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URBAN HISTORY ESSAY #3

‘I’D RATHER LIVE IN A SLUM’: THE PROS AND CONS OF SLUM LIVING

In a world driven by progress and development, one of the starkest portrayals of inequality is the third of the world’s population who live in slums (Ooi & Phua 2007). Drawn in by economic prospects, the poor converge on the city both by

choice and necessity, perpetuating the phenomenon known as the urbanization of poverty (Quirk 2007). Slums are informal inner-city settlements, which are constructed and inhabited by these immigrants (Davis 2006). They are characterized by overcrowding, squalor and inadequate infrastructure and services (Davis 2006); yet despite the destitute environment, it is estimated that the global slum population will continue to increase by 25 million a year (OCHA/IRIN & UN-HABITAT 2007). For the new urban poor, ‘I’d rather live in a slum’

is a likely proclamation as traditional rural livelihoods are threatened (Lloyd 1979) and cities become “magnets of hope and opportunity” (OCHA/IRIN & UN-HABITAT 2007, pp.108). This essay will examine the prevalence of slums in this rapidly

urbanising era. It will analyse the conditions of marginalisation and the less discussed, positives, experienced by these slum dwellers, and suggest how governments should react to their growing presence in cities. Slums are formed as a result of a city’s incapacity to absorb the influx of immigrants (Ooi & Phua 2007); and their proliferation into sprawling slum settlements is resultant of continual ill-response by governments that are “unequipped physically, fiscally, politically and administratively” (Ooi & Phua 2007, pp.31) to tackle the drastic growth in urban population. New immigrants arrive

with little financial resources, leaving them vulnerable to the capitalist forces of the city. With limited supply of affordable housing in cities, they are driven to illegal means of residence (Lloyd 1979). Often, this leads to unauthorized construction of housing on marginal lands (Davis 2006). Rather than addressing the shortfall of housing, governments react by aggressively clearing slum settlements. This serves only to displace its inhabitants temporarily. Misconception and consequently, mistreatment of slums abound as governments wilfully forsake strategic planning and research into slum alleviation. Instead, they continue investing in the rich and cultivating the city’s ironic image of progress (Ooi & Phua 2007). Slums are therefore “invisible [cities]” (UN-HABITAT 2003, pp.6), blank voids on city maps that are denied recognition and adequate services. Apathy and ignorance of slum and city dynamics effectively disengages the government from 1


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its responsibilities to provide for the urban poor. Considered temporary blights, most governments believe that extending urban infrastructure systems into slums will only legitimise their existence and encourage permanent settlement (OCHA/IRIN & UN-HABITAT 2007). Thus, many slums lack basic necessities like a potable water supply, piped sewage system and disposal services (UN-HABITAT 2003). Without access to essential infrastructure, slum environments are not

maintained or managed, allowing rubbish and excretions to accumulate. High population concentrations and poor sanitation conspire to create conditions ripe for disease and potential epidemics. Slum dwellers must endure the unhealthy, marginalized environment that descends daily into further decay. The illegal nature of slum settlements means that residents are burdened with an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and insecurity. It is estimated that 30 to 50 percent of the developing world’s urban population do not have legal ownership of their property (OCHA/IRIN & UN-HABITAT 2007). Not only are they faced with exploitation from opportunistic ‘landlords’ and the destruction of their homes by government officials (Lloyd 1979); without appropriate rights, what meagre assets the slum dwellers have are left unprotected and uninsured (Davis 2006). Without legal precedence, what losses they suffer go unheard, as slum dwellers have no formal representation in the city (Ooi & Phua 2007). The difficulty of leaving the slums and improving their living conditions is compounded by this discrimination. They remain excluded from economic services that require collateral (Lloyd 1979), and ultimately, these obstacles prevent the slum dweller from rising above the cycle of poverty. An additional cause for insecurity is the location of the slums themselves, which are often on lands deemed unfit for development. Desperate slum dwellers occupy these environmentally degraded and dangerous, toxic wastelands, risking their health and safety for shelter and urban proximity (Davis 2006). High density and unregulated construction are major contributing factors to the vulnerability of slums to natural disasters. For example, slum dwellers in Dhaka, Bangladesh are especially impacted by flooding, a seasonal occurrence that contaminates their water supply, destroys housing and disrupts their livelihoods (OCHA/IRIN & UN-HABITAT 2007). The unmonitored and unregulated erection of slum dwellings

on high-risk floodplains leave dwellers exposed to the harsh climatic events prevalent in Bangladesh. While the degrading realities of slum life are grim, many persist in slum habitation for multiple reasons. The slum is borne from the interdependent relationship between the city and the urban poor (Lloyd 1979). The poor rely on the city for income, whilst the city relies on them to do the menial jobs urbanites shun. These jobs are usually the dirty, dangerous and often, demeaning jobs essential for city maintenance. Despite the job description, the monetary benefits 2


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of their new urban livelihoods are substantial, for example, 66 percent of city migrants in Brazil were noted to receive greater incomes in an urban environment (Quirk 2007). The proximity of the city allows inhabitants to benefit from urban employment opportunities, free from the limitations of the rural domain. Financial gains are not the only benefits of slum life. In many developed countries, the middle and upper-class experience increasing social isolation in their auto-centric suburbs. In contrast, slums foster a tight-knit community amongst its dwellers (Lloyd 1979). Pieced together by its inhabitants, the organic development of slums grew not from the implementation of controlled planning measures, but local collaboration. The densely constructed environments are thus consciously aware of the human desire for social activity and interaction. The narrow corridors restrict transportation to slow modes, such as walking and cycling, allowing slum dwellers to create a network of acquaintances that gradually evolve into relationships (Gehl 2006). They identify with their surroundings, develop a local familiarity to the area and as such, create an attachment and sense of belonging (Fried & Gleicher 1961). Despite assumptions, slums do not have a transient population, but rather a stable one that is able to nurture and cultivate these networks within the slum community (Lloyd 1979). The prevalence of community bonds supports the development of informal economic activity that often arises from slum environments. It is the “rich, informal social life” (Eckstein 1990, pp.7) in those environments that encourage inhabitants to demonstrate their creativity, resourcefulness and entrepreneurial vigour (Eckstein 1990). Jane Jacobs’ experience in the North End neighbourhood in Boston is exemplary of how the relationships between slum inhabitants can contribute to the positive development of an environment. Having been refused loans for rehabilitation work, the community consolidated their resources and through combined efforts, transformed North End into a beautiful and healthy neighbourhood with a vibrant street culture (Jacobs 1961). The social stigma of slum dwellers as peoples entrapped in the “culture of poverty” (Lloyd 1979, pp.57) is largely unfounded. They are not typified by passivity or defeatist attitudes (Lloyd 1979). Instead, slums enable the entrepreneurial urban poor to establish

and capitalise on local economic opportunities and create bustling informal economies that often benefit the wider city as well (Eckstein 1990). In recent years, slum community movements have risen to prominence. Grassroots action in slums like Dharavi in Mumbai, or the Orangi Pilot Project in Pakistan, demonstrates the power of strong community synergy and how it can perpetuate change. Refusal of the government to recognize slums and persistence in traditional top-down methods of slum clearance reflects ignorance of these advancements in slum representation. The marginalisation faced by slum dwellers 3


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is largely the result of discrimination, poor governance and the misallocation of resources; However, the self-driven empowerment of slum communities and their entrepreneurial mindset makes evident that the urban poor should no longer be viewed as an “impediment to progress” (OCHA/IRIN & UN-HABITAT 2007, pp.11) but potential contributors to a forward-moving city. According to the United Nations, “no country has grown rich before its people shifted to cities” (Quirk 2007). Great cities of today arose from similar problems of urbanisation centuries ago (OCHA/IRIN & UN-HABITAT 2007, pp.10). Governments should acknowledge that if history informs the future, slums are but the beginning of a richer urban environment for their cities.

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LIST OF REFERENCES Davis, M., 2006. Planet of Slums, Verso, New York. Fried, M. & Gleicher, P. 1961. ‘Some Sources of Residential Satisfaction in an Urban Slum’, Journal of the American Planning Association, vol.27, no.4, pp.305315 Gehl, J 2006. excerpt from Life Between Buildings: using public spaces, Danish Architectural Press, Copenhagen, pp.9-38 Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Vintage Books, New York. Lloyd, P., 1979. Slums of Hope? Shanty Towns of the Third World, Penguin Books Ltd, Manchester University Press, Manchester. OCHA/IRIN & UN-HABITAT., 2007. Tomorrow’s crises today, Progress Press Co. Ltd, Malta. Ooi, G.L. & Phua, K.H., 2007, ‘Urbanization and Slum Formation’, Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 84, No.1, pp.27-33 Quirk, M., 2007. ‘Bright Lights, Big Cities’, Atlantic Monthly, December, pp.32-33. UN-HABITAT., 2003, Slums of the World: The face of urban poverty in the new millennium?, Habitat Publications, Nairobi.

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Urban History Slums  

URBAN HISTORY ESSAY #3 Slums are therefore “invisible [cities]” (UN-HABITAT 2003, pp.6) , blank voids on city maps that are denied recogniti...

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