This rather haphazard book functions well as a sociological portrait of four squatter cities as well as a spirited PR piece for the people living there, but fails on other fronts. The best parts are the first four chapters, which outline Neuwirth's field work in the shantytowns of Rio, Nairobi, Mumbai, and Istanbul. This consisted of living in situ for several months and talking to as many people as possible in order to get the pulse of a place. These 150 pages are fairly engaging insider views of places few of us are likely to venture, and are worth reading as a kind of non-traditional travelogue.
The book really loses its way after this. There is a meandering chapter about urban squatting throughout time, including snippets on ancient Rome, Medieval Europe, Victorian London, '20s Shanghai, and various cities in the U.S. This is followed by another meandering chapter about squatters in New York over the last 150 years. Both of these contains some interesting stories and factoids, but fail to cohere into anything more than that. Next is a brief, rather snide chapter skewering the efforts of the NGO Habitat, which takes the rather predictable line that well-intentioned aid from outsiders accomplishes nothing. Then a chapter addressing crime in the four communities he lived in -- why this needs to be broken out into it's own chapter is unclear. Next is a rather muddled chapter on the concept of "property" and the various theoretical tugs-of-war surrounding it, which feels quite like the obligatory "theory" chapter of a Master's thesis.
A rather significant flaw running through the book is that Neuwirth writes as if his readers all hold some kind of ridiculous stereotype about who lives in shantytowns. Few readers are likely to believe that millions of shantytown-dwellers around the world are simply lazy and/or criminal -- yet the writing is rather shrilly pitched as if the reader was some kind of reactionary nincompoop. His profiles in courage of ingenious hard-working and optimistic poor (and a few who aren't so poor) shantytowners are welcome, but get rather repetitive. Furthermore, while these profiles are certainly heart-warming, they are ultimately little more than anecdotal data. They are also ironically similar to the sustaining American capitalist myths of "rugged individualism" and "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." However, the reality is that the vast majority of the people living in the communities he passed through are going to be born poor, live poor, and die poor -- regardless of how hard they work or how ingenious they are.
The book's larger aims fail because Neuwirth tries to uncouple housing issues from broader issues of poverty when the reality is that the one is embedded deeply in the other. Shantytowns have exploded around the world thanks to rural-to-urban migration patterns driven by global capitalism. In his book The Mystery of Capital, Hernan de Soto addresses this larger problem quite specifically and offers a possible way forward (within a traditional capitalism framework). Unfortunately, Neuwirth seems to have not quite grasped de Soto's ideas, and instead offers only sneering potshots at only portions of them. This problem with his dubious analysis is that by singling out specific elements of de Soto's proposal (notably property titles) from his larger framework (which includes addressing corruption, elitism, stagnant bureaucracies and a great many other things), the critique has no meaning. It's especially disappointing because de Soto and Neuwirth are both on the side of squatters, and both want better lives for them. One of the underlying themes of de Soto's book is that when citizens create facts on the ground, their government should change its methods to accommodate them, not isolate them.
Ultimately, this is a rather disappointing work with some genuine bright spots. It's great that Neuwirth went and spent a year of his life in these communities, and he's good at capturing the flavor of them. It's just a shame that his broader analysis is so flighty. There is an running underlying tension whereby Neuwirth provides case after case of how squatters get taken advantage of because they have no legal protections, and yet he refuses to admit that valid, enforceable property titles are part of the solution to exactly these inequities. In any event, worth a quick read by those with a deep interest in the subject, but on the whole it's a letdown.