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Why the World Needs to Get Ready for the Next Generation of Slums

Why the World Needs to Get Ready for the Next Generation of Slums

People who live in slums don’t have easy lives to begin with. Lately, though, politicians have been doing their best to make matters even more complicated. A few weeks ago the Venezuelan government started evicting Caracas’s infamous 45-story slum, the "Tower of David," relocating residents to government housing outside the city. In early July, a few weeks earlier, a thousand slum dwellers in Islamabad found themselves confronting riot police as they tried to protest the Pakistani government’s plans to evict them from their homes ("katchi adabi" settlements). Around the same time, a local government in India approved plans to build the first of 10,000 new "transit accommodations" for displaced slum dwellers. That followed Bombay’s brutal anti-slum drive in May, when authorities bulldozed more than 100 family homes, forcing over 600 residents onto the streets.

If it seems like conflict over slums is mounting, that’s because it is: The urbanization of the world is accelerating. In 1950, just 29 percent of the world’s population lived in cities; back then, that was roughly 742 million people. Today, more than half of the world’s people — more than 3.5 billion — are citydwellers. That may sound like a dramatic shift, but you ain’t seen nothing yet. Roughly 70 million people move into cities every year, and the vast majority of them usually end up in illegal or informal urban settlements. According to U.N. estimates, by 2050, a third of the world’s population will live not just in cities, but in slums.

The growth of slums is a bit like climate change: We know it’s happening. We know it’s important. But no one, so far, seems to have much of a response.

Policymakers tend to view slums as a necessary evil, a problem best contained through coercion or ad hoc responses. Experts point out, however, that there is a rational way to deal with the coming surge of urbanization: Plan for it. If cities are prepared to anticipate and acknowledge the inevitable influx of urban migrants, slums might not be slums.

Slums are characterized by shoddy construction, inadequate plumbing, and a severe dearth of public services. "Slum" itself is, in some people’s eyes, a dirty word — or at least one with such negative connotations that the stigma of being a "slum dweller" can diminish residents’ prospects, pushing them to the margins of society. City authorities usually allow slums to grow, unmanaged and underserved, and then react to the resulting problems by evicting or displacing residents or bulldozing their homes. (The photo above shows a mother and daughter who were evicted from their home in a Rio de Janeiro favela in advance of the World Cup.) Thanks to the misguided belief that slum migrants will move into better housing once they’ve set down roots, cities tend to neglect public or affordable housing initiatives that could help poor newcomers. "The problem of acceptance of slums is that it’s discouraged forward planning," says Larry English, a leading expert on urban development at the humanitarian organization Homeless International. "The idea that people transition out of slums — this is lazy thinking." (I spoke to him and the other experts cited in this post at a recent conference in Dubai hosted by the philanthropic group Geneva Global and the Legatum Foundation.)

English explains that the laissez-faire attitude toward slums arose in the 1970s and 80s, when city planners began to "embrace slums as a grassroots alternative to formally planned settlements — a solution rather than a problem." This caused many governments to recognize slums as legal settlements — in itself a significant improvement over previous approaches — but permitted them to let development issues take a back seat until community political movements demand they "upgrade" public services and infrastructure. It’s a solution that makes little economic sense, says English, noting that upgrading an existing slum costs five times more than if it were planned before settlement occurred.

Some countries, like South Africa, have been proactive in improving existing slums and planning for future migrants. But others, like India, are struggling to do the same. According to Pramod Nigudkar of the Committed Communities Development Trust in India, 52.5 percent of the people in Mumbai live in slums that take up just 9 percent of the city’s land. Though migration to the city has abated slightly, the city has still failed to prepare for the estimated 60,000 people moving in each year. In 2000, the Maharashtra State Government recognized existing slums as "legal," but have yet to do so for newer ones. The current approach favors contracting private builders to "redevelop" the land — which often involves evicting or relocating slum dwellers, and, according to Nigudkar, the city has done little in the way of planning for future urban migration.

What this comes down to is systematic neglect of slum dwellers, who continue to be treated by cities as outsiders. At the Dubai conference, participants outlined the many opportunities that slum dwellers offer to the cities they join. They offer new markets for products and services. Many are themselves necessarily entrepreneurial, and, en masse, they contribute to "agglomeration economics," bringing down costs, easing infrastructure needs, and providing labor. But regardless of what they bring, slum dwellers are, first and foremost, human beings entitled to basic human rights and a modicum of respect from governments.

As Janice Perlman, scholar and author of Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro, explained, the essential problem is that cities are failing to treat new urban migrants as people with equal rights. "I think the real issue is that they don’t have the same choices as everyone else in where they live," she explains. "It’s all about legitimizing the community as working class people with equal protection, equal rights, and then they can live however they choose to."

Ready or not, urban migrants are coming. And once they arrive, doesn’t it make sense to treat them like human beings with all the attendant rights and responsibilities — just like the citydwellers who arrived before them?