Lessons from the Slums: Finding Solutions That Work

In Worldwatch’s State of the World 2012, author Eric Belsky argues that “governments must be proactive rather than reactive in addressing slums and the growth of urban poverty.” Worldwide, more than 800 million people live in slums, where they often lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation and face crowded living conditions, high levels of crime, and fear of eviction. Although government intervention is needed to address these problems, many governments have been challenged by unclear land ownership in slums and the pursuit of economic activities outside the social or legal norms. From a political perspective, it is often easier to ignore the slums than to address them.

Urban slum in Hanoi, Vietnam (Photo via Flickr, UN media)

But as both slum populations and global awareness of these disadvantaged areas grow, some governments and organizations are developing new approaches to integrating slums into cities. While some of these methods are innovative solutions, others seem to be nothing more than temporary band-aids.

In Mumbai, India, several nongovernmental organizations, as well as local and national government agencies, are working on slum rehabilitation. Their efforts are focused primarily on improving housing conditions. Throughout the process, slum dwellers are involved in appointing developers and in creating communities that further implement rehabilitation programs, such as building low-cost housing to replace the crowded, unsafe conditions. Once housed, the slum dwellers receive tax reductions and get help with apartment maintenance, in addition to a guarantee that the tenement cannot be sold for at least 10 years.

While low-cost housing is a substantial improvement, many of Mumbai’s slum development schemes neglect important aspects of slum culture, such as multi-use spaces, social interactions, street life, and hygienic conditions. Interviews with slum dwellers reveal an unwillingness to relocate because residents will lose their businesses and communities. To successfully rehabilitate and integrate slums, such concerns must be incorporated into rehabilitation attempts, and slum dwellers should be invited to participate in all stages of development. Programs must also consider transportation, employment opportunities, and education.

One example of a largely successful slum rehabilitation program can be found in Curitiba, Brazil. Here, new bus stops are built when the slums expand, and slum dwellers are given a bag of fresh produce in exchange for each bag of garbage they present to the city. Efforts like these encourage sanitation and nutrition. Additionally, the city is combating insecurity in land ownership by selling land to slum dwellers at discounted rates. Residents can build their homes on land they hold the rights to—and even get a free consultation with an architect.

Riocinha Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Photo via Flickr, David Berkowitz)

In addition to offering extensive public transport and affordable housing, Curitiba has developed an innovative, informal educational system called Lighthouses of Knowledge. The Lighthouses are free  centers with libraries and Internet access, and they offer various vocational training programs. These Lighthouses provide education to those who would otherwise be unable to attend school. Beyond education, they serve as community gathering places and cultural resources. Thanks in large part to these facilities, despite Curitiba’s large population of poor residents, the city boasts the highest literacy rate of Brazil’s state capitals.

Another project in Brazil, the Favela-Bairro, has been working to improve slums in Rio de Janeiro since 1995, with mixed results. The project reports positive outcomes such as improved public works, an increase in daycare attendance, a rise in household incomes, and higher rates of education in older children. However, it has failed to address land ownership issues. And although the program benefits from the flexibility of the city government and from local management by slum dwellers, the employment training initiative has been largely unsuccessful, and residents still struggle to get credit and loans.

Every city has unique political, economic, cultural, and environmental factors that dictate what kinds of slum rehabilitation are possible—making it difficult to highlight one city as a model for urban planning globally. But Curitiba demonstrates that positive change can happen. Indeed, it is not too difficult to imagine more-efficient municipal mass transport systems worldwide, or neighborhood education centers existing in every community. It may take the enduring and innovative leadership demonstrated by former Curitiba mayor Jaime Lerner, but such leaders surely live and work all over the world.


(Written by Alison Singer; Edited by Antonia Sohns)


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