Urban Slums: How and Why They Form

Urban Slums: How and Why They Form

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Urban slums are settlements, neighborhoods, or city regions that cannot provide the basic living conditions necessary for its inhabitants, or slum dwellers, to live in a safe and healthy environment. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) defines a slum settlement as a household that cannot provide one of the following basic living characteristics:

  • Durable housing of a permanent nature that protects against extreme climate conditions.
  • Sufficient living space, which means no more than three people sharing the same room.
  • Easy access to safe water in sufficient amounts at an affordable price.
  • Access to adequate sanitation in the form of a private or public toilet shared by a reasonable number of people.
  • Security of tenure that prevents forced evictions.

The inaccessibility to one, or more, of the above basic living conditions results in a "slum lifestyle" modeled by several characteristics. Poor housing units are vulnerable to natural disaster and destruction because affordable building materials cannot withstand earthquakes, landslides, excessive wind, or heavy rainstorms. Slum-dwellers are at greater risk of disaster because of their vulnerability to Mother Nature. Slums compounded the severity of the Haiti Earthquake of 2010.

Dense and overcrowded living quarters creates a breeding ground for transmittable diseases, which can lead to the rise of an epidemic. Slum-dwellers that do not have access to clean and affordable drinking water are at risk of waterborne diseases and malnutrition, especially amongst children. The same is to be said for slums with no access to adequate sanitation, such as plumbing and garbage disposal.

Poor slum dwellers commonly suffer from unemployment, illiteracy, drug addiction, and low mortality rates of both adults and children as a result of not supporting one, or all, of UN-HABITAT's basic living conditions.

Formation of Slum Living

Many speculate that a majority of slum formation is due to rapid urbanization within a developing country. This theory has significance because a population boom, associated with urbanization, creates a greater demand for housing than the urbanized area can offer or supply. This population boom often consists of rural inhabitants who migrate to urban areas where jobs are plentiful and where wages are stabilized. However, the issue is exacerbated by the lack of federal and city-government guidance, control, and organization.

Dharavi Slum: Mumbai, India

Dharavi is a slum ward located in the suburbs of India's most populated city of Mumbai. Unlike many urban slums, residents are typically employed and work for extremely small wages in the recycling industry that Dharavi is known for. However, despite a surprising rate of employment, tenement conditions are among the worst of slum living. Residents have limited access to working toilets and therefore they resort to relieving themselves in the nearby river. Unfortunately, the nearby river also serves as a source of drinking water, which is a scarce commodity in Dharavi. Thousands of Dharavi residents fall ill with new cases of cholera, dysentery, and tuberculosis each day due to the consumption of local water sources. In addition, Dharavi is also one of the more disaster-prone slums in the world because of their location to impacts of monsoon rains, tropical cyclones, and subsequent flooding.

Kibera Slum: Nairobi, Kenya

Nearly 200,000 residents live in the slum of Kibera in Nairobi which makes it one of the largest slums in Africa. The conventional slum settlements in Kibera are fragile and exposed to nature's fury because they are largely constructed with mud walls, dirt or concrete floors, and recycled tin rooftops. It is estimated that 20% of these homes have electricity, however, municipal work is underway to provide electricity to more homes and to city streets. These "slum upgrades" have become a model for redevelopment efforts in slums throughout the world. Unfortunately, the redevelopment efforts of Kibera's housing stock have been slowed due to the density of the settlements and to the land's steep topography.

Water shortages remain to be Kibera's most crucial issue today. The shortage has turned water into a profitable commodity for the wealthy Nairobians that have forced the slum dwellers to pay large sums of their daily income for drinkable water. Although the World Bank and other charitable organizations have established water pipelines to relieve the shortage, competitors in the market are purposefully destroying them to regain their position on the slum-dwelling consumers. The Kenyan government does not regulate such actions in Kibera because they do not recognize the slum as a formal settlement.

Rocinha Favela: Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

A "favela" is a Brazilian term used for slum or shantytown. The Rochinha favela, in Rio De Janeiro, is the largest favela in Brazil and one of the more developed slums in the world. Rocinha is home to about 70,000 residents whose homes are built on a steep mountain slopes prone to landslides and flooding. Most houses have proper sanitation, some have access to electricity, and newer homes are often constructed entirely from concrete. Nevertheless, older homes are more common and constructed from fragile, recycled metals that are not secured to a permanent foundation. Despite these characteristics, Rocinha is most notorious for its crime and drug trafficking.


  • "UN-HABITAT." UN-HABITAT. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Sept. 2012. //

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