According to the UN, 54% of the global population currently lives in urban areas.[i] Since this number is projected to keep rising in the years to come, UN Habitat urges that, “As the world becomes numerically more urban, it is important that governments accept urbanization as a positive phenomenon and an effective means for improving access to services, as well as economic and social opportunities.”[ii] In many global cities, people’s search for these services, along with economic and social opportunities, has resulted in the formation of informal settlements or “slums” like pictured here. 

Calling these communities “slums” has raised concerns over terminology. Alan Gilbert says, “the word is dangerous because it confuses the physical problem of poor quality housing with the characteristics of the people living there.”[iii] This points to the fact that issues faced in these communities can often revolve around housing (like number of units, durability, crowding, and tenure) and amenities (like air quality, water supply and quality, sanitation and solid waste disposal, electricity and energy, transportation and roads, communications, open spaces, and safety). These aspects are critical because they are essential to health.[iv] Regardless of the term used for these areas (for the purpose of this blog post “slums” will be used due to the lack of a widely recognized or agreed upon term that implies the same meaning), the lack of services can produce both problems and opportunities to implement future city plans more sustainably.

Professor Peter Newman provides an example of this when he challenges the conventional notion of urban water systems. For water systems in both developing and developed countries he suggests, “an alternative which uses new small-scale technology and is more community-based.”[v] This brings up the question: What if leapfrogging innovative technologies and ideas to providing amenities sustainably could happen seamlessly between poor/rich parts of cities, between poor/rich cities, and between the developing/developed world? Wouldn’t this bilateral exchange of information ultimately impact global sustainability?

Lack of amenities is not the only issue faced by people living in slum communities – poverty is probably referenced the most. From absolute poverty (in relation to survival), to relative poverty (difference in standard of living from society), or urban poverty (referencing lack of infrastructure, services, safety nets, rights of the poor), global cities fight economic inequality of slums. Though income may be important, measures and targets like the Human Development Index (HDI) or Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have included other indicators. Also, the emerging study of happiness is showing that there are other factors to wellbeing (many are explored in the documentary Happy). Countries like Bhutan are embracing philosophies like Gross National Happiness, and the Happy Planet Index, which rates happiness and sustainable living together.

Though happiness should not be ignored, the question of the effects of poverty on the environment still remains. How can communities be expected to sustainably manage their environment when survival is paramount? David Satterthwaite brings up the point, “that there is little evidence of urban poverty being a significant contributor to environmental degradation but strong evidence that urban environmental hazards are major contributors to urban poverty.”[vi] How can the “green” and “brown” agendas recognize their intersections and commonalities in order to elevate the living conditions of people and communities while protecting and caring for the environment?


[i] UN Economic & Social Affairs 2014. World Urbanization Prospects. http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Highlights/WUP2014-Highlights.pdf

[ii] UN-Habitat 2010. Planning Sustainable Cities: Global Report on Human Settlements.

[iii] Gilbert, Alan (2007). The Return of the Slum: Does Language Matter? International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-2427.2007.00754.x/abstract

[iv] Cairncross et al. 1990. The Urban Context In The Poor Die Young: Housing and Health in Third World Cities. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd.

[v] Newman, P. (2001). Sustainable urban water systems in rich and poor cities-steps towards a new approach. Water Science & Technology, 43(4), 93-99.

[vi] Satterthwaite, D. (2003). Rethinking Sustainable Development: The Links between Poverty and the Environment in Urban Areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Annals, 590, 73-243.


6 thoughts on ““slums”

  1. frobertsgregory

    I agree with everyone else that we should not focus so much on terminology although who gets to label is surely a power play. What is important to me is addressing these conditions that negatively impact human and environmental health. On the other hand, once a neighborhood is labeled and stigmatized as a slum, the residents of that place become stigmatized as being less deserving of assistance and empathy. I think the worst part is when people can have shame about their home as well as pride that leads to some feelings of despair in some situations.

  2. Thanks for an interesting post.
    I agree with Emily: we shouldn’t focus so much on trying to define the terms and force everything to fall exactly in a specific category, but rather focus our resources and energy in solving the issues at hand, which everyone seems to recognize and agree upon. I appreciate how you did not get stuck in tryin to define the term and moved on to focusing on the problems and how to solve them. I especially liked the comment in your last paragraph. saying we want societies to be sustainable implies that the way they live right now is ideal. Before they can become sustainable the way they live should change and become desirable. I think that it has to be a joint effort: change the way these societies live into a desirable and at the same time sustainable maner. That is, when the changes are made, sustainability should be an important factor, a goal, that these changes should achieve.

  3. aldotudela7

    Thanks for this interesting post. I agree with you on the use and terminology of the word “slums”. It seems to me outdated, and I don’t think it represents the current states of this areas. I think slums today are more informal settlements, but not only that they are communities, of citizens with common concerns and problems that in most cases help each other thrive. We have to rethink why are “slums” occurring today. To me, this has more to do with current market failures to provide basic needs, therefore the population growth solve this problem informally. But some of these solutions are worth evaluating in detail and perhaps use them for public service provision.

  4. jennamhahn

    International development has traditionally been very “anti-urban”, so we have a lot of ground to make up now. I like your discussion around Gilbert’s criticism of the term slums. I find it interesting that the UN reintroduced the term in 1999, after decades of it being considered a bad term. I am still curious why they did this, especially when there are so many other synonymous words for slums. Also, the term is relative and time sensitive – what is considered a slum in one context could be perfectly acceptable conditions in another. As Gilbert points out – 100 years ago in England, outdoor toilets were completely acceptable. Today that is considered preposterous.

    I like the point you bring up in your last paragraph. How can we expect societies to live “sustainably” when the context in which they live right now is not one they would want to sustain. The realities of trade-offs become very clear for slum-dwellers when they have to make decisions that effect them today.

  5. niavila

    I am glad you mentioned the documentary Happy. I watched it this summer and was quite impressed. I agree with you that the focus should not be on the differences between the green and brown agenda, but rather on the commonalities between them and their potential to alleviate poverty.

  6. I am very intrigued by our continued discussion is sustainability over names and definitions. I don’t think it is a bad thing, but sometimes I wonder what is at the bottom of this desire to name everything. Is it some innate human desire to neatly categorize everything when truthfully, most things don’t fit into perfect boxes? Your statement “the word is dangerous because it confuses the physical problem of poor quality housing with the characteristics of the people living there” addresses that fact. Slums are so much more than their physical being and include complicated social and economic networks, which is why the term “informal settlement” also misses a big piece of the picture. Yet, when there is a global problem a common definition may help to focus on a solution. When addressing “slums” the positives can be leveraged to combat the negatives, like through more participatory planning, so acknowledging that they are not all bad is important. The documentary “Happy” also puts the perspective of what we call “happiness” in the US compared to elsewhere. I really thought it was an interesting concept. As the next generation of planners, maybe just the constant questioning of the status quo and the verbiage we use is a good thing and a sign of disruption and seeking to find new innovative ways to both look at things and frame discussions and solutions.

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