It was 1980 and the architect, Barjor Mehta, was deeply disappointed. There were no houses, no people and no chance that they would ever come, given the seemingly god-forsaken location—in an area called Arrumbakkam—so far from the city center in Madras (now Chennai). Having just completed his thesis on housing, he wrote a scathing news article in the Times of India denouncing the sites and services approach. Barjor wasn’t alone in his critique, and by the mid-1990s the World Bank had almost entirely abandoned such projects.
In October 2015, Barjor, now Lead Urban Specialist at the Bank, invited me to revisit Arumbakkam and other neighborhoods developed, between 1977 and 1997, under four Bank-supported sites and services projects:
- Madras Urban Development Project
- Second Madras Urban Development Project
- Bombay Urban Development Project
- Tamil Nadu Urban Development Project
On a foggy winter morning in Dhaka, 41-year-old Jahid was sipping tea by a roadside stall.
“Life was very peaceful back in my village,” he reminisced, “but there was no work, so I moved to Dhaka. Even if I live in a slum, my children are better off here.”
Jahid is one of the 500,000 people that move to Dhaka city each year. Driven by the promise of economic opportunity as well as poverty in rural and coastal areas, it is estimated that half the population of Bangladesh will migrate to urban areas by 2030.
Urbanization can be catalyst for growth. Density – the clustering of firms and workers – can drive productivity, innovation and job creation. It is the benefits of agglomeration that once drew the country’s most important industry – the ready-made garments sector to Dhaka city.
However, it is the costs from congestion that are now pushing factories away, mainly to peri-urban areas. Why are factory owners leaving?
For starters, the tide of new migrants has overwhelmed urban infrastructure, basic services, as well as the stock of affordable housing – eroding the both the livability and competitiveness of Dhaka city. A recent World Bank report described South Asia’s urbanization trajectory as “messy and hidden” – reflected in the large-scale proliferation of slums and urban sprawl.
Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena’s Elemental firm designed the “half a good house”, which includes gaps between the houses for residents to fill according to their own needs.
The problem is that most cities are not prepared to absorb these numbers. The tragic result is chaos, inequality and environmental damage. One clear manifestation of the mismatch between people’s demand for opportunities to prosper and the inability of cities to maximize the benefits of agglomeration while minimizing the costs of congestion is the omnipresence of slums throughout the world. Today, one billion people live in slums; worse still, many of those settlements are in areas highly vulnerable to natural disasters. By 2030, this figure is expected to double.
To absorb this ever-increasing demand for affordable urban housing, would require creating, in effect, a new city capable of housing 1 million people – every week during the next 15 years. Governments are already overwhelmed. The private solution of reducing the size of dwellings and relocating them to the peripheries of cities has produced economic and social segregation, which has become a ticking bomb for unrest.
During the past 12 years, the Chilean architect, Alejandro Aravena, 48, has offered solutions to the global housing crisis that are so creative, speedy, budget-conscious and scalable that he has been awarded the 2016 Pritzker Prize, considered the Nobel for architecture. His work—and the prize—challenge architects to envision innovative buildings not just for businesses and other wealthy clients but for all the people.
Children from the Mukuru Talent Development center showcasing their creativity in the Lunga Lunga slum in Kenya.
From Bombay to Manila to the favelas in Rio, more than one billion people are estimated to be currently living in slums. According to the United Nations, this figure is expected to surpass the two billion mark by 2030.
With no roof or solid walls and no access to clean water or toilets, living conditions in the slums are unhygienic and hazardous. Considering that approximately 70% of slum dwellers are under 30, the future of the slums rests in the hands of the young generations. What do these youth need to reverse the trend and improve the daily lives of slum dwellers?
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
In Kenya, Using Tech To Put An 'Invisible' Slum On The Map
"If you were to do a search for the Nairobi city slum of Mathare on Google Maps, you'd find little more than gray spaces between unmarked roads. Slums by nature are unplanned, primordial cities, the opposite of well-ordered city grids. Squatters rights rule, and woe to the visitor who ventures in without permission. But last year, a group of activist cartographers called the Spatial Collective started walking around Mathare typing landmarks into hand-held GPS devices." READ MORE
Poverty Matters Blog
Telling countries they're the worst in the world doesn't really help them
"The west seems to be obsessed with ranking things. Whether it's Mark Owen's top 20 hits, the Forbes rich list or the 100 greatest Britons, success is apparently relative rather than absolute. But the urge to order things does not stop with pop culture and celebrities. In development, it extends to ranking countries, and not usually by their successes but by their failings. The human development index, the global peace index, the failed states index; time and again mainly northern-based organisations feel at liberty to opine about the progress of nations. The countries with the worst rankings in these indices undoubtedly have serious challenges they need to confront. The pseudo-scientific concoctions that underpin many development indices contain elements of truth, and the countries ranked as most failed have every reason to take a long hard look at themselves." READ MORE
According to recent estimates, South Asia is facing a shortage of 38 million housing units, largely affecting low and middle-income households. It comes as no surprise that informal settlements, slums and squatters are growing in all major urban centers across Asia to supplement the demand from urban poor. India alone has 52,000 slums inhabited by 14 percent of its total urban population. Almost, 50 percent of total population in Karachi, i.e. 7.6 million persons, lives in Katchi-Abadis. Bangladesh has 2,100 slums and more than 2 million slum dwellers in Dhaka. Even in Afghanistan, 80 percent of residents in capital city, Kabul, live in informal settlements.
Got back from a fascinating week visiting Oxfam India last week, so the next few days’ post will be on India, sadly the world leader in poverty (by a long way). One of the areas that Oxfam is keen to develop there is its work on urban poverty, where it already works with migrant labourers, waste pickers, domestic workers, and on issues such as housing and access to identity papers. So I spent a couple of days visiting programmes and talking to partners in the slums of Delhi and Lucknow. (I prepped by reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers – wonderful book)
I know they’re grim to live in, but I have to confess to really enjoying visits to urban ‘informal settlements’, especially at dusk, with that particular sense of intimacy as cooking smells and firesmoke drift through the air and domestic workers, rickshaw pullers and street vendors return at the end of another hardscrabble day to grab an hour or two to socialize and relax.
But today, we’re encroaching on that precious leisure time, chatting to an animated group of slum leaders, mainly women, on the edge of Lucknow (see pic). Here, an Oxfam partner, the Vigyan Foundation, is promoting community organization to demand identity papers, water and sanitation, and access to health and education.
Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. Random House, 2012.
Katherine Boo’s book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” digs deep into life in a Mumbai undercity. The author escapes the dichotomies that roll off our tongues when we speak of places that are replete with disparity; instead she spends seven years interviewing and observing, and brings us a story of life, hope, and despair in Annawadi, a slum precariously perched between an international airport and a sewage pond. What emerges is a sensitive, careful, complex portrait of characters that use the means at their disposal – hard work, political connections, lies, or prayers – to climb over the high walls that separate their city from the rest of Mumbai.
Using trash as a thread to tell the story, Boo illustrates both the feudal nature of life in Annawadi and the absolute segregation – the boundaries, to use Richard Sennett’s term – between the slum residents and those who live on the other side of the great big wall dividing the slum from the international airport. The narration is centered on Abdul and his family, who make money by selling recyclable materials from the city’s garbage. Their relative wealth has afforded them a position above the trash pickers’ – they own a small storage facility that allows them to purchase waste from collectors and sell it to waste dealers.
In the many slums I have visited in Latin America, Asia and Africa, I am always struck by the resourcefulness and resilience of residents. Slum dwellers face many hardships in their daily life – low incomes, overcrowded living conditions in high risk areas such as flood zones or steep hillsides, and limited access to clean water, sanitation, transport or solid waste services.
These challenges are only made worse by the impacts of climate change and natural hazards. Heavy rains can quickly turn into a disastrous flood as a result of insufficient or ineffective drainage. Such flooding can destroy the limited assets of poor households, halt economic activity, contaminate water supply, lead to disease and displace residents. With the increase in weather extremes, it is anticipated that such events will happen with recurring frequency.