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.