As is widely known, the current wave of urbanisation is unprecedented. Rapidly urbanising human society is fundamentally changing our lives, mostly, though not solely, in what is known as the ‘Global South-East’. Yet, most of the knowledge framing and guiding our understanding of the city emerges from the Global North-West. Planning is thus still guided by the perception that space can be tightly regulated through plans, laws and disciplined practices.
However, the ‘neat’ and organised representation of urban development and its ‘translation’ to urban theories have failed to describe, let alone prescribe, the manner in which urban development occurs in the vast majority of world cities. This is mainly because leading expertise, knowledge and concepts have continued to be generated by scholars and thinkers from the Global North-West.
As a response, in recent years, a growing body of knowledge about contemporary cities began to emerge from other regions of the world, most typically Latin America, Africa and Asia. These have told very different stories of development, social transformation and political conflict emerging from the process of rapid urbanisation.
One such insight regards the ‘self-built city’ on which this welcome book is focused. The act of self-construction frames a process of urban development and social transformation rarely covered in the leading literature, yet profoundly influential in the lives of billions worldwide. It represents both the incessant agency and resistance of the masses against their exclusion from urban land and planning, and a technology of control and separation used by elites against large groups of the oppressed and excluded.
The book refreshingly treats self-construction as a right to the city. As many of the chapters show, this practice, which emerges ‘from below’, has become an integral, often institutionalised, part of the urban self-regulation process. This should not be romanticised as simply ‘the power of the poor’ or ‘deep democracy’, as some have suggested, but understood within the geometry of powers and oppressions produced in contemporary cities. However, as the book shows, self-construction, often in defiance of formal authority, now provides an entry point to resources, institutions and circuits that only cities can offer at this historical juncture.