Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity

Squatter urbanism comes to America

In previous posts I argued that the only way a modern housing subdivision was possible was by the creation of a permanent, extreme housing crisis by the authorities attempting to control development. Now this housing crisis is catching up with American cities and a phenomenon that was until then limited to dysfunctional third world countries, squatter camps, is popping up all over the country.

From the well-kept interior of the Caros' place, one can hardly see the jagged rows of tents and shanties on the vacant land around them. About 200 people have built informal habitats along the railroad tracks, primarily poor whites and migrant workers from Mexico.

There are many names for this fledgling city, where Old Glory flies from improvised flagpoles and trash heaps rise and fall with the wavering population. To some it's Little Tijuana, but most people call it Taco Flat.

Just to the south, under a freeway overpass, there's another camp of roughly equal size called New Jack City where most of the residents are black. Even more dwellings are scattered throughout the neighborhood nearby, appended to the walls of industrial buildings and rising up the flanks of freeway spurs.

Fresno, which the Brookings Institution ranked in 2005 as the American city with the greatest concentration of poverty, is far from the only place where people are resorting to life in makeshift abodes. Similar encampments are proliferating throughout the West, everywhere from the industrial hub of Ontario, Calif., to the struggling casino district of Reno, Nev., and the upscale suburbs of Washington state.

In any other country, these threadbare villages would be called slums, but in the U.S., the preferred term is tent city, a label that implies that they are just a temporary phenomenon. Many journalists, eager to prove that the country is entering the next Great Depression, blame the emergence of these shantytowns on the economic downturn, calling them products of foreclosures and layoffs.

While there's some truth to this notion, the fact is that these roving, ramshackle neighborhoods were part of the American cityscape long before the stock market nosedived, and they are unlikely to disappear when prosperity returns. The recent decades of real estate speculation and tough-love social policies have cut thousands of people out of the mainstream markets for work and housing, and the existing network of homeless shelters is overburdened and outdated.

People such as the Caros are part of a vanguard that has been in crisis for years, building squatter settlements as a do-or-die alternative to the places that rejected them. This parallel nation, with a population now numbering in the thousands in Fresno alone, was born during the boom times, and it is bound to flourish as the economy falters.

"The chickens are coming home to roost," said Larry Haynes, the executive director of Mercy House, a homeless outreach organization based in Southern California. "What this speaks of is an absolute crisis of affordability and accessibility."


In Fresno and other struggling cities, which perpetually strive to boost tax revenues with development, tent cities are often seen as symbols of criminality and dereliction, glaring setbacks to neighborhood revitalization efforts. That perception is common wherever informal urbanism exists, said Mehrotra, and it often leaves squatter camps on the brink of ruin.

"You are always on the edge of demolition," Mehrotra said. "There's a kind of insecurity in the lack of tenure on the land."

This hit home in Fresno a few years ago, when workers began raiding encampments throughout the city, tearing down makeshift homes and destroying personal property in the process. The city of Fresno and the California Department of Transportation conducted these sweeps in the name of public health, citing citizen complaints about open-air defecation.

Yet the raids did nothing to stop tent cities from forming, and they ultimately led to lawsuits. In October 2006, residents who lost their homes in the raids filed a class-action suit against the city of Fresno and the state of California. A U.S. district judge ordered the defendants to pay $2.3 million in damages.

Tarp Nation - High Country News

The same features that define the process of every squatter town are present. There is the random occupation of land, the lack of any amenities, and of course the police repression that makes it impossible to create a viable economy. As the public authorities run out of money they will have to lighten the repression and the squatter towns will move into the second class, one with fixed buildings and small outlaw businesses that will attract even more of the poor looking for subsistence. They will become America's Dharavis.

Instead of using repression to enforce a planning system that drives people into destitution, the authorities should instead act pre-emptively by extending the towns' infrastructure ahead of urbanization, not in collusion with home builders, and tolerating that the settlers build themselves out of poverty, something that they know quite well how to do. Over time these neigborhoods would go through an unslumming process, and their social and economic liveliness would make them even more attractive than subdivisions, at which point they may become historic cities the likes of which people always built before the modern planning process. The people who were once destitute would be small-time property developers and landlords, and for those who still had nothing the process could be repeated in a new neighborhood.

Update: Here are some pictures of the "Hoovervilles" that sprung up in America during the 1930's.



The beginning of a real place.


"...At which point they may become historic cities the likes of which people always built before the modern planning process."

What an exciting and hopeful idea!

But on another note, have you addressed anywhere why you blame planners and not developers for the modern development process, that is, why we only build large developments?

I don't understand your question. Developers are just building what the planners want them to, creating infrastructure to regulations in order to turn them over to the authorities and paying themselves with the buildings they can sell. They are like any government contractors, except the government doesn't pay them in cash, it pays them in privileges.

Are some big developers using their weight to influence what those privileges are going to be? No doubt, but that is the same as in any industrial lobby. That doesn't mean they have the power themselves.

Of course developers build some things to government specifications - the width of the road, the design of sidewalks. But it is hardly apparent that the reason we now build large Planned Unit Developments instead of incremental buildings is because of planners. Nor does it seem that planners are responsible for the fact that developers now sell identical homes instead of undeveloped lots or that our neighborhoods are filled with cul-de-sacs.

So why do you blame planners? Why not blame the developers for building such crap?

They're both the same system Patrick.

Begging your pardon, but they aren't. I'm a planner. They don't build what I want them to build. If they did, I wouldn't be in this field or reading this blog. I would much prefer that all development happened incrementally, but it doesn't. And who has power over that? Only the developers.

Your response to these questions is oddly conspiracy-oriented.

Why does the city assume all the long-term liabilities of the developments if the developers aren't building what you want them to?

Do they? Or do they only assume the long-term liabilities of the small part of the development they regulate - the roads, sidewalks, sewers, and other parts of the public ROW?

That includes the cul-de-sacs and the zoning that keeps things nicely sectioned.

Think in the more general sense of the business model. What is the most efficient way to pass the liabilities of a new development on to the public? You build the absolute cheapest of everything in the shortest possible time. That includes the houses you build in order to earn your profit. They have to be the cheapest possible so you can move on to the next development quick. This may exclude the New Urbanist developers who are civic minded and build good developments simply because that is what they like personally, but the past few years have shown that these developers can't keep up with the pace of growth and are still only a drop in the ocean of urbanization.

And where do the developers get the capital to finance the cheap houses they build? They get it from banks who pass on the long-term liabilities to semi-public organizations like Fannie Mae. But the topic of financial morphology itself is fascinatingly complex, and I've been struggling to write something about it for some time.

Okay, I agree with you that the city (little c, meaning all the people in the city) accepts long-term liability, but the City (big C, meaning local government and those awful planners) doesn't. They don't own the houses, and they have little control over the form of them. The city buys them, so the city (also often called the market) controls their form.

So, back to my original question. If the developer and the market decide the form of the neighborhood, and the city participates passively (except zoning, but many, many planners oppose single-use zoning), why are you blaming planners. It seems to me that the market is the reason that most of the American built-environment of the last 75 years is inhumane and poorly formed. Now prove me otherwise.

In its most basic definition a market is just an exchange of property between two parties. So to say that developers are "the market" is missing half the picture. If you follow where the property is going, you find out that developers have two markets. Firstly they transfer all the infrastructure and all the upkeep of their new neighborhood onto the municipality, and secondly they transfer the buildings they produce onto the banks, which then rent them out for a period of years until which point the renters have paid enough and they become owners, or the bank forecloses and starts over.

So yes the market is responsible, but the municipalities are the market. They are owning these new neighborhoods. If they refused to do so, the banks would not buy the houses, and the developers would not build them. Their market are the municipalities.

Now what happens in the squatter settlement? The squatters are building to own, or at least own as far as the possibility of a police crackdown allows them to. And who owns the neighborhood as a whole? That's not clear, and it's why the squatters can move in.

It won't help to shift all the blame on developer greed or government regulation. They are two mutually reinforcing aspects of the same modern planning system.

What is wrong with planning via squatters communities? I would think you would approve of the idea of people moving into an area building something that is livable for them and then just regularizing that choice by providing sewage, water, electricity and title to the land after these folks have made the community livable.

If not by squatting aren't you stuck with the developer/city planner system of city formation that you seem to rail against in this blog?

I think you misunderstood me.

So how do you use planning rules to plan for development to be unplanned? If have often wondered whether restricting building and land ownership mostly to those who will occupy the unit would do it. No developers, only builders.

One of the problems with planning is that it artificially affects land prices. Developers make as much (I have no idea whether this is true) from changing the zoning of the land they own as from the added value of building things. Having the value of land increase slowly in the hands of individual homeowners as a result of a lot of individual actions is not as efficient a use of capital as having a lot of land appreciate all at once in the hands of one developer as a result of an agreement between the planner and the developer.

I'm not suggesting anything dishonest about this agreement, although the system carries that risk, simply that planning itself will tend to promote sameness even when that's not one of its objectives.

Whoever brings the money decides the morphology. If development is paid for by central bankers and mortgage corporations, then necessarily they will decide what kind of houses developers will produce. In a squatter settlement however individuals bring their own capital, sometimes in materials instead of money (collecting scrap from which to build their shelters). This is why the morphology of squatter settlements is so individualized.

What about infrastructure issues? Tijuana has lots of squatter settlements, but the history of them has been pretty bad. Prewar, the squatter settlements were built up in the Tijuana River flood plain. When the floods came, the residents were wiped out. Afterwards the city went in bulldozed the remains of the communities and built a flood channel. Then the squatter settlements went up on the hills. When it rains those areas flood, have mud slides and hundreds of people die.

A big part of the reason city planners were given so much power was to avoid these types of issues. By zoning communities, you could ensure that people wouldn't be building in flood plains or on hillsides with lots of clay in the soil with poor drainage.

With planning you have an idea of how intense land use will be in a given area. That means you have an idea of how much infrastructure needs to be provided and where and how to provide it.

One of the things city planning standards achieve is the prevent building homes too close to each other to prevent firefighters and fire trucks from reaching the structure.

They ensure that homes are built attached to the sewage infrastructure, that potable water is provided and that homes are build in areas with adequate drainage. They even ensure that there are adequate numbers of fire mains with adequate pressure in the water lines to get water to all of the areas that might burn.

Building codes also give you a good idea of what materials are being used in the homes. Bad wiring can burn down not just your own home, but the adjacent homes in a squatter settlement. Building codes mandate the use of flame resistant materials.

If cities are unplanned. How do you ensure that these other aspects of urban planning are addressed in your squatter communities?

The problem, and I think you are close to realizing it yourself, is that planners were given the power to stop growth but not the power to create growth. So what can they do when the impoverished masses find an escape at the fringe? They demolish it, because that's the only power they have. And what is the difference, when you are a destitute man, between losing everything to a natural disaster like a flood and losing everything to a police bulldozer? You have lost everything in both situations.

The power to create growth is not to destroy and imprison people who build in flood plains, it is to create new neighborhoods with complete infrastructure before people are forced by destitution to build in flood plains. It is ensuring that people always have a real, viable choice. Planners have not been keeping up with demand for new cities, instead they have suppressed that demand, and this is what I mean when I say that the planning system creates a permanent crisis.

When the police come to tear down these communities they make sure the occupants are out of the homes before they bulldoze them. When a natural disaster occurs like a fire or a flood there are no such assurances that occupants wouldn't be in the building. Thus the difference is between life and death.

One of the things a planned city can provide is clear legal title. Part of the reason the housing quality is so poor in squattor settlements is no legal title. That means the occupants don't have access to the credit markets. Thus they can't borrow money to finance the cost of constructing nor improving their buildings. The lack of access to finance limits there ability to use high quality building materials and puts high quality construction techniques beyond their reach.

You claim that planners do not have the power to create growth but that simply is not true. The power to create clear title is the power to create create wealth and fund growth. Clear title is what gives bankers and financers the confidence to invest money in the property.

In the US, clear title means access to credit. This is why a man with no money down can buy a home or an automobile. Access to credit is what distinquishes the poor in the US from the poor in Mexico.

You still haven't really addressed the issue of how to keep people from building in unsafe areas without some type of planning process. You haven't discussed how to ensure the provision of infrastructure to these homes in the squatter settlements. How to provide water pressure in the fire hydrants and how to ensure than fire trucks can move freely in these communities? Nor have you discussed how to pay for this infrastructure. In the squattor settlements how do you fund schools, police of fire protection?

The poor in America are now building squatter settlements, so it's clearly not true that clear title grants credit. Ultimately only creditworthiness grants credit.

You may criticize the flaws of living in squatter towns, but you can't deny the failure of the system that forces people to live in them. I have yet to see a good reason why spontaneous towns cannot be given the same legal title as banker-financed development, so that they too could invest in their property. (This has been used to great results in South America.) It would seem to fall under the principle of equal protection under the law.

Clear title is the means of establishing legal ownership. Legal ownership includes a bundle of rights. First it means the state won't take your property without paying for it. Second it means that the state will protect your claim to the land from others encroaching upon it. This is why legal title is such a valuable asset.

The reason the state bulldozes squatter settlements is to protect the title of the legal owners of that land. If someone comes upon your land and builds something upon it. You can have them removed with a motion for trespass. Because you know the state will protect you from other people trying to either take your land or from either adding to taking things away from your land, you can now feel safe in making improvements to your land like building stuff on the land, practicing agriculture on the land etc.

If you don't have clear title to a property a bank won't issue you a home loan to purchase that property. The bank doesn't want to lend money to you to make improvements in the land only for someone else to take either the land or the improvements away from you.

This is why no matter what your credit rating a bank won't make a loan to buy or build a home if you don't have legal title to that land. This is why your assertion that ONLY creditworthiness grants credit is factually untrue.

I can see a very good reason to not regularize squattor settlements. Specifically the state has an interest in promoting clear title. If land owners and bankers know that the state will regularize encroachments upon land owned by others both property owners and lenders have less reason to feel confident in investing and improving property.

Why establish a farm if you know squattors can move onto your land occupy it, build structures upon it and take the land away from you? Why lend money to a farmer when you don't know if he will be able to actually grow a crop on the farm or if after planting squatters will move in build structures upon his farm and take his land away from him? Why build a home on property if you don't know if someone else will move in and take it away from you? Why lend money to someone to build a house if you don't know if someone else will move in and take the home away from them?

How much credit will be available in a society where title isn't respected? Why would anyone bother to make any improvements in land where title won't be respected?

But once again you are missing the point. The squatters are not squatting private land, as the land owners do what is necessary to protect their property. Squatter camps typically appear on public land or land with no clear ownership, which is what happened in South America, and in this case granting clear title to the squatters drastically improved their material condition.

None of this matters, however, if the planning system that drives people to become squatters is abolished and replaced with a planning system that gives people a legitimate place to live before they have to become squatters.

The tent city that appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show as in Sacramento. That tent city appeared on land owned by 4 entities, the Blue Diamond Almond Growers Association, Southern Pacific Railroad, Sacramento Municipal Utilities District and the American River Parkway.

The City of Sacramento was formed at the location of where the American and Sacramento Rivers joined. Historically the city was subject to flooding when water levels on either the American or the Sacramento Rivers would flood. To protect the city a series of levies was built around the floodplain for the American River. This floodplain area is now the American River Parkway.

The American River Parkway floods seasonally. Is this really a good location to regularize a squattor settlement? Isn't a wise idea to enforce the zoning rules here?

On the otherside of the levy, the land is owned by SMUD, Southern Pacific and the Blue Diamond Almond Growers.

The land owned by the railroad is polluted. It was waiting the approval of a plan to enivormental impact report to clean up this land. Again is this the type of land where squattor settlements should be regularized?

The land owned by SMUD is where the natural gas main to the city enters the community. SMUD has plans for a power substation to be built on the land to support growth on other land owned by the railroad once that land is cleaned up. Before this land was owned by SMUD it was owned by the railroad. It still has detectible levels of PCB's in it. The enviromental impact of the clean up allowed industrial uses here because it was argued that by capping the dirt with a powerstation, the pollution wouldn't spread. Residential uses were prohibited here because the PCB levels are still considered unsafe.

Again is this an area where squattor settlements should be regularized?

Lastly there is the land owned by the Blue Diamond Almond growers. Its the rail spur to serve the factory. Again is this a good place for people to be living? To provide water and sewage to this area, you would have to dig through the polluted soil on the ajoining lots. Its an industrial area. Again is this a good place to regularize squattor settlements?

Its expensive to do an enviromental impact report. Its expensive to provide infrastructure to a development (water, sewage, gas, electricity, drainage etc). In short its expensive to provide people with a legitimate place to live.

The issue is how do we allocate those costs? The planning process allocates those costs onto the developers wanting to develop there properties.

If you think your land would be more valuable as residential than industrial uses, it falls upon that developer of the land to pay for all of the costs of converting that land from industrial to residential uses.

If we didn't the railroad in Sacramento could get away with dumping the cost of cleaning up their polluted land on the public. Is that a good idea? Wouldn't that just be encouraging the railroad to be indifferent to polluting their land?

You are still missing the point Ed. I don't want these people to live in flood lands or polluted waste. But if you kick them off that land, where are they going to live? There's a reason they ended up there in the first place. The city has a responsibility to regularize them somewhere, to allow them some place they can live their life. The city has not done so because it only does business in collusion with developers.

The reason people live in squatter camps is that they were forced to the margins, and the city has a responsibility for taking them back into normality. That means that it has to abandon its planning system of city and developer partnership, because squatters are their own developers and can't afford the expense of the planning system.

If you don't want them living in a floodplain or in polluted waste, aren't you pretty much arguing in favor of city planning? Are you not implicitly agreeing that there needs to be some sort of system to ensure that people aren't living in floodplains or in polluted waste meaning that system of land allocation needs a fair amount of regulation?

Is the problem in Sacramento one of land use regulation or the inadequate provision of social services?

If Sacramento was to deregulate land use planning the consequence would be that people are living on polluted land or living in a floodplain in substandard housing.

There is alternative solution, maintain the current planning regime, but increase social services to the populations most likely to be homeless.

Essentially that is what Sacramento County is doing. Arguably the plan should be implimented faster. But I think the outcome will be a lot better than what you are advocating.


Further comment

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