Slum in Mumbai, India. 55% of the population of Mumbai live in slums, which cover only 6% of the city's land.[1] Slum growth rate in Mumbai is greater than the general urban growth rate.[2]

A slum, as defined by the United Nations agency UN-HABITAT, is a run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security. According to the United Nations, the proportion of urban dwellers living in slums decreased from 47 percent to 37 percent in the developing world between 1990 and 2005.[3] However, due to rising population, the number of slum dwellers is rising. One billion people worldwide live in slums[4] and the figure will likely grow to 2 billion by 2030.[5]

The term has traditionally referred to housing areas that were once relatively affluent but which deteriorated as the original dwellers moved on to newer and better parts of the city, but has come to include the vast informal settlements found in cities in the developing world.[6]

Many shack dwellers vigorously oppose the description of their communities as 'slums' arguing that this results in them being pathologised and then, often, subject to threats of evictions.[7] Many academics have vigorously criticized UN-Habitat and the World Bank arguing that their 'Cities Without Slums' Campaign has led directly to a massive increase in forced evictions.[8]

Although their characteristics vary between geographic regions, they are usually inhabited by the very poor or socially disadvantaged. Slum buildings vary from simple shacks to permanent and well-maintained structures. Most slums lack clean water, electricity, sanitation and other basic services.[6]


Part of Charles Booth's poverty map showing the Old Nichol, a slum in the East End of London. Published 1889 in Life and Labour of the People in London. The red areas are "middle class, well-to-do", light blue areas are “poor, 18s to 21s a week for a moderate family”, dark blue areas are “very poor, casual, chronic want”, and black areas are the "lowest class...occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals".
Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, the second largest slum in Africa[9][10][11] and third largest in the world.[9]

The origin the word slum is thought to come from the Irish phrase 'S lom é (pron. s'lum ae) meaning "it is a bleak or destitute place."[12] A 1812 English dictionary defined slum to mean "a room". By the 1920s became a common slang expression, meaning either various taverns and eating houses, "loose talk" or gypsy language, or a room with "low going-ons". In Life in London Pierce Egan used the word in the context of the "back slums" of Holy Lane or St Giles. A footnote defined slum to mean "low, unfrequent parts of the town". Charles Dickens used the word slum in a similar way in 1840, writing "I mean to take a great, London, back-slum kind walk tonight". Slum began to be used to describe bad housing soon after and was used as alternative expression for rookeries.[13]

Other terms that are often used interchangeably with "slum" include shanty town, favela, skid row, barrio, and ghetto although each of these may have a somewhat different meaning. Slums are distinguished from shanty towns and favelas in that the latter initially are low-class settlements, whereas slums are generally constructed early on as relatively affluent or possibly a prestigious communities. The term "shanty town" also suggests that the dwellings are improvised shacks, made from scrap materials, and usually without proper sanitation, electricity, or telephone services. Skid row refers to an urban area with a high homeless population and a term is most commonly used in the United States. Barrio may refer to an upper-class area in some Spanish-speaking countries, and is only used to describe a low-class community in the United States. Ghetto refers to a neighbourhood based on shared ethnicity. By contrast, identification of an area as a slum is based solely on socio-economic criteria, not on racial, ethnic, or religious criteria.


Slum in Tai Hang, Hong Kong, in the 1980's

The characteristics and politics [14] associated with slums vary from place to place. Slums are usually characterized by urban decay, high rates of poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment. They are commonly seen as "breeding grounds" for social problems such as crime, drug addiction, alcoholism, high rates of mental illness, and suicide. In many poor countries they exhibit high rates of disease due to unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, and lack of basic health care. However some like Dharavi in Mumbai are a hive of business activity such as leather work, cottage industries etc. Rural depopulation with thousands arriving daily into the cities makes slum clearance an uphill struggle. In fact one could argue that the presence of slums reflects true democracy(free movements of people)-as only a totalitarian state could 'eradicate' slums. No Indian needs a pass to enter Mumbai-however Chinese citizens need passes to enter Shanghai and Beijing.

A UN Expert Group has created an operational definition of a slum as an area that combines to various extents the following characteristics: inadequate access to safe water; inadequate access to sanitation and other infrastructure; poor structural quality of housing; overcrowding; and insecure residential status.[6] A more complete definition of these can be found in the 2003 UN report titled "Slums of the World: The face of urban poverty in the new millennium?".[15] The report also lists various attributes and names that are given by individual countries which are somewhat different than these UN characteristics of a slum.

Low socioeconomic status of its residents is another common characteristic given for a slum.[16]

In many slums, especially in poor countries, many live in very narrow alleys that do not allow vehicles (like ambulances and fire trucks) to pass. The lack of services such as routine garbage collection allows rubbish to accumulate in huge quantities. The lack of infrastructure is caused by the informal nature of settlement and no planning for the poor by government officials. Additionally, informal settlements often face the brunt of natural and man-made disasters, such as landslides, as well as earthquakes and tropical storms. Fires are often a serious problem.[17]

Many slum dwellers employ themselves in the informal economy. This can include street vending, drug dealing, domestic work, and prostitution. In some slums people even recycle trash of different kinds (from household garbage to electronics) for a living - selling either the odd usable goods or stripping broken goods for parts or raw materials.

Slums are often associated with Victorian Britain, particularly in industrial, northern English towns, lowland Scottish towns and Dublin City in Ireland. These were generally still inhabited until the 1940s, when the government started slum clearance and built new council houses. There are still many examples left of former slum housing in the UK, however they have generally been restored into more modern housing.

Growth and countermeasures

Suburban slums in Cairo
Nations by percentage of urban population living in slums.[18]
  No data

Recent years have seen a dramatic growth in the number of slums as urban populations have increased in the Third World.

In April 2005, the director of UN-HABITAT stated that the global community was falling short of the Millennium Development Goals which targeted significant improvements for slum dwellers and an additional 50 million people have been added to the slums of the world in the past two years.[19] According to a 2006 UN-HABITAT report, 327 million people live in slums in Commonwealth countries - almost one in six Commonwealth citizens. In a quarter of Commonwealth countries (11 African, 2 Asian and 1 Pacific), more than two out of three urban dwellers live in slums and many of these countries are urbanising rapidly.[20]

The number of people living in slums in India has more than doubled in the past two decades and now exceeds the entire population of Britain, the Indian Government has announced.[21] The number of people living in slums is projected to rise to 93 million in 2011 or 7.75 percent of the total population almost double the population of Britain.[22]

Many governments around the world have attempted to solve the problems of slums by clearing away old decrepit housing and replacing it with modern housing with much better sanitation. The displacement of slums is aided by the fact that many are squatter settlements whose property rights are not recognized by the state. This process is especially common in the Third World. Slum clearance often takes the form of eminent domain and urban renewal projects, and often the former residents are not welcome in the renewed housing. For example, in the Philippine slums of Smokey Mountain, located in Tondo, Manila, projects have been enforced by the Government and non-government organizations to allow urban resettlement sites for the slum dwellers.[23] According to a UN-Habitat report, over 2 million people in the Philippines live in slums[24], and in the city of Manila alone, 50% of the over 11 million inhabitants live in slum areas.[25][26]

Moreover new projects are often on the semi-rural peripheries of cities far from opportunities for generating livelihoods as well as schools, clinics etc. At times this has resulted in large movements of inner city slum dwellers militantly opposing relocation to formal housing on the outskirts of cities. See, for example, Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban, South Africa.

In some countries, leaders have addressed this situation by rescuing rural property rights to support traditional sustainable agriculture, however this solution has met with open hostility from capitalists and corporations.[citation needed] It also tends to be relatively unpopular with the slum communities themselves, as it involves moving out of the city back into the countryside, a reverse of the rural-urban migration that originally brought many of them into the city.

Critics argue that slum clearances tend to ignore the social problems that cause slums and simply redistribute poverty to less valuable real estate. Where communities have been moved out of slum areas to newer housing, social cohesion may be lost. If the original community is moved back into newer housing after it has been built in the same location, residents of the new housing face the same problems of poverty and powerlessness. There is a growing movement to demand a global ban of 'slum clearance programmes' and other forms of mass evictions.[27]

See also

Variations of impoverished settlements
Organizations and concepts


  1. ^ Slums, Stocks, Stars and the New India
  2. ^ Slums
  3. ^ p. 26
  4. ^ Article on Mike Davis's book 'Planet of Slums
  5. ^ Slum Dwellers to double by 2030 UN-HABITAT report, April 2007
  6. ^ a b c UN-HABITAT 2007 Press Release on its report, "The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003".
  7. ^ See, for instance, the press release from Abahlali baseMjondolo on the Slums Act in South Africa
  8. ^ For instance see the work of Marie Huchzermeyer
  9. ^ a b A Trip Through Kenya’s Kibera Slum
  10. ^ Participating countries
  11. ^ Machetes, Ethnic Conflict and Reductionism The Dominion
  12. ^ Cassidy, D: "How the Irish invented Slang", page 267, CounterPunch Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1-904859-60-4
  13. ^ Dyos, H.J. (1982). Exploring the urban past: essays in urban history. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521288484. ((cite book)): Unknown parameter |coauthors= ignored (|author= suggested) (help)
  14. ^ Politics in the Slum, New York Indymedia, 2008
  15. ^ Slums of the World UN-HABITAT report, downloadable.
  16. ^ Measure Evaluation / NIPORT (2006)Slums of urban Bangladesh: mapping and census, 2005. Centre for Urban Studies / Measure Evaluation / Nationaldiei/pdf/tr-06-35.pdf]
  17. ^ [For more on this see the report on shack fires in South Africa by Matt Birkinshaw at]
  18. ^ UN-HABITAT, dados de 2005 -
  19. ^ Millenium Development Goals - News, 5 April 2005
  20. ^ Comhabitat: Briefing paper produced for the Commonwealth Civil Society Consultation, Marlborough House, London, Wednesday, 15 November 2006
  21. ^ Page, Jeremy (2007-05-18). "Indian slum population doubles in two decades". The Times. London. Retrieved 2010-05-23.
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^,_rent_control_linked_to_RP_slums
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ See Robert Neuwirth's article 'Squatters and the Cities of Tomorrow'

Further reading