Urban Slums

24, نوفمبر 2010

Urban slums are areas of self-developed residences at fringe areas of major urban cities. This means that basic infrastructure, such electricity or sewage, is improvised, stolen, or simply not present in these areas. Put eloquently by anthropologist Oscar Lewis, “the culture of poverty is both an adaptation and a reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class-stratified, highly individualistic, capitalistic society.”

Despite their many obvious problems and often bottomless-pit nature, the thing that urban slums do right is provide housing to poor, itinerant people near the areas they may work or desire to work. Another result of this limited mobility is that individual slums themselves form distinct cultures of their own. This immediacy also provides faster opportunities for capital gain when successful, as well as quick proving grounds to weed out bad ideas for gain.

This lack of rigidity or plan allows them to negotiate the gaps between supply and demand, concept and production, production and availability, and even adaptation and replacement seemingly instantaneously. Additionally, the generalized understanding of slum nature also allows for the boundaries of privacy, permanence, definitiveness, and ownership to be blurred as slum populations fluctuate, interact, and adapt to challenges and opportunities that arise within their hectic frame of existence. Since immediacy is so embedded in the nature of these settlements, attempts to revitalize them into the city proper often fail because the rigid process of traditional development conflicts in a way that either stifles the thriving culture of the slum or results in the slum developing without regard to the effort. Those efforts that are most successful are those that offer minimal obstruction to the existing fabric of the slums and allow the slums to continue to develop accumulatively and organically using the intervention as a springboard for progress.

While they may be unsanitary, limited resources combined with the density of these settlements creates surprisingly eco-friendly dwelling sites. While this is obviously not a consciously achieved result, the fact that these spaces thrive on so little means a lot could be learned and applied from them. However, many of the conditions that allow this are probably cultural so it wouldn’t be all that easy.


Poverty vs. Capitalism: The main negotiation achieved by urban slums is that of providing poor, marginalized people with residences in urban areas. Because of their concentrated wealth, large cities often exclude or deter people of lower (let alone the lowest) socioeconomic status from living within them. Real estate works by attempting to make properties more desirable than others, and in urban areas that usually means the addition of both space and costly amenities beyond the economic reach of most itinerant citizen in developing countries. By using undesired or fringe areas to build bare-bones structures for themselves, inhabitants of urban slums find a solution to the disparity between supply and demand for affordable housing in urban areas. This results in both increased and decreased values of areas near slums: increase because of the economic opportunities awarded by immediate access to a large number of people in a concentrated area, but decreased because of the perception of slum areas as underdeveloped and dangerous.

Development Efficiency (planned vs. accumulative): Urban slums also bring up negotiations between the efficiency of itinerant spaces and planned spaces. Western society usually assumes that planning is the direct means to maximum efficiency and rewards, but urban slums challenge this perception by coping with problems of space and flexibility more accurately and expediently than any planned settlement does. Another problem with planning is that the people who are educated in planning more than likely come from privileged backgrounds so their ideas of efficient and successful planning often embedded with some preconception of open space as a requirement for comfort. While space is undeniably nice, sometimes supplying space does not coincide with the larger needs of the public. This dichotomy of intent is exemplified in this map comparing space occupancy of golf courses vs. informal settlements in Nairobi. Nairobi slum population: 200,000 to 1,000,000+. Nairobi golf course population: squirrels… and maybe some itinerant caddies.

“Fun” and expanded links for slums:

Google Maps:
Rocinha / Vidigal, Rio de Janeiro
Kowloon Walled City, Hong Kong
Kibera, Nairobi
Dharavi, Mumbai

Mansheiet Naser, Cairo, Egypt

Favela Chic
Life in Rocinha
Epic Kowloon Walled City Thread
UN-HABITAT (tons of info)
How Slums Can Save The Planet
Oscar Lewis
The Slum Economy Revisited
Nairobi Land Use: Slums vs. Golf Courses
Mansheiet Nasser