The Complexity of Slums: Mapping, Planning, Drafting Laws, Destroying Myths

Image Caption: The slums of Caracas, Venezuela demonstrate some of the difficulties in defining the concept of a ‘slum’ and how researchers struggle to measure their effects.


Living in a big city may have its downsides, such as traffic, violence, and air pollution. And yet, despite this, people still feel safe when they arrive at home. However, this is not always the case for the whole urban population. Large swathes of the urban population, those who live in what are often called ‘slums’ are deprived of basic infrastructure and public services, such as water and sanitation.

According to UN Habitat, the world’s slum population is estimated to reach 889 million by 2020.[1] For this reason, it is important to investigate the origins of slum population and their land-use patterns. The idea that cities can actually rid themselves of slums is wholly unachievable. As Rout discusses, slum dwellers are exposed to abusive working conditions.[2] They are required to work longer hours, with little to no salary, and lack social security as well as health protection. And this is not mentioning the maltreatment and violence they must endure. Slum improvement policies currently in place are not enough to change the configuration of capitalism. We might conclude that rapid urban growth is not the cause of slums.

Population growth is not an isolated cause of slums in most of Sub-Saharan Africa.[3] It was aggravated by urban planning mistakes made over two decades marked by a continuous declining economic performance, political instability, and institutional decay. Even as states  satisfied the needs of certain people who lived in slums, they very often continued investing in capitalistic policies. However, this does not solve the underlying problem of poverty. In fact, this is the called creative destruction of the economy and the maintenance of bourgeois will.

Slums are not an isolated phenomenon; they are completely related to economics. Building new houses is not enough to remedy this issue if people do not have the means to maintain them. Although governments are making accords with corporations and banks with the intention of solving the issue, they are often cheating the lower classes of society. Politicians continue to promise better conditions for the poor population; however, they rarely make a real effort to improve their condition.

In order to avoid very specific definitions and miracle solutions, this essay makes an effort to simply investigate land-use changes and driving forces related to this issue. In order to do so, this essay uses a variety of elements using different scales, for instance, land-use policies, slum demolitions and slum upgrading programs driven by governments and economic factors of slums shifts such as tourism.

It is not a simple task to characterize a slum. Instead of defining the term, there are some people that prefer to focus on the precarious material conditions of their construction; others prefer to understand the neighborhood and its deprivation; and others prefer to focus on the economics index based on purchasing power. In practice, every city in the world tends to define slums differently, even though efforts have been made for years to establish objective measures with which to demarcate the major problem areas.[4]

Although researchers and UN Habitat have discussed the lack of a consensus definition of slums, a general definition is better because it may be applied universally. The slum is a relative concept, changing very quickly and varying from region to region. Thus, it may be better to approach it with an understanding of poverty in general. A general definition overcomes these problems and allows efforts are focus in understand land-use pattern, sociological questions and deprivations.

Analyzing different human activities of production, appropriation and modification of space is an interesting approach to investigate specific places. Kombe used interviews and field surveys in his research.[5] His research concluded that urbanization in poverty underpins and catalyzes changes in land use, land transactions, increased rural–urban immigration and the overall transformation of land use in the peri-urban areas. Furthermore, he argues that land-use changes in slums area are different, and traditional urban planning is not suitable to manage this issue. The lack of opportunities makes communities create new rules of life and purpose in their organic development. Based on spatio-temporal analysis of census data collected in slums of Rio de Janeiro, O’Hare and Barke conclude that the poverty has a heterogeneous nature.[6] The slums in Rio de Janeiro are sprawled along the whole territory due to its physical characteristics. Land-use analysis discusses boundaries and its relations, it allows the creation of methods to evaluate the region as well as its driving forces. Temporal land-use analysis of slums allows the government to discuss the interaction between several dimensions of this process and their behavior through the time. The main aim of this approach is to demystify generalizations.

Dupont discusses demolitions policies in Delhi occurring since the beautification project was designed as larger public interest.[7] However, the aim of the redevelopment of the city has often resulted in pushing the slums further away. As Steinbrink discusses, the real intention behind such efforts is usually not disclosed to slum populations. In Brazil, for example, the settlements receive environmental notification in order to justify the announced relocations, because slums are located in areas of landslides, floods or protected areas.

On the other hand, Cavalheiro and Abiko conclude that involuntary removal is not a determining factor in dwellers’ satisfaction.[8] Their study was focused on developing a methodology to evaluate slum resettlement based on interviews. For example, the location of the new housing contributed significantly to their satisfaction.

In India, Ghertner presents the process of the creation of a nuisance law in Delhi.[9] This law would provide the application of positive technologies in a slum’s drainage system, however, it was used to give to government responsibility to decide the maintenance of slums.

This law developed a hygienist discourse, and it pointed out the illegality of slum encroachment. Thus, it allowed society claims to remove slums using petitions based on aesthetic criteria, because they created a clear relation in their discourse between slums and urban waste.

Another example of this kind of policy was found in Kenya, where land tenure was synonymous with power. Klopp defines slum demolition as a well-established technique of political containment and social control in Africa.[10] Slum clearance was used as social control and punish insubordination by withdrawing access to land.

Furthermore, rubble and debris from the demolished settlements are visible for a long time, which proves that the objective was only the clearance of slum-dwellers. This kind of policy only emphasizes the class struggle, in which the interest of the bourgeoisie is defended by the government and legitimated by the law. When slums dwellers are removed, where are they moved to? Is it possible to track their migration and identify if they have raised a new slum somewhere else?

Land Tenure

Considering that we live in a capitalist system, it is important to discuss that private property is the basis of its development. Always this conception is used to debate encroachments. For this reason, I believe that land tenure security is one of the first topics to be discussed about housing issues.

Land tenure security is of paramount importance as a stepping stone for those who need to establish themselves as citizens in urban areas.[11] Exactly this concept might be discussed in the case of India, because the slum dwellers’ citizenships were questioned due to their being public land encroachers.

Macedo also discussed land tenure in Brazil, her research was based on a legal framework and local social-historical demands. Recent the Brazilian government developed a special political department to discuss urban problems. Its work is focused on guaranteeing the principle of land’s social function is followed. In Brazil, it asserts that the right of private ownership includes an obligation to use land in ways that benefit society as a whole.[12]

On the other hand, Handzic concludes that firstly it is requested to replicate the socioeconomic conditions of the planned city before addressing the legality.[13] However, he explains that many authors think that formalization with land tenure is the unique way to achieve full inclusion of informal areas in formal city. According to him, it is important to remember that receiving land titles and their benefits also brings obligations. Paying of property taxes is one example, and, as we know, unfortunately, many low-income families do not have stable incomes that allow them to pay municipal taxes.

Thus, would land tenure security be an agent of gentrification? Is it possible to investigate if, when slum dwellers have land titles, they invest in improvement of their houses? Do these  neighborhoods tend to be integrated faster to economy of legal city? Or, is there an increase in migration rates after legalizations?

Upgrading slums

Successful slum upgrading needs a combination of good policy, mobilization and financial support. Using the example of Mumbai, Mukhija argues that projects of upgrading slums are more common in the periphery, although the majority of the slums population is concentrated in Eastern Suburbs and works further from their work.[14]

Goebel has used informant interviews, field survey, Census data and documentary review.[15] He identifies the major impediments to a sustainable low-cost housing provision in urban South Africa. His study presents that it is necessary to combine low-cost and sustainable projects. In this specific case, social history (such as, racial discrimination, poverty and ill-health) also poses serious obstacles to upgrading slums and their integration into the planned city.

Some neoliberalist governments advocate for cutting public expenditure for social services. One such advocate, Alan Gilbert, studies the examples of Chile, Colombia and South-Africa in 20th century.[16] The main argument he posits in defense of the capital subsidy was that it offered a way of helping poor families obtain a house, without letting public expenditure get out of hand. However, the logic of the land market commands that these popular houses are built in peripheral areas, reaffirming social segregation through the spatial segregation.

Neoliberalist governments have the tendency to avoid such difficult problems as land tenure, cost recovery and community responsibility.[17] Development agencies are under pressure not to delay the lending process and the beginning of new projects.

Another issue about transferring the responsibility of providing housing is credit requirements by banks. For example, in Chile, it was required by the savings requirement, which puts this public policy beyond the reach of the most needy. Burra also discusses how the government of India has introduced a loan scheme for urban poor, but it has only helped who had land tenure, excluding most slum dwellers as a result.[18]

As discussed, slums involve economic issues. Poor people are by and large unable to take loans. When they are able, this financial circuit brings negative impacts into their lives because they are not stable enough to bear this kind of cost.

Fox argues that slums in Sub-Saharan Africa are a result of ‘‘disjointed modernization.”[19] It was demonstrated from a survey using demographic, economic, and institutional data. Also, it is presented how African governments’ policies internalized the anti-urbanization bias and laissez-faire discourse in recent decades despite the rapid and persistent growth of urban populations in the region.

Marx et al. understands the slums as a transitory phase in the life cycle of rural migrant.[20] The study uses historical and contemporary facts to discuss that the challenge of slums is not simply one of housing policy. It is presented how human capital threshold impacts this. It joins investment inertia and a “policy trap”, and it could be prevented by seizing economic opportunities offered by geographic proximity. In addition, they purpose a holistic approach to address housing needs for rural migrants, health and sanitation issues, local governance, private savings and investments, and land market.

Including slums in the economy means new consumers. Private service companies will seize the opportunity to extend their markets areas into them. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent the slum dwellers can meet the additional costs. Is it possible to define that these economic shifts are changing land-use patterns?

Freire-Medeiros investigates the special case of Brazilian slums in Rio de Janeiro and the so-called ‘social tourism’ based on a sociological approach.[21] She includes different strategies in her methodology: long interviews with qualified informants, field observation, and participant observation in different tours. She built an interesting discussion about the factors which attract people to visit slums and how companies manage these excursions. It identified the global cinema as an important agency to promote this kind of tourism.

Cinema has attracted the interest of people to visit slums.[22] While ‘City of God’ has built an image of Brazilian slums, the Oscar-winning film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ encapsulates the Western curiosity and fascination with these segregated spaces.

Dürr develops the study focused in an ethnographic approach to delineate the relation between slums, their representations, travelling imaginaries and tourism in Mexico.[23] Tourism might be analyzed as a process that tries to include slums as part of the urban environment. However, there is the risk of converting this banned socio-space into picturesque, erotic and aestheticized imaginary remains, where poverty-ridden urban areas take on a theme-park role in the process of touristification and consumerism.

Indeed, Freire-Medeiros presents these touristic agencies in Rio de Janeiro that promise social experience enhancing the local economy and providing leisure and adventure. Although they explore poverty as a tourist commodity, guides orient people not to give alms to anyone, because they do not want to stimulate the professionalization of poverty as an instrument of labor.

By including slums in capitalist circuit, what are the consequences to their land-use and population? Does it motivate migration and cause slums in other regions?

Conclusion

This essay has explored the complexity that arises when discussing the issue of slums and land-use policies. There are contradictory movements towards slums. Although it is possible to identify some correlations, we did not find causality between factors. It is very difficult to define slum as a unique global phenomenon, because there are specific driving forces in each place. International organizations make efforts to define strategies to solve this issue, however it is clear that the priority is economic growth.

By discussing the definition and technologies to identify slums, it is presented that very few studies discuss slums’ land-use changes. Without cartography of slums it is impossible to prove demolitions, their damages, and land-use change in general. Thus, I do not agree with authors that argue that slums cartography is a pillar to removal policies. Actually, I believe that its inexistence hides the problem. These maps must be used to empower slums dwellers.

Studies such as those developed by Kombe are most likely rare.[24] He compares three cases of informal settlements. His work presents the process of migration and different stages of the settlement, and it discusses their infrastructure and the socioeconomic characteristics of the slum. He concludes that a shift in the discourse (toward recognizing their positive contributions) might support their development. It has been used to encourage governments to take a more active approach to managing urbanization in a way that maximizes public welfare.

Researchers and governments develop many studies about the future of slums without asking the squatters what their priorities are. They ought to participate in this process through democratic channels. Indeed, it is essential that slum dwellers define their own upgrading, determining the process themselves rather than being objects of private developers’ designs.[25]

As presented earlier, urbanization makes an effort to solve this issue; however, it also causes new problems. It is very difficult to evaluate their efficiency and their influence on land-use changes. For this reason, it is important to not conclude that the elite urbanism perspectives are the reason of slums. We must be more specific, as Ghertner and Steinbrink, it is necessary to present political mechanisms which might make these goals become real outcomes.[26]

In Brazil, for example, we could realize that a special governmental department was created in order to focus on urban issues.[27] However, due to global events, its focus was on beautification policies in order to attract tourists and investments.[28] Thus, the strategies of upgrading slums decreased, and policies were focused on building low-cost houses, which has compromised the benefits of the project.[29]

In India, as presented by Rout, many researchers argue that slums are not problems to be solved, because for the poor and to the government, they represent a solution.[30] Burra presents the possibility of creating a loan, although it was not successful in poorest neighborhoods since land tenure was required as proof for the loan.[31] In addition, the nuisance law was used to justify demolitions.

Fox and Klopp demonstrate how urbanization does not solve slums issues in Sub-Saharan Africa.[32] [33] Actually, they present the relationship between urban policies and changes in slums. Fekade presents the formal restrictive environment of urban management in this region, including notions of urbanization standards, regulatory controls, procedures, tenure arrangements, institutions and laws.[34]

To conclude, this essay has demonstrated the importance of relating different levels of analysis. In summary, remote sensing approaches exist because definitions of slums are controversial. This controversy occurs because there are market interests, welfare interests and bureaucracy. Thus, in order to try to equalize these opposite interests, different projects are created, such as upgrading slums or slum tourism. The real intentions of these projects, however, are questionable.


About the Author

Pedro Janzantti is a Geography undergraduate student at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Having completed internships in the Czech Republic and Canada, Pedro is interested in social and environmental issues, spatiotemporal analysis and Geographic Information Science.


[1] UN-Habitat. State of world’s cities 2010/2011: United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), 2010.

[2] Rout, Nihar Ranjan. “Slum growth in Bhubaneswar; A problem or solution.” ITPI Journal 5, (2008): 59-64.

[3] Fekade, Wubalem. “Deficits of formal urban land management and informal responses under rapid urban growth, an international perspective.” Habitat International 24, n. 2 (2000): 127-150.

[4] Gilbert, Alan. “The return of the slum: does language matter?” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 31, n. 4 (2007): 697-713.

[5] Kombe, Wilbard Jackson. “Land use dynamics in peri-urban areas and their implications on the urban growth and form: the case of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.” Habitat International 29, n. 1 (2005): 113-135.

[6] O’Hare, Greg; Barke, Michael. “The favelas of Rio de Janeiro: A temporal and spatial analysis.” GeoJournal 56, n. 3 (2002): 225-240.

[7] Dupont, Véronique. “Slum demolitions in Delhi since the 1990s: an appraisal.” Economic and Political Weekly, (2008): 79-87.

[8] Cavalheiro, Débora de Camargo; Abiko, Alex. “Evaluating slum (favela) resettlements: The case of the Serra do Mar Project, Sao Paulo, Brazil.” Habitat International 49, (2015): 340-348.

[9] Ghertner, D. Asher. “Analysis of new legal discourse behind Delhi’s slum demolitions.” Economic and Political Weekly, (2008): 57-66.

[10] Klopp, Jacqueline M. “Remembering the destruction of Muoroto: slum demolitions, land and democratisation in Kenya.” African Studies 67, n. 3 (2008): 295-314.

[11] Macedo, Joseli. “Urban land policy and new land tenure paradigms: Legitimacy vs. legality in Brazilian cities.” Land Use Policy 25, n. 2 (2008): 259-270.

[12] Ondetti, Gabriel. “The social function of property, land rights and social welfare in Brazil.” Land Use Policy 50, (2016): 29-37.

[13] Handzic, Kenan. “Is legalized land tenure necessary in slum upgrading? Learning from Rio’s land tenure policies in the Favela Bairro Program.” Habitat International 34, n. 1 (2010): 11-17.

[14] Mukhija, Vinit. “Upgrading housing settlements in developing countries: The impact of existing physical conditions.” Cities 18, n. 4 (2001):213-222.

[15] Goebel, Allison. “Sustainable urban development? Low-cost housing challenges in South Africa.” Habitat International 31, n. 3 (2007): 291-302.

[16] Gilbert, Alan. “Helping the poor through housing subsidies: lessons from Chile, Colombia and South Africa.” Habitat International 28, n. 1 (2004): 13-40.

[17] Werlin, Herbert. “The slum upgrading myth.” Urban Studies 36, n. 9 (1999): 1523-1534.

[18] Burra, Sundar. “Towards a pro-poor framework for slum upgrading in Mumbai, India.” Environment and Urbanization 17, n. 1 (2005): 67-88.

[19] Fox, Sean. “The political economy of slums: Theory and evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa.” World Development 54, (2014): 191-203.

[20] Marx, Benjamin; STOKER, Thomas; SURI, Tavneet. The economics of slums in the developing world. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, v. 27, n. 4, p. 187-210, 2013.

[21] Freire-Medeiros, Bianca. The favela and its touristic transits. Geoforum, v. 40, n. 4, p. 580-588, 2009.

[22] Dürr, Eveline. “Urban poverty, spatial representation and mobility: touring a slum in Mexico.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 36, n. 4 (2012): 706-724.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Kombe, Wilbard Jackson. “Land use dynamics in peri-urban areas and their implications on the urban growth and form: the case of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.” Habitat International 29, n. 1 (2005):113-135.

[25] Burra, Sundar. “Towards a pro-poor framework for slum upgrading in Mumbai, India.” Environment and Urbanization 17, n. 1 (2005): 67-88.

[26] Ghertner, D. Asher. “Analysis of new legal discourse behind Delhi’s slum demolitions.” Economic and Political Weekly, (2008): 57-66.

[27] Macedo, Joseli. “Urban land policy and new land tenure paradigms: Legitimacy vs. legality in Brazilian cities.” Land Use Policy 25, n. 2 (2008): 259-270.

[28] Freire-Medeiros, Bianca. “The favela and its touristic transits.” Geoforum 40, n. 4 (2009): 580-588.

[29] Cavalheiro, Débora de Camargo; Abiko, Alex. “Evaluating slum (favela) resettlements: The case of the Serra do Mar Project, Sao Paulo, Brazil.” Habitat International 49, (2015): 340-348.

[30] Rout, Nihar Ranjan. “Slum growth in Bhubaneswar; A problem or solution.” ITPI Journal 5, (2008): 59-64.

[31] Burra, Sundar. “Towards a pro-poor framework for slum upgrading in Mumbai, India.” Environment and Urbanization 17, n. 1 (2005): 67-88.

[32] Fox, Sean. “The political economy of slums: Theory and evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa.” World Development 54, (2014): 191-203.

[33] Klopp, Jacqueline M. “Remembering the destruction of Muoroto: slum demolitions, land and democratisation in Kenya.” African Studies 67, n. 3 (2008): 295-314.

[34] Fekade, Wubalem. “Deficits of formal urban land management and informal responses under rapid urban growth, an international perspective.” Habitat International 24, n. 2 (2000): 127-150.

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