24 The future of slums hinges on sustainability

Mukesh Kumar Gupta, Central European University, Hungary

The slum target of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) developed by the United Nations (UN-Habitat, 2010) is to significantly improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers around the world by 2020. A total of 227 million people in the world have moved out of slum conditions since 2000. However, in terms of absolute numbers, slum dwellers have actually increased from 776.7 million in 2000 to some 827.6 million in 2010 (UN-Habitat, 2010).

There is a considerable variation in slum definitions across countries and regions. The simplest and less technical definition of slum would be “a heavily populated urban area characterized by substandard housing and squalor” (UN Habitat 2003). Generally the term ‘slum’ is associated with a wide variety of “low income settlements and poor human living conditions” (UN–Habitat, 2003). According to the Cities Alliance action plan “slums are neglected parts of cities where housing and living conditions are appallingly poor”.

Based on current trends, despite some successes that could be termed as ‘slum upgrading best practices’ in formulating and implementing slum policies, slums have continued to grow in the urban regions of the developing world. An example of successful slum upgrading is the Parivartan program (which means ‘transformation,’) in five slums in Ahmedabad, India. Its rapid spread to other slum communities demonstrates the affordable and doable nature of slum upgrading at a progressive citywide scale (Cities Alliance 1999).

Slum policies and programs so far have not served the urban poor as the main beneficiaries. Instead people from higher income groups have taken residence in the improved dwellings designed for the intended populations (Jacobsen et al., 2002). The result we observe is in fact the reverse – fractional, undirected or unrealistic policies that are either impractical or benefit only to those with power due to the privileges of their social status (e.g. class, race). Therefore, failure to tackle the housing problem so far indicates that fractional slum policies and programs, which aim to address one or only a few aspects of slum proliferation, could worsen the existence and expansion of slums. For example, in 2003 the government of Kenya devised the Kenya Slum Upgrading Project (KENSUP), a large multi-storied concrete building called The Promised Land by local residents. However the problem was that the residents who were relocated to the building started leaving their new homes and moving back to Kibera, their old home often regarded as the largest slum in Africa. The ‘middle class’ of Nairobi moved in search of affordable housing. Informal systems of bribery also played a role for many to secure apartments in the new building. Many Kibera residents who were allotted apartments rented their flats to middle class tenants at many times the subsidized rate. Therefore, slum upgrading practices need to be integrated with sustainability components so that the increasing numbers of slum dwellers do not put further pressure on the earth’s climate system and become a part of clean and efficient system as their income grows (Higgins 2013).

There is a pressing need to focus on a more comprehensive approach that will integrate the factors of emergence and growth of slums, and at the same time, encourage cooperation amongst the different stakeholders responsible for addressing slum settlements. The most striking outcome of past and existing slum policies and strategies is the short sightedness with respect to housing needs in urban regions. For example, many urban authorities do not understand the social and spatial scope of slums and hence end up with solutions that do not address the slum problem.

No matter how depressing slums look; living in slums has made slum dwellers lives better (Eaves, 2007). Almost all slum residents live there by choice when migrating from rural hinterlands. Cities provide slum dwellers with better economic prospects. A person’s income can be several times higher in cities than those working in rain fed agriculture in villages.

Migration to cities from rural areas is so profound that cities are unable to keep up with the population growth. Even though cities provide economic opportunities, life in slums can be extremely unsafe. Slum children in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are more prone to die from water borne and respiratory diseases than their rural counterparts (Eaves, 2007). Women living in slums in SSA have an increased chance of contracting HIV (Eaves, 2007). Slum children are also less likely to be enrolled for primary education than their urban counterparts.

The world’s megacities are on the rise but planning policies and housing developments are not keeping pace with population growth.  The world’s population is estimated to grow at an annual rate of 1.78% until 2030. At the same time the rural population is expected to reduce in size. Irrespective of these dismal figures, the lure of cities as places for a better life persists. Slums that are not addressed by governments could become ‘slums of despair’ in the future. This should be avoided by all means.

Stewart Brand (2010) argues that slums are ‘unexpectedly green’, and suggests that we need to seize the opportunity that is offered by such urbanization processes to further ‘green’ grow our cities. Slums contain maximum densities – roughly a million people per square mile live in the slums of Mumbai, India, and they have minimal energy and material use in comparison to their city counterparts. Providing the same energy and material use enjoyed by the middle class and elites to all the people in cities would require vast infrastructural changes to energy and food supply. Huge numbers of people will be climbing the ‘energy ladder’ from the use of biomass to electricity and diesel use (Brand, 2010). According to the energy ladder approach, “households switch to more convenient energy forms as their disposable income increases” (Leach, 1992). Sustainable slum upgrading means the use of construction elements that reduce environmental impacts, minimize the maintenance burdens, and improve quality of life. The prime criteria for ensuring sustainability could be affordability, technical feasibility, and low environmental impact. It is in humanity’s best interest to provide low energy affordable housing to minimise environmental impacts as the quality of life is improved for those moving out of slum settlements.

Governments could approach poor settlements not as part of the problem but as part of the solution and consider the poor as primary actors of their own housing developments and key tenets of slum upgrading and enabling approaches. Providing adequate and decent housing for all can be achieved if a paradigm shift takes place.


Brand, S. (2010, January 27). How slums can save the planet, Prospect, 27th January 2010 -Issue 167 from http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/01/how-slums-can-save-the-planet/

Cities Alliance (1999). Cities Alliance for Cities Without Slums: Action Plan for Moving Slum Upgrading to Scale, Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/urbanupgrading/sponsor/ActionPlan.pdf

Eaves, E. (2007, June 11). Two Billion Slum Dwellers, 21st Century Cities, from http://www.forbes.com/2007/06/11/third-world-slums-biz-cx_21cities_ee_0611slums.html

Jacobsen, K., Hasan Khan, S., & Alexander, A. (2002). Building a foundation. Poverty, development and housing in Pakistan. Harvard International Review, 23(4), 20-24.

Higgins, A. (2013, April 18). Why residents of Kibera slum are rejecting new housing plan, from http://www.one.org/international/blog/why-residents-of-kibera-slum-are-rejecting-new-housing-plans/

Leach, G. (1992). The energy transition. Energy policy, 20(2), 116–123.

UN Habitat (2010). State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011- Cities for All: Bridging the Urban Divide

UN HABITAT (2003). The Challenge of Slums – Global Report on Human Settlements, Nairobi

Author Biography

mukeshMukesh Gupta is an environmental scientist at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary. His doctoral research Clean and Sustainable Energy Systems in Slums Transformation aims to estimate the potential energy and carbon dioxide savings and associated costs of slum households in Sub Saharan Africa and South Asia”. Mukesh is interested in linking theory with practice, science with policy, and knowledge with action, through diverse systems and knowledge management tools. Mukesh is currently looking for collaborators to build an organization that fosters and inspires sustainability based action science to businesses, governments, and civil organizations.

Contact Details:

Email: grnsavvy@gmail.com

Website: http://www.personal.ceu.hu/students/14/Mukesh_Gupta/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mukeshkgupta

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