Slum Mechanics!

What are slums?

Since it first appeared in the 1820s, the word slum has been used to identify the poorest quality housing, and the most unsanitary conditions; a refuge for marginal activities including crime, ‘vice’ and drug abuse; a likely source for many epidemics that ravaged urban areas; a place apart from all that was decent and wholesome. Today, the catch all term “slum” is loose and deprecatory. It has many connotations and meanings and is seldom used by the more sensitive, politically correct, and academically rigorous. But in developing countries, the word lacks the pejorative and divisive original connotation, and simply refers to lower quality or informal housing.


Simple definition of a slum would be “a heavily populated urban area characterised by substandard housing and squalor”. This straightforward description reflects the essential physical and social features of slums, but more meat needs to be put on these bones.

Slums in the traditional sense are housing areas that were once respectable – even desirable – but which deteriorated after the original dwellers moved on to new and better parts of the city. The condition of the old homes declined as they were progressively subdivided and rented out to lower income people.


Today, slums have come to include the vast informal settlements that are quickly becoming the most visible manifestation of urban poverty in developing world cities. Such settlements are known by many different names and are characterized by a variety of tenure arrangements. In all cases, however, the buildings found there vary from the simplest shack to permanent and sometimes surprisingly well-maintained structures, but what most slums share in common is a lack of clean water, electricity, sanitation and other basic services.

Slums can be divided into two broad types: “slums of hope” and “slums of despair”. The first are settlements on an upward trend, largely made up of newer, usually self-built structures, and those are in or have recently been through a process of development, consolidation and improvement. The second group comprise “declining” neighbourhoods in which environmental conditions and services are in a process of seemingly inevitable decay. Unfortunately, the history of slums in Europe, North America and Australia has demonstrated that, without appropriate interventions, slums of hope can all too easily yield to despair, a self-reinforcing condition that can continue for a very long time.


According to UN Expert Group slum is an area that combines to various extents the following characteristics:

  • Inadequate access to safe water;
  • Inadequate access to sanitation and other infrastructure;
  • Poor structural quality of housing;
  • Overcrowding; and
  • Insecure residential status.

These characteristics are being proposed because they are largely quantifiable and can be used to measure progress toward the Millennium Development Goal to significantly improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.

Why do slums exist?

However slums are defined, the question remains “why do they exist?” Slums come about because of, and are perpetuated by, a number of forces. Among these are

  • Rapid rural-to-urban migration
  • Increasing urban poverty
  • Inequality
  • Insecure tenure
  • Globalisation
  • Failed policies
  • Bad governance
  • Corruption
  • Inappropriate regulations
  • Dysfunctional land markets
  • Unresponsive financial systems
  • Fundamental lack of political will


Source: UNHABITAT Report and other sources



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: