EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 11. Designing Sustainable Cities: The Challenge of Urban Slums

Between 2000 and 2050, there is little population growth projected for the industrial countries or for the rural developing world. Thus nearly all of the projected world population growth of some 3 billion people by 2050 will be added to the cities of developing countries, much of it in squatter settlements. 52

Squatter settlements—whether they are favelas in Brazil, barriadas in Peru, or gecekondu in Turkey—typically consist of an urban residential area inhabited by very poor people who do not have any land. They simply “squat” on vacant land, either private or public. 53

Life in these settlements is characterized by grossly inadequate housing and a lack of access to urban services. As Hari Srinivas, coordinator of the Global Development Research Center, writes, these rural-urban migrants undertake the “drastic option of illegally occupying a vacant piece of land to build a rudimentary shelter” simply because it is their only option. They are often treated if not by apathy then by antipathy by government agencies, who view them as invaders and trouble. Some see squatter settlements as a social “evil,” something that needs to be eradicated. 54

Urban slums include not only squatter settlements but also severely rundown older parts of cities, which are also overcrowded and often lacking in rudimentary urban services, such as sewage disposal.

One of the best ways to make rural/urban migration manageable is to improve conditions in the countryside. This means not only providing basic social services, such as basic health care and education for children, as outlined in Chapter 7, but also encouraging industrial investment in small towns throughout the country rather than just in prime cities, such as Mexico City or Bangkok. Such policies will slow the flow into cities to a more orderly pace.

The evolution of cities in developing countries is often shaped by the unplanned nature of squatter settlements. Letting squatters settle wherever they can—on steep slopes, on river floodplains, or in other high-risk areas—makes it difficult to provide basic services such as transport, water, and sewerage. Curitiba, on the cutting edge of the new urbanism, has designated tracts of land for squatter settlements. By setting aside these planned tracts, the process can at least be structured in a way that is consistent with the official development plan of the city. 55

Among the simplest services that can be provided in a squatter settlement are community composting toilets. Beyond these, taps that provide safe running water at intervals throughout the squatter settlement can go a long way to control the spread of disease in overcrowded settlements. Regular bus service can enable workers living in the settlements to travel to their place of work. If the Curitiba approach is widely followed, parks and other commons areas can be incorporated into the community from the beginning.

Some political elites simply want to bulldoze squatter settlements away, but this treats the symptoms of urban poverty, not the cause. People who lose what little they have been able to invest in housing are not richer as a result of the demolition, but poorer, as is the city itself. The preferred option by far is in situ upgrading of housing. The key to this is providing security of tenure to the squatters and small loans, enabling them to make incremental improvements over time. 56

Upgrading slums depends on local governments that respond to them rather than ignoring them. Progress in eradicating poverty and creating stable, progressive communities depends on establishing constructive links with governments. In some cases, government-supported micro-credit lending facilities can help not only establish a link between the city government and the squatter communities but offer hope to the residents. 57

Although political leaders might hope that these settlements will be driven away or demolished, the reality is that they will likely expand over the next several decades. The challenge is to integrate them into urban life in a humane way that provides hope through the potential for upgrading. The inevitable alternative is mounting resentment, spreading social friction, and violence.

  Previous Table of Contents Next


52. United Nations, World Population Prospects, The 2004 Revision: Highlights, op. cit. note 9, p. 1; United Nations, op. cit. note 1, pp. 1, 4.

53. Hari Srinivas, “Defining Squatter Settlements,” Global Development Research Center Web site, www.gdrc.org/uem/define-squatter.html, viewed 9 August 2005.

54. Ibid.

55. O’Meara, op. cit. note 6, p. 49.

56. Rasna Warah, The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human
Settlements 2003 (New York: U.N. Human Settlements Programme, 2003).

57. Srinivas, op. cit. note 53.


Copyright © 2006 Earth Policy Institute