Anthro Talks: Urbanization and urban periphery tension

Graphic by Kayla Drazan

Humans have resided in small communities for most of history, with 90% of the global population living in rural areas as late as 1800. Now, 4 billion people — just over half the world’s population — dwell in urban areas. Urbanization rates are increasing rapidly as countries become richer, incomes rise and industry and manufacturing overtake the agriculture sector. Despite urbanization’s link to rising incomes, about one-third of those residing in urban areas live in “slum households.”

Anthropologist James Holston, in his “Insurgent Citizenship in an Era of Global Urban Peripheries,” (2008), details how the 20th century’s urbanization rates rose in tandem with global democratization, yet created urban slums, or urban peripheries, with horrifying poverty. Periphery residents have struggled to accumulate sufficient resources for sheer existence, causing the development of insurgent citizenships claiming rights to the city. “Sites of metropolitan innovation often emerge at the very sites of metropolitan degradation,” as tensions rise between forces of control and subjugation, Holston notes in his book.

Wealthy center squares segregate the poor and place them into peripheries. Despite degradation, Holston says, urban poor leaders who are “barely citizens,” claim residential space with insurgent citizenship, fighting for rights to housing, plumbing and security.

Holston conducted ethnographic research on insurgent citizenship performances in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Holston discovered an instance in 1972 in which an official from Sao Paulo who had tried to evict the workers was beaten by the residents of the periphery. According to Holston, one resident claimed, “it was a war, between us and the land‐scammers. The law didn’t exist” 

Brazilians in the 1980s did not ascribe, Holston concluded, a  significant identity-defining relationship to the term “citizen.” The word symbolized a “nobody.” In other cases, the idea of citizenship can be dispiriting and isolating for the urban poor who buy into the concept. Holston noted that, in the mid-1990s, Sao Paulo’s poor were expected to stand in long bank lines while wealthy and privileged individuals did not have to wait. According to Holston, the poor accepted their unequal treatment in the bank lines, simply stating, “It’s the law.” 

Autoconstruction’s constriction of Sao Paulo citizens into poor, peripheral neighborhoods, politicized the citizens and altered their notion of rights. Insurgent citizenships emerged from cramped confinements of unbearable slum peripheries, helping Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who also rose from autoconstruction peripheries, to secure the presidential victory for the Workers’ Party in 2002. His election demonstrated how, in three decades, the working class had amassed enough support to fight against Brazil’s maintenance of exclusive and unequal citizenships.

By 2050, 68% of the world — close to 7 billion peopleare expected to live in urban areas, according to a 2018 report from Our World in Data. The looming threat of environmental catastrophes will cause further rural migration to urban centers, stoking tension. French sociologist Henri Lefebvre notes in “The Production of Space” (1974) that social space serves as a tool for control and domination over people. Thus, to mitigate degrading treatment of climate refugees in an increasingly urbanized future, migrant social justice must be linked to spatial justice, he says. “Change life! Change Society! These ideas lose completely their meaning without producing an appropriate space … new social relations demand a new space and vice-versa,” Lefebvre recommends.