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Crossing the Globe: From Slums to Starbucks

By Carrie Benson

            On August 28, 2006 I had the pleasure of boarding the MV Explorer, and setting sail for the world.  I knew that spending three months away from my home University in Pittsburgh to explore nine countries I had never been to before, was going to lead me into some pretty interesting places and positions.  Each country brought new experiences and new sights, but there was one thing that was apparent in every country I visited: the growing urbanization of the world.

d         In each country Semester at Sea ported in, I was exposed to extremely large cities.  Some of the large cities I visited were very westernized, global cities that listened to western music, and wore western styled clothes.  However, most of the cities I visited were not typically thought of as true global cities even though they had very large population densities.  Instead, most of the cities I visited including, Ho Chi Minh City, Yangon, Chennai, and Cairo were all cities that are composed of both vernacular urban spaces and transnational urban spaces.

            In most of the developing world cities that I visited, I was exposed to two completely different types of life that coexisted in the same city.  Since the entire world is facing a growing trend of urbanization, and many of the new people coming into the city are very poor, I saw and visited a large amount of people living in urban slum housing.  Many times people living in slums, live without access to basic necessities of life, leaving them to create vernacular and local urban spaces.

c            However, though there are many people living in slums in these new mega cities, there are also people are making money and succeeding in world business.  As a result, many developing world cities, are building world trade centers, wearing western style fashion, and enjoying western delicacies.

           As a result of the large contrast between vernacular and transnational spaces in growing world cities this paper will be dedicated to further examining this phenomenon.  To more accurately demonstrate how vernacular and transnational spaces coexist in cities all over the world, I have attached two papers describing two very different cities that are both experiencing different types of globalization: Chennai, India, and Madrid, Spain.

India: A World of Contradictions

Madrid: Old Beauty Mixed with Modernity

Analysis  of the World City

            Urban scholars have known for a long time that urbanization was going to take place around the world.  However, what they did not anticipate was how incredibly fast urbanization was going to move throughout the entire world.  Mike Davis writes in his book, Plant of the Slums, that in 1950 there were only about eighty-six cities that had populations that exceeded one million people.  In today’s world there are approximately four hundred cities that have populations of over one million people.  Davis also emphasizes, that well cities all over the world are growing in population, it is mostly the developing world that is experiencing enormous population growth.   

            As a result of the population boom in many developing world cities, a housing crisis has been created.  There is simply not enough housing for all of the new urban dwellers, most of who are coming in from the rural, countryside hoping to escape poverty.  Since there is not enough efficient housing in many of today’s developing world cities, slums have become the place for most of the city’s poor to live.  Often times slums have no electricity, running water, or basic public health facilities such as the slum I visited in India.

c            Unfortunately, because the people of slums are poor and inconsequential to country politics, they are often moved against their will whenever the government feels it necessary.  Donald Seekins writes in his article, The State and the City: 1988 and the transformation of Rangoon, that more then 450,00 people of Yangon, Myanmar have been uprooted from their urban homes and moved out to the outskirts of town where new slums can form.  This is not an unusual case because most people seem to forget or don’t care that slum-dwellers also have lives that revolve around living in one area of town.    

            Even though slums often do not provide even the most basic living necessities and the dwellers are often given fewer rights, they are frequently the leading vernacular spaces in an urban area.  Interestingly, slums are usually found in global cities, and are usually a world away from western global culture.  From my experience in the Indian slum, the people from the area, who I met, seemed to retain much more of the Indian culture then the wealthy Indian family that I stayed with in the second part of my India visit.  Part of this may because these people have very few resources and little access to modern day technology.

            While slums in the developing world are usually large vernacular spaces, they are not the only place where the vernacular exists.  In fact vernacular spaces can be found in any city around the world, even in Madrid, Spain.  Simply looking at the architecture of Spanish buildings a person can see vernacular spaces.  However, there does seem to be a shift to a more transnational culture in many western cities.  For example, there were dozens of to-go Starbucks Coffee shops lining the Madrid streets.


Another example of the shift in culture is that vernacular culture is increasingly being transformed into transnational entertainment.  For example, Mary Crain writes in her article, The Pilgrimage to the Shrine of El Rocio, about a sacred religious pilgrimage and celebration that takes place every year in southern Spain.  However, in recent years tourists from all over Europe have been coming to Spain to watch and take part in the celebration.  One tourist company even used the slogan, “Return to Tradition,” to get people to come to the religious ceremony.  It seems to me, that the vernacular tradition in Spain could be destroyed if the pilgrimage becomes more of a family vacation then a religious ceremony.  

            In today’s world, it is becoming increasingly harder to tell the difference between where the vernacular ends and the transnational begins.  Slums are often thought of as vernacular spaces yet they have come to be a symbol of the transnational city, and in many places, local traditions are now becoming transnational entertainment.

            As my Semester at Sea voyage came to an end, I found myself trying to grasp everything that I had learned about the global city, both in class and from the different countries that I visited.  I came to realize that while every city I visited was filled with different people, different traditions, even different religions, each city was struggling with the same problems.  Many of the challenges that cities are facing today are a result of a rapid urbanization and rapid globalization.

            With high numbers of rural dwellers moving into the city, a housing crisis has erupted in many developing world cities.  In response to this population increase, mega-slums have become common in many cities around the world.  Unfortunately, slums are run down housing, with little or no running water and electricity.  Basic life necessities are often missing from slum dwellings, leaving their inhabitants to often live in filth and unhealthy living conditions.

            Though slums in developing world cities are becoming a huge problem, they are not the only problem that world cities are currently facing.  All large cities of the world are currently going through a process of globalization.  As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell where the transnational begins and the vernacular ends.  Because of the globalization phenomenon many world cities, such as Madrid, are losing parts of their old culture to the transnational movement.  I find this very troubling because I must wonder if there will ever come a time when almost all world cities embrace the same type of culture.

          To conclude, I would like to leave readers with some thoughts to ponder.  Slums are going to continue to grow and globalization is going to continue to take place in every corner of the world.  However, it is now up to today’s scholars, doctors, architects, and humanitarians to start looking for solutions to these world city problems, and then enacting them.  Perhaps it is possible to pull people out of slums while preserving their culture at the same time.     

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