Slums of Hope (Part I)

By: Janet Kirkton

Today, more than half the world’s population lives within an urban area, and of those living in cities, approximately a billion people live within settlements often referred to as slums (Nuissl and Heinrichs, 2013).  The developing world accounts for more than 90 percent of this urban growth, which equates to one out of every three people living in cities lives in a slum (Agrawal, 2014).

Although not a new urban challenge, slums have been a part of urbanization and industrialization for centuries.  The Millennium Development Goals of 2000 Objective 7d established the goal to extricate at least 100 million people from slums by 2020.  Although this goal has already been reached, the number of new slum dwellers is growing by six million dwellers each year.  This number is almost half the annual urban growth worldwide (UN Habitat 2010: 42).

Most surprising to me was that this growth was most evident in small- and medium-sized cities and not the largest cities (UN-Habitat 2008:  108ff.) Unfortunately, the ability of the public and private sectors to manage this need has been far surpassed.  According to Sulyani, Bassett and Talukdar, the extreme poverty and sub-par living conditions of slum settlements around the world are the best evidence of this failing (2014).

Readings assigned for Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources course on Urban Ecology presented many similar descriptions and measures for the term slum, but the perspectives about what to do about them varied greatly. According to UN-Habitat, part of the challenge is that slums are too complex to be defined by a single parameter, too changeable, and too multifaceted (UN-Habitat 2003a:  11).  Case in point was the multi-dimensional portrait of poverty and living conditions in the slums of Dakar and Nairobi.  Although both slums, the contributing factors were quite different (Gulyani, et al., 2014).

For me, the definition cited by Nuissl and Heinrichs (2013) resonates best, as follows:  the UN-HABITAT defines any specific place, whether a whole city or a neighborhood, as a slum area if half or more of all households lack the following:  improved water, improved sanitation, sufficient living area, durable housing, secure tenure, or combinations of these.  In addition, UN-Habitat (as cited by Agrawal, 2014) defines a slum household as a group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area who lack one or more of the following:

  • Durable housing of a permanent nature that protects against extreme climate conditions
  • Sufficient living space, which means not more than three people sharing the same room
  • Easy access to safe water in sufficient amounts at an affordable price
  • Access to sanitation in the form of a private or public toilet shared by a reasonable number of people
  • Security of tenure that prevents forced evictions

Given the magnitude and complexity of slums and slum dwellers, the challenges are many and will require a concerted and global effort to make improvements.  Generally, I believe the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address most, if not all the factors contributing to slum development.  However, SDG 11 addresses this challenge head-on.

Inclusive, Safe, Resilient, and Sustainable

In the UCLG document describing what local governments need to know about the SDGs, city governments are called upon to develop strategic urban plans to prevent slum growth and to work with slum-dwellers to improve conditions and provide essential services where slums already exist.  They must regulate land and housing markets to guarantee the right to housing for their poorest residents.  It is also their job to provide citizens with safe, green public spaces, such as parks, squares, and gardens.  Last, it is vital that local governments act to mitigate the effects of climate change and to protect the most vulnerable in our communities from the impacts of natural disasters (excerpted from

If adopted and executed properly, the SDGs establish a clear and beautiful vision for how cities of the future could be. Sadly, the evidence suggests this vision remains a dream and not necessarily the reality for many.  According to UN-HABITAT, part of the stigmatism associated with being a slum-dweller is the lack of recognition as being an urban citizen (UN-HABITAT 2003a:  104).  The costs notwithstanding, one of the biggest challenges in executing SDG 11 must be addressing the legitimacy of the immigrants themselves.  For example, at what point do immigrants become “residents”?  How many residents should local governments plan for?  How often should they recount?

In the realm of slums, legitimacy matters a lot.  It matters to city planners, but it really has an impact (psychological, emotional, and financial) on the slum dweller themselves.  Only in rare cases do slum residents have property rights to the land on which their dwelling is built, and as a result, tenure is unstable, and households live in constant fear of eviction.  “The twofold tenure problem of squatters is that they have neither the land owner’s permission nor the permission of the local authorities, which tends to render life there more tenuous and to discourage investment” (UN-Habitat 2003a:  79).

Physical eradication of slums and the resettlement of residents is no longer considered an effective instrument of urban development policy or response to prolonged informal urbanization.  The negative outcomes of these interventions have now been widely recognized and documented in various reports.  Resettlement destroys existing social and economic networks, disrupts daily mobility with the result of long journeys and higher costs and raises the price of accommodation (Nissl and Heinrichs, 2013).

Therefore, positive improvements to existing and developing slums offer the best promise for approaching SDG 11.  For positive development to occur, granting ownership titles to slum households is critical.  Once slum dwellers develop a sense of “ownership” and belonging, they will focus on improving their own living conditions and as a collective feat, improve the overall living conditions of the slum (Husock, 2009).  The continuous improvements of dwellings carried out by residents themselves are taken as confirmation of existing self-healing powers that characterize a “slum of hope.”  Conversely, a “slum of despair” denotes an area where the resources of people are so little – be it due to poverty, lack of financial and social capital, or prevailing anomy – that no positive development would spout whatsoever (Nissl and Heinrichs, 2013).

Hope – a feeling of expectation and desire for a specific thing to happen; goal or plan.

As much as I appreciate the optimism generated by “slums of hope,” hope is not a method.  The need for meaningful urban interventions, as emphasized in the New Urban Agenda, requires a facilitative and enabling approach. This is a departure from the traditional formal approach (Caprotti et all, 2017), but one I hope we can all agree upon.

Conversely, “despair” is not limited to urban slum dwellers.  Writing for Foreign Policy and cited by Catherine Ward, Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development observed that although “slum dwellers were at the bottom of the urban heap, most were better off than their rural counterparts.” The rise of farmer suicides in India is perhaps the most troubling evidence of this trend.  Urban centers in India and elsewhere simply offer economic opportunities that rural areas do not.  For this reason, more and more rural farmers are electing to move to the slums in the hopes of creating a better life for themselves and their families.

[In Part II of this two-part series, available on December 21st, Master of Natural Resources (MNR) student Janet Kirkton will discuss migration from rural lands to urban centers, as well as the opportunities and challenges migrants face.]


Janet Kirkton is a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program.  As Caterpillar’s Dredging Industry Steward and a Director for the Western Dredging Association (WEDA), she is keenly focused on creating innovative water-based and natural infrastructure solutions.  As conveyed in this blog and others she has written, she has a special passion to support farmers in India.  She expects to receive her degree in December 2019.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability thanks Brandon for permission to use his accompanying photos, and the following photographers for sharing their work through the Creative Commons License: Michał Huniewicz, NazareneMissionsInternational, Unitarian Universalist Service CommitteeAllie_Caulfield, and Meena Kadri.