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Slums in major cities
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Slums, also called favelas and townships, are a common feature midst major cities of the world. Above are nine examples.

A slum is a heavily populated urban informal settlement characterized by substandard housing and squalor.[1] While slums differ in size and other characteristics from country to country, most lack reliable sanitation services, supply of clean water, reliable electricity, timely law enforcement and other basic services. Slum residences vary from shanty to poorly built, deteriorated buildings.[2]

Slums were common in 19th and early 20th century urban history of the United States and Europe.[3][4] In the 21st century, slums are predominantly found in urban regions of developing and undeveloped parts of the world, but also found in developed economies.[5][6]

According to UN-HABITAT, around 33% of the urban population in the developing world in 2012, or about 863 million people, lived in slums.[7] The proportion of urban population living in slums was highest in Sub-Saharan Africa (61.7%), followed by South Asia (35%), Southeast Asia (31%), East Asia (28.2%), West Asia (24.6%), Oceania (24.1%), Latin America and the Caribbean (23.5%), and North Africa (13.3%). Among individual countries, the proportion of urban residents living in slum areas in 2009 was highest in the Central African Republic (95.9%). Between 1990 and 2010, the percentage of people living in slums dropped, even as the total urban population increased.[7] The world's largest contiguous slum is in Mexico City.[8][9][10]

Slums form and grow in different parts of the world, for many different reasons. Some causes include rapid rural-to-urban migration, economic stagnation and depression, high unemployment, poverty, informal economy, poor planning, politics, natural disasters and social conflicts.[1][11][12] Strategies tried to reduce and transform slums in different countries, with varying degrees of success, include a combination of slum removal, slum relocation, slum upgrading, urban planning with city wide infrastructure development, and public housing projects.[13][14]


The origin of the word slum is thought to be the Irish phrase 'S lom é (pron. s'lum ae) meaning "it is a bleak or destitute place."[15] Others[16] suggest slum is a slang word meaning room, which evolved to ‘‘back slum’’ around 1845 meaning ‘back alley, street of poor people.’

Numerous other terms are often used interchangeably with slum. Some alternate terms for slum include: shanty town, favela, rookery, gecekondu, skid row, barrio, ghetto, bidonville, taudis, bandas de miseria, barrio marginal, morro, loteamento, barraca, musseque, tugurio, solares, mudun safi, karyan, medina achouaia, brarek, ishash, galoos, tanake, baladi, hrushebi, chalis, katras, zopadpattis, bustee, estero, looban, dagatan, umjondolo, watta, udukku, and chereka bete.[17]


Slums were common in the United States and Europe before early 20th century. New York City is believed to have created the world’s first slum, named the Five Points in 1825, as it evolved into a large urban settlement.[4][18]

Five Points slum used to be a lake named Collect.[18][19] By late 1700s, the lake was surrounded by slaughterhouses and tanneries, which emptied their waste directly into this lake. Trash piled, modern waste collection and sanitation system, electricity and other technologies had yet to be invented and adopted. The lake was a reeking cesspool. By early 1800s lake Collect of New York City was filled up and dry, and on it was Five Points - United States’ first slum. Five Points was occupied by successive waves of freed slaves, Irish then Italian then Chinese immigrants. It housed the poor, rural people leaving farms for opportunity, and the persecuted people from Europe pouring into New York City. Bars, bordellos, squalid and lightless tenements lined its streets. Violence and crime were commonplace. Politicians and social elite discussed it with derision. Slums like Five Points triggered discussions of affordable housing and slum removal. Today, Five Points slum has transformed into the Little Italy and Chinatown neighborhood of New York City.[3][18]

Five Points was not the only slum in America.[20][21] Jacob Riis, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine and others photographed many before World War II. Slums were found in every major urban region of the United States in early 20th century, before and through the Great Depression. Slums, sometimes called poorhouses, crowded the Boston Commons, later at the fringes of the city.[22]

In Europe, slums were common.[25][26] By 1920s it had become a common slang expression in England, meaning either various taverns and eating houses, "loose talk" or gypsy language, or a room with "low going-ons". In Life in London Pierce Egan used the word in the context of the "back slums" of Holy Lane or St Giles. A footnote defined slum to mean "low, unfrequent parts of the town". Charles Dickens used the word slum in a similar way in 1840, writing "I mean to take a great, London, back-slum kind walk tonight". Slum began to be used to describe bad housing soon after and was used as alternative expression for rookeries.[27] In 1850 the Catholic Cardinal Wiseman described the area known as Devil's Acre in Westminster, London as follows:

"Close under the Abbey of Westminster there lie concealed labyrinths of lanes and potty and alleys and slums, nests of ignorance, vice, depravity, and crime, as well as of squalor, wretchedness, and disease; whose atmosphere is typhus, whose ventilation is cholera; in which swarms of huge and almost countless population, nominally at least, Catholic; haunts of filth, which no sewage committee can reach - dark corners, which no lighting board can brighten."[28]

This passage was widely quoted in the national press,[29] leading to the popularisation of the word slum to describe bad housing.[27][30]

Slums are often associated with Victorian Britain, particularly in industrial, northern English towns, lowland Scottish towns and Dublin City in Ireland. Engels described these British neighborhoods as "cattle-sheds for human beings".[35] These were generally still inhabited until the 1940s, when the government started slum clearance and built new council houses.[36] There are still many examples left of former slum housing in the UK, but many have been removed by government initiative, redesigned and replaced with better public housing.

In France, slums were widespread in Paris and all urban areas in 19th century, many of which continued through first half of 20th century. The first cholera epidemic of 1832 triggered a political debate, and Louis René Villermé study[37] of various arrondissements of Paris demonstrated the differences and connection between slums, poverty and poor health.[38] Melun Law first passed in 1849 and revised in 1851, followed by establishment of Paris Commission on Unhealthful Dwellings in 1852 began the social process of identifying the worst housing inside slums, but did not remove or replace slums. After World War II, French people started mass migration from rural to urban areas of France. This demographic and economic trend rapidly raised rents of existing housing as well as expanded slums. French government passed laws to block increase in the rent of housing, which inadvertently made many housing projects unprofitable and increased slums. In 1950, France launched its Habitation à Loyer Modéré[39][40] initiative to finance and build public housing and remove slums, managed by techniciens - urban technocrats.,[41] and financed by Livret A[42] - a tax free savings account for French public.

Rio de Janeiro documented its first slum in 1920 census. By 1960s, over 33% of population of Rio lived in slums, 45% of Mexico City and Ankara, 65% of Algiers, 35% of Caracas, 25% of Lima and Santiago, 15% of Singapore. By 1980, in various cities and towns of Latin America alone, there were about 25,000 slums.[43]

Causes that create and expand slums

Slums sprout and continue for a combination of demographic, social, economic, and political reasons. Common causes include rapid rural-to-urban migration, poor planning, economic stagnation and depression, poverty, high unemployment, informal economy, colonialism and segregation, politics, natural disasters and social conflicts.

Rapid rural to urban migration

Since 1950, world population has increased at far greater rate than the amount of arable land, even as agriculture contributes a much smaller percentage of the total economy. For example, in India, agriculture accounted for 52% of its GDP in 1954 and only 19% in 2004;[47] in Brazil, the 2005 GDP contribution of agriculture is one-fifth of its contribution in 1951.[48] Agriculture, meanwhile, has also become higher yielding, less disease prone, less physically harsh and more efficient with tractors and other equipment. The proportion of people working in agriculture has declined by 30% over the last 50 years, while global population has increased by 250%.[1] The poor from the countryside have moved to the cities voluntarily, to seek actual or perceived economic opportunities.[1][49]

Those who make their decisions to migrate to urban areas primarily because cities promise more jobs, better schools for poor's children, higher and diverse income opportunities than subsistence farming in rural areas.[50][51] This promise lures high rates of immigration, and high demand for cheap but unavailable housing.[50][52] Rural-to-urban migrants typically settle in low-income neighborhoods, often with friends, relatives or their ethnic religious group in a slum.[53] Existing slums expand, new squatter areas form to accommodate the rapidly growing demand for a place to sleep, eat, rest and meet sanitary needs necessary to every human being.

Poor planning

Lack of affordable low cost housing and poor planning encourages the supply side of slums. Whenever there is a significant gap in growing demand for housing and insufficient supply of affordable housing, this gap is typically met in part by slums.[54] Good housing is obviously better than a slum, but a slum is better than none.[55]

Poor planning itself has many causes, ranging from politics, poverty, corruption,[56][57] poor governance and lack of coordination in government bureaucracy,[58][59] lack of enforcement of zoning laws, low rewards and high risks for housing industry,[60] and limited financial resources for public housing.[61]

Poor infrastructure, social exclusion and economic stagnation

Social exclusion and poor infrastructure forces the poor to adapt to conditions beyond his or her control. Poor families that cannot afford transportation, or those who simply lack any form of affordable public transportation, generally end up in squat settlements within walking distance or close enough to the place of their formal or informal employment.[54] Ben Arimah cites this social exclusion and poor infrastructure as a cause for numerous slums in African cities.[58] Poor quality, unpaved streets encourage slums; a 1% increase in paved all-season roads, claims Arimah, reduces slum incidence rate by about 0.35%. Affordable public transport and economic infrastructure empowers poor people to move and consider housing options other than their current slums.[62][63]

A growing economy that creates jobs at rate faster than population growth, offers people opportunities and incentive to relocate from poor slum to more developed neighborhoods. Economic stagnation, in contrast, creates uncertainties and risks for the poor, encouraging people to stay in the slums. Economic stagnation in a nation with a growing population reduces per capita disposal income in urban and rural areas, increasing urban and rural poverty. Rising rural poverty also encourages migration to urban areas. A poorly performing economy, in other words, increases poverty and rural-to-urban migration, thereby increasing slums.[64][65]

Colonialism and segregation

Some of the major slums in today’s world started in the colonial era. For example, Dharavi slum of Mumbai - now one of the largest slums in India, used to be a village referred to as Koliwadas, and Mumbai used to be referred as Bombay. In 1887, the British colonial government expelled all tanneries, other noxious industry and poor natives who worked in the peninsular part of the city and colonial housing area, to what was back then the northern fringe of the city - a settlement now called Dharavi.[66] This settlement attracted no colonial supervision or investment in terms of road infrastructure, sanitation, public services or housing. The poor moved into Dharavi, found work as servants in colonial offices and homes and in the foreign owned tanneries and other polluting industries near Dharavi. To live, the poor built shanty towns within easy commute to work. By 1947, the year India became an independent nation of the commonwealth, Dharavi had blossomed into Bombay’s largest slum.

Similarly, some of the slums of Lagos, Nigeria sprouted because of neglect and policies of the colonial era.[69] During apartheid era of South Africa, under the pretext of sanitation and plague epidemic prevention, racial and ethnic group segregation was pursued, people of color were moved to the fringes of the city, policies that created Soweto and other slums - officially called townships.[70] Large slums started at the fringes of segregation-conscious colonial city centers of Latin America.[71] Marcuse suggests ghettoes in the United States, and elsewhere, have been created and maintained by the segregationist policies of the state and regionally dominant group.[72][73]


Some scholars[75] suggest economic development and urbanization create slums, because they distort land prices,[76] local governments are unable to manage urbanization, and migrant workers without an affordable place to live in, dwell in slums.[77]

Other scholars[78] disagree that formation of slums is caused by or inevitable with rapid urbanization. In Singapore and Hong Kong, regions with very high population density and high urbanization, squalid and insanitary attap kampungs were widespread in 1960s through 1980s.[79] Stopping economic development does not solve the problem, it only forces a growing population in the rural area to live an impoverished life. Economic development and jobs, coupled with anticipating and providing housing, sanitation and other basic necessities are necessary. Urbanization of the world has been a long-term process that has transformed human societies over the centuries.[75] People congregated in towns and cities, which enabled increasingly diverse economic activities, with a shift from agriculture and husbandry to crafts, trades and industry. This consolidation of human activities facilitated production, raised productivity per human being, increased trade and other forms of exchange between individuals. These scholars suggest economic development and urbanization is inevitable, but slums need not be.[78]

Informal economy

Many slums grow because of growing informal economy which creates demand for workers. Informal economy is that part of an economy that is neither registered as a business nor licensed, one that does not pay taxes and is not monitored by local or state or federal government.[80] Informal economy grows faster than formal economy when government laws and regulations are opaque and excessive, government bureaucracy is corrupt and abusive of entrepreneurs, labor laws are inflexible, or when law enforcement is poor.[81] Urban informal sector is between 20 to 60% of most developing economies’ GDP; in Sub-Saharan Africa, 78 per cent of non-agricultural employment is in the informal sector making up 42 per cent of GDP.[1] In many cities the informal sector accounts for as much as 60 per cent of employment of the urban population. For example, in Benin, slum dwellers comprise 75 per cent of informal sector workers, while in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad and Ethiopia, they make up 90 per cent of the informal labour force.[82] Slums thus create an informal alternate economic ecosystem, that demands low paid flexible workers, something impoverished residents of slums deliver. In other words, countries where starting, registering and running a formal business is difficult, tend to encourage informal businesses and slums.[83][84][85] Without a sustainable formal economy that raise incomes and create opportunities, squalid slums are likely to continue.[86]

The World Bank and UN Habitat estimate, assuming no major economic reforms are undertaken, more than 80% of additional jobs in urban areas of developing world may be low-paying jobs in the informal sector. Everything else remaining same, this explosive growth in the informal sector is likely to be accompanied by a rapid growth of slums.[1]


Urban poverty encourages the formation and demand for slums.[2] In past, rural areas were typically thought of regions of poverty. With rapid shift from rural to urban life, poverty is migrating to urban areas. The urban poor arrives with hope, and very little of anything else. He or she typically has no access to shelter, basic urban services and social amenities. Slums are often the only option for the urban poor.[87] The incidence rate of slums is strongly correlated to poverty, insufficient social and economic development. The richer the country, the lower is the incidence of slums and, on the contrary, the higher the magnitude of slums in the country the lower is the gross national income (GNI) of that country.[65]


Many local and national governments have, for political interests, subverted efforts to remove, reduce or upgrade slums into better housing options for the poor.[12] Throughout the second half of 19th century, for example, French political parties relied on votes from slum population and had vested interests in maintaining that voting block. Removal and replacement of slum created a conflict of interest, and politics prevented efforts to remove, relocate or upgrade the slums into housing projects that are better than the slums. Similar dynamics are cited in favelas of Brazil,[88] slums of India,[89][90] and shanty towns of Kenya.[91]

Scholars[12][92] claim politics also drives rural-urban migration and subsequent settlement patterns. Pre-existing patronage networks, sometimes in the form of gangs and other times in the form of political parties or social activists, inside slums seek to maintain their economic, social and political power. These social and political groups have vested interests to encourage migration by ethnic groups that will help maintain the slums, and reject alternate housing options even if the alternate options are better in every aspect than the slums they seek to replace.[90][93]

Social conflicts

Conflict drives urban migration, not only within countries, but across borders as well. In Angola and Mozambique, sprouting of urban slums has been driven by civil conflict which forced many rural residents to flee to relatively safer urban areas. Millions of Mozambicans were displaced to slums during the 1980s.[2] Millions of Lebanese people formed slums during the civil war from 1975 to 1990.[94][95] Similarly, in recent years, numerous slums have sprung around Kabul to accommodate rural Afghans escaping Taliban violence.[96]

Natural disasters

Major natural disasters in poor nations often lead to migration of disaster-affected families from areas crippled by the disaster to unaffected areas, the creation of temporary tent city and slums, or expansion of existing slums.[97] These slums tend to become permanent because the residents do not want to leave, as in the case of slums near Port-au-Prince after the 2010 Haiti earthquake,[98][99] and slums near Dhaka after 2007 Bangladesh Cyclone Sidr.[100]

Characteristics and quality of life in slums

Location and growth

Slums typically begin at the outskirts of a city. Over time, the city may expand past the original slums, enclosing the slums inside the urban perimeter. New slums sprout at the new boundaries of the expanding city, usually on publicly owned lands, thereby creating an urban sprawl mix of formal settlements, industry, retail zones and slums. This makes the original slums valuable property, densely populated with many conveniences attractive to the poor.[101]

The original slums, over time, get established next to centers of economic activity, schools, hospitals, sources of employment, which the poor rely on. Established old slums, surrounded by the formal city infrastructure, cannot expand horizontally; therefore, they grow vertically by stacking additional rooms, sometimes for a growing family and sometimes as a source of rent from new arrivals in slums.[102] Some slums name themselves after founders of political parties, locally respected historical figures, current politicians or politician’s spouse to garner political backing against eviction.[103]


In cities located over a mountainous terrain, slums begin on difficult to reach slopes or start at the bottom of flood prone valleys, often hidden from plain view of city center but close to some natural water source.[101] In cities located near lagoons, marshlands and rivers, they start at banks or on stilts above water or the dry river bed; in flat terrain, slums begin on lands unsuitable for agriculture, near city trash dumps, next to railway tracks,[104] and other shunned undesirable locations. These strategies shield slums from the risk of being noticed and removed when they are small and most vulnerable to local government officials.[101]

The houses in a slum are often constructed without consideration of the topography. The construction is quick and ad hoc, building materials used are of poor quality. The structures are poorly maintained and their spatial layout is stacked, making slum residents prone to injuries and other damage during disasters, accidents as well as from decay.[105][106]

Insecure tenure

At their start, slums are typically located in least desirable lands near the town or city, that are state owned or philanthropic trust owned or religious entity owned or have no clear land title.[101][107] Sometimes slums start on privately owned land of farmers, neighborhoods or corporations. According to a 2006 report, 51 percent of slums are on privately owned land in sub-Saharan Africa, 39 percent in North Africa and West Asia, 10 percent in South Asia, 40 percent in East Asia, and 40 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean.[108] Once the slum has many residents, the early residents form a social group, an informal association or a gang that controls newcomers, charges a fee for the right to live in the slums, and dictates where and how new homes get built within the slum. The newcomers, having paid for the right, feel they have commercial right to the home in that slum.[101][109]

Initial homes tend to be tents and shacks that are quick to install, but as slum grows, becomes established and newcomers pay the informal association or gang for the right to live in the slum, the construction materials for the slums switches to more lasting materials such as bricks and concrete, suitable for slum’s topography.[110][111] The slum dwellings, built earlier or in later period as the slum grows, are constructed without checking land ownership rights or building codes, are not registered with the city, and often not recognized by the city or state governments. This creates tenure insecurity, a typical characteristic of slums around the world.[112][113]

Undocumented ownership with no legal title to the land or their dwelling, creates disputes on ownership rights among the slum dwellers, and difficulty in plans to upgrade, service or relocate the slums. Insecure tenure of the slum, as well as lack of socially and politically acceptable alternatives to slums, also creates difficulty in city-wide infrastructure development such as rapid mass transit, electrical line and sewer pipe layout, highways and roads.[114]

Substandard housing and overcrowding

Slum areas are characterized by substandard housing structures.[115][116] Shanty homes are often built hurriedly, on ad hoc basis, with materials unsuitable for housing. Often the construction quality is inadequate to withstand heavy rains, high winds, or other local climate and location. Paper, plastic, earthen floors, mud-and-wattle walls, wood held together by ropes, straw or torn metal pieces as roofs are some of the materials of construction. In some cases, brick and cement is used, but without attention to proper design and structural engineering requirements.[117] Various space, dwelling placement bylaws and local building codes may also be extensively violated.[2][118]

Overcrowding is another characteristic of slums. Many dwellings are single room units, with high occupancy rates. Each dwelling may be cohabited by multiple families. Five and more persons may share a one-room unit; the room is used for cooking, sleeping and living. Overcrowding is also seen near sources of drinking water, cleaning, and sanitation where one toilet may serve dozens of families.[119][120][121] In a slum of Kolkata, India, over 10 people sometimes share a 45 m2 room.[122] In Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, population density is estimated at 2,000 people per hectare — or about 500,000 people in one square mile.[123]

Inadequate or no infrastructure

One of the identifying characteristics of slums is the lack of or inadequate public infrastructure.[124][125] From safe drinking water to electricity, from basic health care to police services, from affordable public transport to fire/ambulance services, from sanitation sewer to paved roads, new slums usually lack all of these. Established, old slums sometimes garner official support and get some of these infrastructure such as paved roads and unreliable electricity or water supply.[126]

Slums often have very narrow alleys that do not allow vehicles (including emergency vehicles) to pass. The lack of services such as routine garbage collection allows rubbish to accumulate in huge quantities. The lack of infrastructure is caused by the informal nature of settlement and no planning for the poor by government officials. Fires are often a serious problem.[127]

In many countries, local and national government often refuse to recognize slums, because the slum are on disputed land, or because of the fear that quick official recognition will encourage more slum formation and seizure of land illegally. Recognizing and notifying slums often triggers a creation of property rights, and requires that the government provide public services and infrastructure to the slum residents.[128][129] With poverty and informal economy, slums do not generate tax revenues for the government and therefore tend to get minimal or slow attention. In other cases, the narrow and haphazard layout of slum streets, houses and substandard shacks, along with persistent threat of crime and violence against infrastructure workers, makes it difficult to layout reliable, safe, cost effective and efficient infrastructure. In yet others, the demand far exceeds the government bureaucracy’s ability to deliver.[130][131]

Low socioeconomic status of its residents is another common characteristic attributed to slum residents.[132]



Slums have very high population densities, non-existent to poor sanitation facilities, typically no health care, and unreliable public services. Diseases start and spread quickly in slums. Between 2008 and 2013, following are some of the diseases - some at epidemic levels - that have been reported in slums, and have killed residents of slums at significantly higher rates than residents of non-slums: cholera,[133] HIV/AIDS,[134][135] measles,[136] drug resistant tuberculosis,[137][138][139] typhoid,[140] malaria,[141] dengue[142] and other epidemics.[143][144] Slums are therefore considered a major public health concern and potential breeding grounds of drug resistant diseases for the entire city, the nation, as well as the global community.[145][146]

Slums also report abnormally high rates of burns to women from kitchen fires, secondary complications and deaths. Emergency ambulance service and urgent care is typically unavailable in slums.[147]

Vulnerable to natural disasters

The location and topography of slums often places them as amongst the most vulnerable to natural disasters such as landslides[148] and floods.[149][150][151] In addition to natural hazards, some slums also face risks of anthropogenic hazards such as pollution from toxic industries, traffic congestion and collapsing infrastructures.[152] The ad hoc construction, lack of quality control on building materials used, poor maintenance and uncoordinated spatial design make them prone to extensive damage during earthquakes as well from decay.[153][154] Fires are another major risk to slums and its inhabitants,[155][156] with streets too narrow to allow proper and quick access to fire control trucks.[105][157]

Unemployment and informal economy

Due to lack of skills and education as well as competitive job markets,[158] many slum dwellers face high rates of unemployment.[159] The limit of job opportunities causes many of them to employ themselves in the informal economy, inside the slum or in developed urban areas near the slum. This can sometimes be licit informal economy or illicit informal economy without working contract or any social security. Some of them are seeking jobs at the same time and some of those will eventually find jobs in formal economies after gaining some professional skills in informal sectors.[158]

Examples of licit informal economy include street vending, household enterprises, product assembly and packaging, making garlands and embroideries, domestic work, shoe polishing or repair, driving tuk-tuk or manual rickshaws, construction workers or manually driven logistics, and handicrafts production.[160][161] In some slums, people sort and recycle trash of different kinds (from household garbage to electronics) for a living - selling either the odd usable goods or stripping broken goods for parts or raw materials. Typically these licit informal economies require the poor to regularly pay a bribe to local police and government officials.[162]

Examples of illicit informal economy include illegal substance and weapons trafficking, drug or moonshine/changaa production, prostitution and gambling - all sources of risks to the individual, families and society.[164][165][166] Recent reports reflecting illicit informal economies include drug trade and distribution in Brazil’s favelas, production of fake goods in the colonías of Tijuana, smuggling in katchi abadis and slums of Karachi, or production of synthetic drugs in the townships of Johannesburg.[167]

The slum-dwellers in informal economies run many risks. The informal sector, by its very nature, means income insecurity and lack of social mobility. There is also absence of legal contracts, protection of labor rights, regulations and bargaining power in informal employments.[168]

Crime and violence

Slums are prone to crime and violence.[169][170] In many of the world’s major cities, law enforcement lags behind urban growth and slum expansion. There is a growing chasm between developed and reasonably safe parts of a city, and slums that locals regard as a trap of poverty, crime, and violence.[171] In some countries like Venezuela, officials have sent in the military to control slum violence, with mixed temporary results.[172]

Often the problem isn’t that the community is indifferent, but that congested slums are very difficult to objectively and properly police. Leads and information intelligence from slums are rare, streets are narrow and a potential death traps to patrol, and many in the slum community have an inherent distrust of authorities from fear ranging from eviction to collection on unpaid utility bills to general law and order.[171]

Cohen as well as Merton theorized that the cycle of slum violence does not mean slums are inevitably criminogenic, rather in some cases it is frustration against life in slum, and a consequence of denial of opportunity to slum residents to leave the slum.[173][174][175] Empirical data suggests crime rates are higher in slums than in non-slums, with slum homicides alone reducing life expectancy of a resident in a Brazil slum by 7 years than for a resident in nearby non-slum.[6][176][177] Further, crime rates are not uniformly high in world’s slums; the highest crime rates in slums are seen where illicit economy - such as drug trafficking, brewing, prostitution and gambling - is strong and multiple gangs are fighting for control.[178][179]


Recent years have seen a dramatic growth in the number of slums as urban populations have increased in developing countries.[180] Nearly a billion people worldwide live in slums, and some project the figure may grow to 2 billion by 2030, if governments and global community ignore slums and continue current urban policies. United Nations Habitat group believes change is possible. To achieve the goal of “cities without slums”, claims UN, governments must undertake vigorous urban planning, city management, infrastructure development, slum upgrading and poverty reduction.[13]

Slum removal

Some city governments and state officials have simply sought to remove slums.[181][182] This strategy for dealing with slums is rooted in the fact that slums typically start illegally on someone else’s land property, and they are not recognized by the state. If slum residents start by violating someone else’s property rights, how can slum residents claim property rights later?[183][184]

Critics argue that slum removal by force tend to ignore the social problems that cause slums. The poor children as well as working adults of a city’s informal economy need a place to live. Slum clearance removes the slum, but it does not remove the causes that create and maintain the slum.[185][186]

Slum relocation

Slum relocation strategies rely on removing the slums and relocating the slum poor to free semi-rural peripheries of cities, sometimes in free housing. This strategy ignores several dimensions of a slum life. The strategy sees slum as merely a place where the poor lives. In reality, slums are often integrated with every aspect of a slum resident’s life, including sources of employment, distance from work and social life.[187] Slum relocation that displaces the poor from opportunities to earn a livelihood, generates economic insecurity in the poor.[188] In some cases, the slum residents oppose relocation even if the replacement land and housing to the outskirts of cities is free and of better quality than their current house. Examples include Zone One Tondo Organization of Manila, Philippines and Abahlali baseMjondolo of Durban, South Africa.[189] In other cases, such as Ennakhil slum relocation project in Morocco, systematic social mediation has worked. The slum residents have been convinced that their current location is a health hazard, prone to natural disaster, or that the alternative location is well connected to employment opportunities.[190]

Slum upgrading

Some governments have begun to approach slums as a possible opportunity to urban development by slum upgrading. This approach was inspired in part by the theoretical writings of John Turner in 1972.[191][192] The approach seeks to upgrade the slum with basic infrastructure such as sanitation, safe drinking water, safe electricity distribution, paved roads, rain water drainage system, and bus/metro stops.[193] The assumption behind this approach is that if slums are given basic services and tenure security - that is, the slum will not be destroyed and slum residents will not be evicted, then the residents will rebuild their own housing, engage their slum community to live better, and over time attract investment from government organizations and businesses.

An example of this approach is the slum upgrade in Tondo slum near Manila, Phillipines.[194] The project was anticipated to be complete in four years, but it took nine. There was a large increase in cost, numerous delays, re-engineering of details to address political disputes, and other complications after the project. Despite these failures, the project reaffirmed the core assumption and Tondo families did build their own houses of far better quality than originally assumed. Tondo residents became property owners with a stake in their neighborhood. A more recent example of slum-upgrading approach is PRIMED initiative in Medellin, Colombia, where streets, Metrocable transportation and other public infrastructure has been added. These slum infrastructure upgrades were combined with city infrastructure upgrade such as addition of metro, paved roads and highways to empower all city residents including the poor with reliable access throughout city.[195]

Most slum upgrading projects, however, have produced mixed results. While initial evaluations were promising and success stories widely reported by media, evaluations done 5 to 10 years after a project completion have been disappointing. Herbert Werlin[196] notes that the initial benefits of slum upgrading efforts have been ephemeral. The slum upgrading projects in kampungs of Jakarta Indonesia, for example, looked promising in first few years after upgrade, but thereafter returned to a condition worse than before, particularly in terms of sanitation, environmental problems and safety of drinking water. Communal toilets provided under slum upgrading effort were poorly maintained, and abandoned by slum residents of Jakarta.[197] Similarly slum upgrading efforts in Philippines,[198][199] India[200] and Brazil[201][202] have proven to be excessively expensive than initially estimated, and the condition of the slums 10 years after completion of slum upgrading has been slum like. The anticipated benefits of slum upgrading, claims Werlin, have proven to be a myth.[196]

Slum upgrading is largely a government controlled, funded and run process, rather than a competitive market driven process. Krueckeberg and Paulsen note[205] conflicting politics, government corruption and street violence in slum regularization process is part of the reality. Slum upgrading and tenure regularization also upgrade and regularize the slum bosses and political agendas, while threatening the influence and power of municipal officials and ministries. Slum upgrading does not address poverty, low paying jobs from informal economy, and other characteristics of slums. It is unclear whether slum upgrading can lead to long term sustainable improvement to slums.[206]

Urban infrastructure development and public housing

Urban infrastructure such as reliable high speed mass transit system, motorways/interstates, and public housing projects have been cited[207][208] as responsible for the disappearance of major slums in the United States and Europe from 1960s through 1970s. Charles Pearson argued in UK Parliament that mass transit would enable London to reduce slums and relocate slum dwellers. His proposal was initially rejected for lack of land and other reasons; but Pearson and others persisted with creative proposals such as building the mass transit under the major roads already in use and owned by the city. London Underground was born, and its expansion, as well as New York Subway’s expansion has been credited to reducing slums in respective cities.[209][210]

As cities expanded, business parks scattered, and people moved to live in the suburbs, retail, logistics, house maintenance and other jobs moved with them. City governments used infrastructure investments and urban planning to distribute work, housing, green areas, retail, schools and population densities. Affordable public mass transit in cities such as New York City, London and Paris allowed the poor to reach areas where they could earn a livelihood. Public and council housing projects cleared slums and provided more sanitary housing options than what existed before 1950s.[211]

Slum clearance became a priority policy in Europe between 1950–1970s, and one of the biggest state-led programs. In UK, slum clearance effort was bigger in scale than the formation of British Railways, National Health Service and other state programs. UK Government data suggests the clearances that took place after 1955 demolished about 1.5 million slum properties, resettling about 15% of UK's population out of these properties.[212] Similarly, after 1950, Denmark and others pursued parallel initiatives to clear slums and resettle the slum residents.[203]

The US and European governments additionally created a procedure by which the poor could directly apply to the government for housing assistance, thus becoming a partner to identifying and meeting the housing needs of its citizens.[213][214] One historically effective approach to reduce and prevent slums has been city wide infrastructure development combined with affordable, reliable public mass transport and public housing projects.[215]


Slums exist in every country and have become a global phenomenon.[216] In 2012, about 863 million people in the developing world lived in slums. Of these, the urban slum population at mid-year was around 213 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, 207 million in East Asia, 201 million in South Asia, 113 million in Latin America and Caribbean, 80 million in Southeast Asia, 36 million in West Asia, and 13 million in North Africa. Among individual countries, the proportion of urban residents living in slum areas in 2009 was highest in the Central African Republic (95.9%), Chad (89.3%), Niger (81.7%), and Mozambique (80.5%).[7]

The distribution of slums within a city varies all over the world. In the First World, it is easier to distinguish the slum-areas and non-slum areas. In America, slum dwellers are usually in city neighborhoods and inner suburbs, while in Europe, they are more common in high rise housing on the urban outskirts. In the Third World, slums are prevalent as distributed pockets or as urban orbits of densely constructed informal settlements.[216] In some developing countries, especially in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan, slums are not just marginalized neighborhoods holding a small population; slums are widespread, and are home to a large part of urban population. These are sometimes called slum cities.[217]

The percentage of developing world's urban population living in slums has been dropping with economic development, even while total urban population has been increasing. In 1990, 46 percent of the urban population lived in slums; by 2000, the percentage had dropped to 39%; which further dropped to 32% by 2010.[218]

See also

Variations of impoverished settlements

Organizations and concepts


Further reading

  • Robert Neuwirth: Shadow Cities, New York, 2006, Routledge
  • Mike Davis (scholar):Planet of Slums London, New York 2006 ISBN 1-84467-022-8
  • Elisabeth Blum / Peter Neitzke: FavelaMetropolis. Berichte und Projekte aus Rio de Janeiro und São Paulo, Birkhäuser Basel, Boston, Berlin 2004 ISBN 3-7643-7063-7
  • Floris Fabrizio Puppets or people? A sociological analysis of Korogocho slum, Pauline Publication Africa, Nairobi 2007.
  • Floris Fabrizio ECCESSI DI CITTÀ: Baraccopoli, campi profughi, città psichedeliche, Paoline, Milano, ISBN 88-315-3318-5
  • Matt Birkinshaw A Big Devil in the Jondolos: A report on shack fires by Matt Birkinshaw, 2008
  • The Guardian; October 4, 2003.
  • Mute Magazine Vol 2#3, Naked Cities - Struggle in the Global Slums, 2006
  • Cities Alliance
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