EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Designing Cities for People: Upgrading Squatter Settlements

Between 2000 and 2050, world population is projected to grow by 3 billion, but little of this growth is projected for industrial countries or for the rural developing world. Nearly all of it will take place in cities in developing countries, with much of the urban growth taking place in squatter settlements. 64

Squatter settlements—whether the 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 own any land. They simply “squat” on vacant land, either private or public. 65

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 either with apathy or with outright 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. 66

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 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 sanitation. 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 development plan of the city. 67

Among the simplest services that can be provided in a squatter settlement are taps that provide safe running water and community composting toilets. This combination can go a long way toward controlling disease in overcrowded settlements. And regular bus service enables 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 out of existence, 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 and small loans to squatters, enabling them to make incremental improvements over time. 68

Upgrading squatter settlements depends on local governments that respond to the problems in these areas rather than ignore them. Progress in eradicating poverty and creating stable, progressive communities depends on establishing constructive links with governments. Government-supported micro-credit lending facilities, for example, can help not only establish a link between the city government and the squatter communities but also offer hope to the residents. 69

Although political leaders might hope that these settlements will one day be abandoned, the reality is that they will continue expanding. The challenge is to integrate them into urban life in a humane and organized way that provides hope through the potential for upgrading. The alternative is mounting resentment, social friction, and violence.

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64. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 3; U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2, p. 1.

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

66. Ibid.

67. O’Meara, op. cit. note 3, p. 39.

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

69. Srinivas, op. cit. note 65.

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