaneous settlements form.  They become communities, with their own internal rules of law and order.  Perhaps not the ones we would impose, not the ones we would endorse, but an order that is at least established and understood.  (I’m not defending such orders, merely observing they exist and are better than anarchy.)




I write this from a cruise boat paddling up the Nile from modern Luxor (ancient Thebes), with unzoned, unfinished, and informal homes on either side, communities that have probably been ‘informally’ located here for five thousand years.

0069 Eg Cairo rent control occupied 050710 

Downtown Cairo: this is what fifty years of confiscatory rent control does to property


These homes are here — mud walls and satellite dishes — because the sugar cane and corn are here.  It was on the Nile’s banks that people ceased being scavengers and became farmers, millers, builders, scribes, lawyers, accountants, and even affordable housing consultants.  All of us came from a civilization that itself arose as a spontaneous community.