Amid chaos, slung sheets and 2x4s, photographer Noah Addis finds order and needs met.
Every month, in the developing world, an astonishing five million people migrate to cities from rural areas. They go mostly in search of work opportunities and to provide food, stability and improved prospects for their families. Starting with precious few resources, many settle in informal developments on the edge of large developing world cities.
“I’m looking at cities where a significant percentage of the population lives in informal housing and where traditional planned development has not kept pace, or has not provided affordable options for lower income workers,” he says.
A 2003 report from UN Habitat called The Challenge of Slums, estimated that globally, one billion people live in make-shift housing similar to that in Future Cities.
“That figure is probably due for an update,” says Addis. “It’s almost certain that the number of people living in informal settlements is much higher by now.”
Thus far Addis has photographed in Lima, Peru; Mumbai, India; Cairo, Egypt; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Manila, Philippines and Mexico City. The project is ongoing.
Perhaps surprisingly, Future Cities presents places and populations not in decline but on upward trajectories.
“These photos might look like examples of urban decay, in reality they’re quite the opposite,” explains Addis. “They are constantly growing and improving. But when a city supports informal communities with sanitation and utilities and when policies allow for a path towards land ownership, the communities often grow into thriving and dynamic sections of the city. On the other hand, when government policies favor eviction and demolition, residents are hesitant to invest too much in their homes and businesses.”
Addis’ fascination with informal settlements began in 1999, when he visited Lagos, Nigeria for an unrelated news story. It was his first ever foreign assignment.
“As we drove from the airport into the city we passed by miles and miles of informal communities,” says Addis. “We were there for an unrelated assignment but I had a chance to visit a few of these settlements and speak with the residents. While I was certainly aware that poverty existed in the world, I had never really thought about the systems and processes of rural-to-urban migration and unplanned development.”
The experience stayed with him for a decade, but he was only able to interrogate the issue with his camera in 2009 after he had left his position as staff photographer with The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. When Addis walked from the newspaper’s offices for the last time, his eyes were on only one story — the slums, squats, and tent-cities of the world.
Addis wanted to satisfy his own curiosity and, now, he also wants his photographs to raise awareness of global issues to which we are all connected.
“It’s important to know what’s going on in the world. Events in India can certainly affect people on the other side of the world,” says Addis. “For example, if India and China widely embrace American-style driving suburbs instead of choosing a more energy-efficient, denser forms of urban development, it could have serious global implications when it comes to energy consumption.”
Likewise, the high energy usage by distant nations — especially in the developed world — can have serious knock-on effects for the communities in Addis’ photographs.
“Many of the informal communities in places like Bangladesh and the Philippines are just a few feet above sea level and they’re located on coastal areas. They’re already extremely vulnerable to flooding due to storms, but rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms caused by climate change could devastate these communities.”
Addis treads slowly with caution and respect. Planning-wise the communities are informal, but socially they are organized. Before he even takes out his camera, Addis tries to talk with community leaders to explain his project and secure buy-in from the locals. He is aware that the legal limbo in which many of the communities exist makes residents vulnerable.
“These folks don’t really have a legal right to the land,” he says. “So, I always talk to people in advance to let them know what I’m doing has nothing to do with the government and that I’m not trying to demolish their community.”
If Addis returns to a community repeatedly, he’ll print postcards and hand them out to residents. Invariably, his large camera attracts attention. He has almost uniformly encountered kindness and generosity while shooting. In India, he and his fixer were out before sunrise to capture the gorgeous morning sun.
“I had set up my tripod and camera and we were sitting around waiting for the light, when a woman brought us tea and biscuits,” says Addis. “I’m constantly surprised at how people are willing to welcome a total stranger from the other side of the world into their community.”
Addis has witnessed both the good and the bad. The Lallubhai compound on the outskirts of Mumbai (above) was “discouraging.” It is an area in which the government has tried to provide new housing for those evicted from other informal housing in the city, but the replacement dwellings in concrete towers are clustered and dark.
“Very little light gets into the buildings. It’s oppressive and it doesn’t work as a community,” says Addis.
Lallubhai is the exception. Addis has found that often idiomatic designs that emerge organically to suit the needs of the people who live there can, in fact, teach us about best practices in planning and sustainable development.
“One benefit of informal developments is that people can, for example, start a business in their home,” says Addis. “Many people will build a small structure and open a business facing the street and they’ll live in back. This kind of mixed-use really benefits someone trying to start a small business, but it’s not possible when you live in a small flat in a high-rise building.”
Not only did the high-rises in Lallubhai fail to meet the needs of inhabitants, they were soon surrounded by newly-built informal settlements that the government had tried to eradicate.
In one image (below), Addis shows us a large community bordering a sewage canal that had recently been demolished by the government.
“People were scrambling to try to salvage their possessions as well as building materials they could reuse to make new homes,” says Addis. “It’s probably the most depressing place I’ve ever seen.”
Momentary traumas aside, Addis is repeatedly taken aback by how normal life is in the communities he photographs.
“Not to minimize the real problems and hardships of living under these conditions, but housing is a basic human necessity and the people living in informal settlements are really just like everyone else,” says Addis. “You hear a lot about crime and violence in these places, and it’s a problem in some areas for sure, but the vast majority of people in these communities are honest, hard-working people.”
Addis hopes the prevalence of these communities is something that sticks with his audience. For most of history tent-cities have been associated with political refugees and it is assumed they are temporary in some way. But informal settlements are the urbanism of the 21st century.
“There are squatter communities in probably every city in the world,” says Addis. “For Future Cities I’m not really interested in smaller settlements or ones that have been formed primarily as a political statement or a lifestyle choice. I’ve also mostly avoided refugee and IDP settlements because they really are a separate issue.”
Future Cities will only approach completion when Addis has achieved a good geographic mix. He wants to visit São Paulo and Rio de Janiero. He also plans to shoot in a couple of sub-Saharan cities and he wants to return to where his intrigue began.
“It’s really important to me to get back to Lagos,” he says. “It was really the place that inspired the entire project and because it is a fascinating city that has undergone tremendous growth.”
No matter how long the project lasts, Addis hopes that Future Cities inspires curiosity, not sympathy.
“It is all too easy to look at people who live in reduced circumstances as victims. The reality is that the people living in informal communities throughout the world don’t need handouts or for people to tell them how to live. They have very specific needs — a healthy living environment, access to clean water and sanitation, legal employment and land tenure — that are often not met by local governments,” says Addis. “When these basic needs are met, these new urban settlements can become thriving communities.”
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