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the slums

a play on words

Ian Montgomery

WorldChanging Senior Analyst

Sep 21, 2018 | Author-Ian-Montgomery, poverty

The Slum. We all hear about, see, and perhaps refer to them as if they were a somehow isolated and hopeless reality in contrast to our habitats. The term is our immediate go-to when we think of poverty along with all our opinions or criticisms in tow. We connect certain behaviors and appearances to it. Maybe we could admit that when we experience a slum dweller’s “lack” in education or good conduct, we associate this easily and negatively with a term we often don’t fully examine.

“They’re from the slums.” Too harsh?

Let’s be honest, the word “slums” brings about certain images in our head that aren’t necessarily pretty. Right away it seems to connote a problem; a condition wherein there is a kind of danger in its surroundings. It stirs up certain feelings and judgements about how one should live. Somehow, it’s easy to justify “bad behavior” or a poor way of being with living in the slums, as if it were a given. Alongside these common criticisms (perceptions) are our sympathies or lack of.

There are about a billion people around the world living in slums today, accounting for 13% of the global population. The UN admits that this is a minimum number as it does not include figures for those without security of tenure (rights to live on the land). Some debate exists that the actual number is more like 2 billion, over a quarter of the Earth’s population. These places are becoming increasingly common as a result of displacement from rapid development and an influx of people from rural areas to megacities. You may wonder and think it might seem difficult to find a coherent way to define what a “slum” really is. But we certainly have a perception and it paints a kind of despair. From India to Argentina, there are a variety of local terms (shanty-towns, flavelas, squatter cities, etc.) to designate such places and its inhabitants.

According to Habitat for Humanity, irregular settlements are described as “slums” when they lack access to basic services, are unsafe and unhealthy, overcrowded, built on unstable structures and its inhabitants do not officially have the right to live there (no secure land tenure). The biggest slums in the world are located around megacities, such as Cape Town, Nairobi, Mumbai, Mexico City and Karachi. All these cities have been witnessing rapid economic growth in recent years but struggle with systemic issues of income inequality and lack of opportunities for the poorer classes.

Life for families living in slums is not only challenging but often brutal. Many struggle with overcrowding and lack of sanitation. They have no access to state services such as healthcare, and constantly experience discrimination by the mainstream population and authorities. Access to electricity is often illegally-tapped and dangerous or from small generators that pollute profusely. Rape and domestic violence are rampant. Many children are forced to drop out of school to help make ends meet, or worse, are trafficked; sometimes by their own parents. Clean drinking water can be very difficult to find and contaminated water contributes to an estimated 2.2 to 5 million deaths per year. As a rising middle-class thrives on urban development, slum inhabitants are increasingly pushed to the periphery of services, culture and society.

But let’s hit the pause button on that for a minute and consider that life in the slums is more complex and often more collaborative than the pictures painted by the media.

Out of pure necessity, communities work together to help each other and come up with innovative ways to handle their problems. In many slums, residents learned not to rely on government officials and are instead taking matters into their own hands. In the Karachi slum Orangi Town, residents were tired of waiting for the local government to install public services, so they decided to build them with their own hands. With a population of 2.4 million people, Orangi Town residents were capable of installing sewerage pipes on over 8,000 streets. Now, more than 90% of the community has access to this kind of sanitation.

Slum dwellers are the most vulnerable group to climate change and related consequences, such as natural disasters. However, they might also be the most resilient and well-prepared group. In the recent drought in Cape Town, middle and upperclassmen in the city were shocked to find out just how difficult life is with limited water. In the slums, however, the drought was hardly even noticed. Slum dwellers have water-saving mechanisms inherited through generations of precarious living in the periphery. As one inhabitant put it: “We always have Day Zero”, referring to the feared day Cape Town is expected to run out of water.

It is important to recognize lessons that can be learned from these communities, but equally important not to romanticize them (especially with the growing phenomenon of “Slum Tourism”). While developed cities have recycling programs to reduce waste, slums produce very little waste. But that isn’t from some high-level plan, it is out of necessity. Families can’t afford to buy new materials to build their homes so they pick through the refuse of the comparably wealthy and find waste materials to reuse. Enterprising businesses buy bulk or semi-bulk goods and re-package them for single-use sales. Much like the current trend in sustainable urban planning, slums are almost universally walkable, high-density, mixed-use, close-knit communities with myriad micro-businesses.

People living in slums are also not politically passive. Pushed away by mainstream society, slum dwellers learn how to live with one another in a tight knit community with its own rules and culture. In the slums of Rio de Janeiro, where police shootings are common and stray bullets kill hundreds of people each year, the residents have protested against police brutality repeatedly. The murder of a popular slum-born city council woman called Marielle de Franco sparked protests across the city and the world.

It’s time we consider that we could have something to learn from people living in these harsh environments. These are places where people struggle to get by and yet they still manage to self-organize, develop community bonds and build resilience mechanisms to help them cope with reality. These are also places that embody many principals of sustainable urban planning and circular economies. The old saying goes: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” That couldn’t be more true.

Despite decades of warnings about climate change, resource depletion, over-population and abject inequality, it is the residents of global slums that really have the necessity and therefore the impetus to invent solutions to problems that the developed world are just beginning to face.

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