Chaos Is An Order We Don't Understand

Aseem Inam:  There is a popular perception of cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America as being “chaotic.”  This is not only true of visitors from Western Europe and North America, but also the western-educated elite from these regions.  What this popular perception embraces is the dictionary definition of chaos as “a state of utter confusion or disorder; a total lack of organization or order.”  This seems to imply that things like housing, transportation, markets, electricity, water and the material city [i.e. urban fabric] of the cities of Africa, Asia and Latin America are abitrary, haphazard and will presumably lead to increasing entropy.

Such a perception can have serious consequences.  First and foremost is a somewhat condescending attitude towards these cities, most often reflected in the still commonly-used term—at least in the popular discourse—“Third World.”  What this attitude often suggests is that not only is there nothing much of significant value in those regions of the world, but that there is nothing much to be learned from them either.  [In recent years there has been a trend amongst some urbanists and scholars to swing the other way and to romanticize and fetishize the cities of the so-called “Third World,” especially their informal settlements, without a more in-depth and sophisticated understanding.]

The second consequence, which to some extent derives from this implicitly condescending attitude, is that prescribed strategies and policies view the cities of Africa, Asia and Latin American as “problems to be fixed.”  The proposals for fixing these problems tend to emerge out of the specific contexts of urbanists, academics and international institutions based in New York, Washington DC, London, Brussels, Paris, and so forth.  [There are exceptions to this, most notably the pioneering urban theorizing of Jennifer Robinson and Ananya Roy].  For example, the World Bank continues to promote market-based individual property rights in Latin America as a significant component of urban development.

The reality is that when it comes to cities, chaos is often an order that we don’t understand.  For example, for many years, U.S. cities were judged—and designed—by historic European standards, with their historic cores, civic centers, and grand boulevards.  The books The Image of the City, Learning From Las Vegas, and Architecture of the Four Ecologies began to shift the way we understood post-World War II American cities, by trying to understand them on their own terms.  Similarly, we need to understand the cities of Africa, Asia and Latin America on their own terms, eschewing the overwhelmingly colonial imprint and perspective established by the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Portugal and others.

What makes this task all the most interesting is that some of the oldest cities in the world are located in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which means they have evolved over millenia.  Furthermore, what makes the order of the material city in these regions particularly unique is the presence of informal settlements, which are entire neighborhoods and mini-cities built entirely from scratch.  They are examples of stunning resourcefulness of those with lowest access to financial and material resources.  In that way, even with their myriad problems, they are beautiful testaments to human ingenuity.  It would serve us well to better understand these ancient, highly complex and continuously evolving cities to better harness their true potential.  AI.

Chaotic or orderly?  Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai, which is where thousands of clothes are still washed by hand everyday and is considered to be the world's largest outdoor laundry.  Source:  Aseem Inam.

Chaotic or orderly?  Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai, which is where thousands of clothes are still washed by hand everyday and is considered to be the world's largest outdoor laundry.  Source:  Aseem Inam.