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Informal Urbanism and the Taste for Slums

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This paper explores the aesthetics and politics of slum tourism – what are the attractions and what are the dangers of aestheticizing poverty? We first present eleven images of slums and informal urbanism in south and Southeast Asia and suggest a complex mix of attractions for Western tourists. On the one hand informal urbanism can be picturesque with elements of nostalgia and a quest for authenticity; on the other is the shock of the real, the spectacle of intensive labyrinthine urbanity and an uneasy voyeurism. We suggest the attraction is more the anxious and awe-filled pleasure of the sublime than any formal beauty. The paper then changes scale to connect such imagery to the political economy and geography of the city where the visibility of slums and urban informality is linked to state and market ideologies. Informal settlements generally have negative symbolic and political capital; the developing state paradoxically needs tourists yet seeks to control the urban image for purposes of branding and to signify law and order. The slum is often hidden from the public gaze in a manner that is complicit with the reproduction of poverty. While the voyeuristic gaze of the Western tourist produces an aestheticization of poverty this does not depoliticize so much as it opens up new connections and potential transformations.
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Keywords: Informal; South Asia; Southeast Asia; aesthetic; capital; slum; sublime; tourism; urban

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Architecture, Building & Planning,University of Melbourne, Parkville, Australia

Publication date: 2012-05-01

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