Are ‘Slums’ Urban?

By Nidhi Singh nee Batra, Sn. Prog Officer-PRIA

Whenever I have thought of a city – I thought of it as one large urban theatre, where every actor has a role and a place, a stage which has the latent characteristics of being democratic. But in my recent visit to the slums of Raipur where PRIA is working towards strengthening voices of civil society on Urban Poverty– that image of a city has become extremely questionable.

Entering a ‘territory’ is difficult. Slums are one such ‘territory’. The moment one enters, there are all eyes that look up at you, stare at you with multiple questions and you know that you have impeached a boundary or a limit.

In ethology the term territory refers to any sociographical area that an animal of a particular species consistently defends against conspecifics (and, occasionally, animals of other species). Animals that defend territories in this way are referred to as territorial.

I have come with an architectural and urban design background where we have romanticized a city, seen it with pink glasses that even in a poverty stricken city, one finds immense beauty – and a joy of living. In all that romance, one tends to see urban- and urbanization as that in some essence blurs various boundaries. Limits of caste/religion/culture all get blurred to together form ‘an urban way of living’.

Lewis Mumford’s definition of the city says:

“The essential physical means of a city’s existence are the fixed site, the durable shelter, the permanent facilities for assembly, interchange, and storage; the essential social means are the social division of labor, which serves not merely the economic life but the cultural process. The city in its complete sense, then, is a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity. The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theater and is the theater. It is in the city, the city as theater, that man’s (sic) more purposive activities are focused, and work out, through conflicting and co-operating personalities, events, groups into more significant culminations.”

(Mumford 1937: 185)

The city with its architectural corpus is the theater in which urban life, urban drama unfolds. This urban drama continuously re-makes that architectural complexity, while creating a collectively shared understanding of the past, shared memories that become attached to particular architectural spaces. The city, with its monumentality and architectural poetics “intensifies and underlines the gestures of the actors and the action of the play” (Mumford)

But in a city of such immense soul, there are ‘territories’. What I want to question is whether this act of forming ‘territories’ really urban?! And I am here not saying that it is just the poor who have marked territories, it is also the rich- it just depends where you are an outsider and where are you a resident.

What I am internally questioning is how do we define/ rather ‘imagine’ and perceive ‘urban’? Cities have a very explicit imagery- and these images flash in your mind when you think of ‘urban’. Are enclosed territories- formed because of location, background, economic status, work profile – a feature that ‘I’ relate to as urban?

One thing is for sure, these enclaves of the urban poor, have a social order of their own – their urbanity might differ from your urbanity. And it is this very reason – distinguished urbanity- that makes ‘slums’ a contested space.

Humans probably just keep seeking order, uniformity and want the other to follow the more ‘accepted’ norm. And this is in so much contrast to our initial understanding of ‘City as a theatre’ were social drama unfolds…The fact that there are contesting urbanities – all having a role in one collective locale – is what exactly makes all these actors ‘urbane’. Even though lifestyles/ life practices may differ – it is ‘how’ to understand the ‘differences’ that is important. Most SRA/ Rehabilitation schemes fail – because they ‘fail’ to understand these ‘differences’. I was an intruder in the slums of Raipur- at least let’s not make the dwellers be intruders in their own city.




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4 thoughts on “Are ‘Slums’ Urban?

  1. Virajitha April 30, 2012 at 10:17 am Reply

    The idea in an urban atmosphere is the coming together of diverse people with diverse values and occupations, living together to make out a livelihood.That is what gives a city its identity, distinct from an rural area. That is why people from all backgrounds could call a city their home.That is an urban designers perceptive.Reality seems totally different!

    However, today, what is growing in a city is not the idea of openness but of closed doors. Territoriality and gated communities are becoming the norms of the day. People group together on the basis of a geographical location, occupational structure and many others. The question is why?

    The city today resembles a set of closed territorial spaces guarded closely by the people living within that space? The idea of ‘urban’ was to represent a stepping up in the evolutionary series of human development, where one moved away from the territorial groupings to a individual identity. Why then does ‘urban’ today seem to reemphasise territorial behavior, reflected in this feeling of discomfort, when one moves from one ‘territory’ to another?

    Perhaps it is because of the slow erosion of the cultural and architectural identity of the city through the loss of heritage? Perhaps history and a familiar architectural vocabulary anchored an urban settlement together in a way that the continuous run of steel, glass and concrete development isnt able to: Allowing one to loose oneself in a city and never be an outsider?

    Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere! However the question still lingers!

  2. Bharti Birla April 30, 2012 at 12:38 pm Reply

    How do you account for ‘rural’ pockets/territories in ‘urban’ areas? Do they maintain their primary rural identity in urban spaces or they too get tainted with the ‘urban’? Do we need special mechanisms to deal with these spaces and are the current programs, polices and structures able to meet the needs of such spaces? In Gujarat, they call these spaces as ‘Rurban’!

  3. Anonymous July 12, 2013 at 1:58 am Reply


  4. […] Are ‘Slums’ Urban? […]

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