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Slummin’ it: The re-emergence of an ethical tourism debate

William N Hunter27 July 2012

Just the other day as I stood on semi-cramped tube carriage in morning rush-hour on the London Underground, passively flipping through the Metro, that bourgeois staple of just-above-the surface news periodical, I was pleasantly surprised to arrive at an article of astute guile and questioning verve. Ross McGuinness’* article on whether the concept of ‘slum tourism’ was merely a glorified exploitive cash cow or a legitimate method for enabling those individuals and communities stuck in poverty stricken conditions struck a particular chord, especially given the coincidental fact that just the evening before Film4 was screening Danny Boyle’s multi-award winning Slumdog Millionaire.

McGuinness keenly points to that film and others such as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God and The Constant Gardener as catalysts in how cinema has had a profound universal influence on generating a newfound interest in the intriguing and somehow exotic qualities of a mostly unknown social and cultural phenomenon, at least to the rest of Western society. Despite a lack of prevalent data on the correlation between exposure through film, there is little doubt in the re-emergence or growth of travellers seeking a different kind of experience as they eschew the erstwhile daily grind of the office or the default third trip to an easy and enjoyable European capital. But what exactly are they hoping to see and find in these alternative landscapes and moreover what does it imply in regards to the how the other half- the residents of these areas- perceive this attention?

It seems that a fortuitous parallel occurred in the sense that many of the ‘slums’ across the world that have experienced such influx of intrigue are located in glamour destinations already on the tourist map, for example cities in Brazil and South Africa, which became more accessible and certainly popular after the Apartheid. As Dr. Fabian Frenzel points out in the article, in Rio “favela tourism has almost become part of the package.” Frenzel is a lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Leicester and has just published a lengthy EU funded volume on the subject titled Slum Tourism: Poverty, Power, and Ethics* which attempts to advance the debate on the concept of slum tourism and put to rest the easy generalisations and presumptions that follow this trend.

The big question that stems from any presumption or debate is one of whether slum tourism should be considered an exploitive mechanism for selfish capital gain or a legitimate driver and benefit for poorer populations in cities and territories in development. But this too, as Frenzel points out, is also a generalisation of the argument. For the notion of slum tourism or at least some version of it is nothing novel at all. As a revelatory note, Frenzel and McGuinness highlight the UK’s own booming experience with the concept in the 1870-80s when well-off Londoners from the West End would visit the seedy East London foxholes of Hackney and Shoreditch and draw attention to Engels’ description of Manchester’s Irish Quarter around the same time. It is also well known that New York saw a similar phenomenon all the way through the Great Depression in such storied hollows as Central Park, briefly documented in Ron Howard’s film Cinderella Man.

                                                     drawing of old London slums

 

So what then is the difference now in the situation and debate surrounding the economy of slum tourism? Given the fact that in some cities the idea has existed in various forms before, there are some examples where individuals involved in this growing enterprise have implemented an arguably less exploitive methodology. As the article reveals and according to his website, for 20+years, Marcelo Armstrong has run Favela Tour in Rio. Says Armstrong, “We talk about many subjects that it’s not proper to talk about if you go to Sugarloaf Mountain or Christ the Redeemer. You just see Rio. Every new step we do something new. The tour is basically to contextualize favelas into Brazilian society. It is not a tour that only talks about favelas but about Brazilian society from another point of view.” On the surface this doesn’t sound like exploitation, but rather a more critically insightful alternative tour experience, even more than one might expect to receive at the tourist flooded landmarks of the city. To that, McGuinness pointedly asks if visitors in fact go on the tours for the right reasons. Armstrong’s response is that “Human beings are very complex. There are many motivations why they want to go there. Some may have a specific interest because they are teachers, historians, social workers or architects. Others because they want to confront what they have read about. Others have seen films.” An argument for the genuine article in this particular tour which has 1500 visitors per month is that it funds a school- highlighting the belief that education is the main way out of poverty.

                                                     favela tour, Rio

 

Aside from the primary of question of ethics and benefits, it is important to ask what is wrong with ordinary individuals wanting to gain some perspective towards a subject or a reality that they themselves do not encounter on an everyday scale- that has itself been coloured up (or down) or exploited by media and film. Not every person could be thought of as a gawker and as Armstrong points out, many of the visitors have a certain level of sophisticated and clear motivation. And tours, at least like his cater to a more critical mass of individual and subject rather than object. The work of the DPU comes quickly to mind.

Each May our various MSc courses take intriguing and somewhat exotic journeys to destinations in the Global South- i.e. Ghana, India, Ethiopia, Thailand. While the agenda is one of determined, critical and open-minded social consideration, many of our students have never spent time in such extreme conditions and there always exists a high level of debriefing and attention given to the perception we have and a clarity of what we are intending to do there. In nearly every case we are working in collaboration with community groups from within these possible slum areas, so our appearance is generally measured. Though the fact that we are there conducting research still places us square in the middle of the debate. And we are constantly questioning the benefit of our work for the communities that have taken their time to share with us the challenges they may face.

                                                     pavement dwellers in Dharavi, Mumbai

 

Another significant note worth mentioning, and one that is also being revealed more and more in parallel regards to why these areas have piqued such an interest for researchers and tourists alike is the fact that despite a usually clear lack of sufficient provided infrastructure, resources, and opportunity slum communities produce some of the most fascinating informal economic systems and represent, across many societies, the truly historic and grounded ideal of the working classes, the vital aspects of society. The cultural practices and the levels of resilience in these areas is something to behold and learn from, and in the case of this type of tourism, and witness in the flesh. I can signal my own experience in Mumbai when on a day off from the field research, I had the opportunity to visit the dohbi ghats- the fantastic community clothes washing centre where millions of residents and travellers’ garments go to cycle. The children outside the gate could not have been more than excited to guide me around the inner-workings for a very nominal fee. And I was able to talk with workers about what I was doing in Mumbai and about the phenomenon and tradesmen history of the dohbi ghats. This is just one of hundreds of examples that could ripen this post and address the debate further. Unfortunately this admittance will be for another day.

                                                     dohbi ghats in Mumbai, India

 

But, this brings up a point in that if slum tourism continues to grow, it should arguably be harnessed from within these communities. It may be a fine line, but there is a difference between exploitation, even self-exploitation and the sharing of culture. As the debate rages on and discourse and research is built around the subject, slum tourism can be seen as urban tactic formed around local trades and culture and most certainly can act as a catalyst for prompting wider strategy, whether that sits in education initiatives or physical environment upgrading. Practitioners and those individuals with knowledge in the tourism industry and likewise steeped in local knowledge have a responsibility to jump on the potential, if and/or before it is appropriated. In an ideal scenario, the local slum communities and socially-minded professionals would come to define the paradigm. If this is slow in formation, according to Ko Koens of the Slum Tourism Network and part of the research team with Fabian Frenzel, at least “if done in a respectful way that actively tries to benefit the local communities, it can help inhabitants gain income and pride. On the other hand, issues of access and power abuse may mean only a limited number of people benefit.” So continues the conundrum…

 

Ross McGuiness’ article Slum tourism: A cynical cash cow or a helping hand to those in poverty? appeared in the Metro 11 July 2012
http://www.metro.co.uk/news/newsfocus/904801-slum-tourism-a-cynical-cash-cow-or-a-helping-hand-to-those-in-poverty#ixzz21pTBFM6X
 Dr. Fabian Frenzel’s Slum Tourism: Poverty, Power, and Ethics is out now through Routledge
http://www.ewidgetsonline.com/dxreader/Reader.aspx?token=844198efd9db447e9df01899a919e2eb&rand=41084245&buyNowLink=&page=&chapter=
Marcelo Armstrong’s Favel Tour Rio can be found at http://www.favelatour.com.br /

“Social Design” creeps into the mainstream: Is it here to stay and in what way?

William N Hunter19 March 2012

If the two recent exhibitions held in New York are part of any confirming indication that a legitimate shift in socially responsive architecture and design has indeed arrived, then it is by time the professional and academic community at large begin engaging in a critical discourse in relation to the practices and products of this movement. The Museum of Modern Art’s Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement and the Cooper Hewitt-produced Design with the Other 90%: CITIES at the United Nations highlighted an array of projects, practices, designers, and organizations that are seemingly appearing and operating outside the usual mainstream avenues of delivery. Likewise the recently published Spatial Agency project led by Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till attempts to uncover another way of doing architecture, one that eschews the image of architect as individual hero, replacing it with an idea of architect as agent, acting and collaborating with, and on behalf of, others. These happenings represent a larger buzz gripping architectural reporting and discourse.

MoMA’s Small Scale, Big Change exhibit (image by provisions)

Cooper Hewitt / United Nations Design for the Other 90% (image by James Emery)

For all the merit and overdue satisfaction of this exposure and coverage, significant questions should be raised in regards to the resulting implications on mainstream and outsider practices as well as the perception of them. Without a doubt, MoMA by its very nature and established status is targeting architects, enthusiasts and an interested, arguably cultured public. The content is tightly edited, brief, intimate, and yet richly displayed through large format pictures, drawings, and models which is no departure from how the majority of architectural projects are processed, delivered and curated, accompanied by no less than a visually abundant streamlined website. If this is indeed a representation of a different kind of architecture, a different kind of practice, it may require a rethinking of the message. This is not meant to be a critique of the show in of itself, but rather a general determining point.  The exhibition catalogue would lead one to believe that these projects entailed a challenging re-assessment of approach and process, based on geographical situation, cultural protocol, and/or the characters of end users. These are not or at least are not meant to be perceived as typical projects. In fact the website claims that:

“These projects have been selected from an increasingly large number of similar initiatives around the world because they exemplify the degree to which architects can orchestrate change, prioritizing work that has social impact but also balances very real concerns of cost, program, and aesthetics. They succeed in providing communities not only with physical spaces but with opportunities for self-determination and an enhanced sense of identity. As a result, these architects are both designers of buildings and moderators of change. Their integrative methodologies could serve as models for the profession at large”

There is again no argument that the projects represented are operating in some different parallel to mainstream practices, some more than others. Though perhaps more unsettling is the fact that there are only eleven projects and half of them are coming from the tried and tested likes of Rural Studio (Auburn University), Elemental, and Urban Think Tank, entities which also all show up in the Cooper Hewitt’s UN-based exhibit. The exhibition at the UN is part of a larger and broader initiative and arguably more thorough in terms of data and information, but also in many cases still offers an objectified aestheticizing of the subject(s). While the details of the chosen few are not necessary here, the point to be made is that darlings of social design are emerging and beginning to monopolize the conversation in the same manner that so-called starchitects garnered all our attention over the last decade or so. It is not a case of judgement on the part of these established names and practices, but more a general caution on the criticality of who comes to represent this new movement towards socially responsive architecture and design. Furthermore, is it even necessary to put a name behind a work in the same heroic manner as before? What are the consequences if this happens? A possible co-opting of the outsider activists and true agency of architecture by the object-driven mentality of the mainstream protocols is a threat to pure potential.

METI-Handmade School, Bangladesh by Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag (image by Anna Heringer)

Medellin Metro Cable (image by Omar Uran)

The Spatial Agency project, publication, and database also sheds light on practices and people, whether of historical significance or emerging interest and whether by holistic studio vision or one off project, that are concerned as they enter into socially embedded networks, in which the consequences of architecture are of much more significance than the objects of architecture. On the list exists some of the same figures and names already mentioned in the other exhibitions as well as some suspect crossover practices, usually championed for their avant garde responses to architectural problems. Now, debating lists may very well be a waste of precious time, though the effect of such lists is without much doubt. The choices made by editors and curators and then the act of publicising them as brass is problematic on the one hand because it limits the field and on the other because it assumes both internally within the profession and externally in public that those practices and individuals are doing something genuinely different. It implies that they are thinking and acting differently. And in a subconscious way one could or would assume that they are taught differently.

Elemental’s profile on the Spatial Agency online database (image by William Hunter)

Architectural production is a process, and though this process may have become saturated as an ideology, working in less-formalized arenas or situations has its own unique challenges. These situations require new skillsets, qualitative social understanding, and more importantly, new perceptions of what it means to be a practitioner. The role of professional must be internally rethought and if not, it is far reaching that someone should claim that they have the capacity to operate in these contested urbanisms. Architecture and design most certainly has a responsibility to re-establish its worth in future development, in formalized Western settings and especially in more informal settings of the Global South. But this repositioning needs to be led by individuals who are critically and ethically up to the task.

If the buzz surrounding social design and the staging of major exhibitions and research projects are actually confirming that a true paradigm shift is happening within architecture, design, and their related disciplines, we must be aware of what it means to practice differently. The fact is that when practitioners enter into different and unfamiliar arenas, the political landscape of design changes. This change as well as the individuals they work for and with has a huge impact on the methodology of practice. If the differences are not acknowledged and the same approach unfolds, the results will be misdirected and unintentionally non-productive for those individuals they serve. In addition, if the representations and viral publicising of this movement is lazily glorified sans the critical rigor they deserve, then the larger cause of shifting an agency for practice will be lost.