Slum. It is a small word that carries a heavy weight of meaning. It evokes images of poverty and degradation, filthy cinder-block hells sprawling out in cramped misery. And it is a word that will be used far more frequently over the course of this century.

By certain measures, 1 billion people currently live in squatting communities. But with the rapid rate of urbanization in Asia, Africa and Latin America, this could grow to over 3 billion in our lifetime. Canadian filmmaker Jean-Nicolas Orhon’s documentary Slums: Cities of Tomorrow explores the idea that this may be a good thing.

There is a habit among liberal elites of romanticizing the poor. A famous poverty activist of my acquaintance once wrote a travel article bemoaning the demise of the East African village where he enjoyed his annual beach holiday. He had imbued the picturesque grass huts, the dirt roads and the slow-paced life of this community with a humble nobility that perhaps was not recognized by the inhabitants themselves.

Where he saw photogenic simplicity, the villagers saw a way of life that could not feed their children or support a local clinic. So, like 100,000 Africans every day, many of them moved to the city looking for a better life. They exchanged quaint mud huts in a quiet village for cramped rooms, noise, open sewers and the hope that their children would be able to live longer and do more.

Orhon’s gorgeous cinematography at times risks a similar romanticization of the poor. Every shot in this documentary is beautifully framed and rich with colour and texture. The camera slowly pans across farmland and cityscapes in Morocco, India, New Jersey, Quebec, Turkey and France, like a Cond√© Nast travelogue. If one turned down the sound, this film would still be worth watching for the imagery alone.

But Orhon does not attempt to make a virtue out of poverty. And he quickly rejects the notion that rural life should be preferred to life in a slum. The documentary’s thesis is that slums are not a problem, that they are in fact a solution to a crowded world. The argument is that slums grow organically and develop ingeniously to provide the best possible design for people and their communities.

We should look at slums as mechanisms that are perfectly adapted to absorb growing urban populations.

The layout of a slum, the structure of the houses, the materials used are different in every culture, reflecting the fact that each one has evolved to meet the specific needs of its inhabitants. By contrast, the housing developments and low-income housing into which governments inevitably try to move slum dwellers are universally uniform and uniformly unsuited to these needs. In Paris, progressive efforts were made to move the poor into apartment towers in the banlieues; in New York it was into the housing projects. In both cases, the results were the same: disruption, alienation and greater social problems.

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As we face climate change and declining resources, Orhon argues, we should not reject slums as urban blights of criminality and destitution. Rather we should embrace them as mechanisms that are perfectly adapted to efficiently absorb growing urban populations.

Orhon also points out that slums are transitory (although this idea should have been expanded upon and perhaps supported with demographic and economic data). The squatters’ camp becomes the mining town, the tenements become the art district. As people, cities and countries develop and prosper, slums continue to evolve. They are a necessary way station in progress.

Overall, the idea that slums are the cure and not the disease is well explored. It is an idea that should be considered by the political decision-makers in cities like Nairobi, but also in Canada, where official government policy keeps our First Nations communities mired in reserves.

Bangalore, India, Slums: Cities of Tomorrow, Nicolas Reeves.

There was one jarring note: the on-camera commentators are a trio of white, male, Western academics. While slum dwellers are given a voice, it is disappointing that the theorizing and analysis is left to three people who could not have been more removed from the ghettos of which they speak. One of the talking heads, in particular, is almost a caricature of the cloistered Oxford don who pauses mid-sentence and stares into the middle distance as he seeks out yet another precious mot juste for our enlightenment. I’ve been trapped in more than one dinner party with his type, and whether they are holding court on the qualities of obscure Spanish wines or questioning the spiritual underpinnings of capitalism (as in this case), they are equally insufferable. Surely Orhon could have found an Indian or Turkish thinker to discuss these ideas.

The world is changing. In the last 15 years, more people have been lifted out of extreme poverty by relative or absolute measures than at any time in human history. For many of these people, the relief occurred because they moved into slums. Their numbers are growing, and, as Ebola decimates the squatters in Monrovia’s West Point and destabilizes the globe, we are reminded of why this matters. Orhon’s film is a beautiful and useful discussion of how we should navigate the age of urbanization.

Photo: Shutterstock by kudla

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Scott Gilmore is the founder and chief executive officer of Building Markets, a nonprofit organization that builds markets and creates jobs in developing countries. He was a Canadian diplomat; his last position was deputy director for South Asia, where he worked on Canada's integrated defence, development and diplomatic assistance to Afghanistan.

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