Digging beyond visual judgments and ‘sustainable materials’

Some rants on slum upgrading…

Aditya Sawant, AHI Research Assistant

In the Millenium Development Goals by UNHabitat, a slum is defined 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 title.

The UN definition describes slums mainly through a lack of infrastructural system. In my opinion, this is not a criterion most of us use to describe a slum. We do it by judging its physical form. It is a visual judgment. Rarely will we bother to check if a neighborhood lacks formal water systems, sanitation, legal title etc., before declaring it a slum. A slum, in general public opinion, is identified based on its formal and visual appearance and not its lack of infrastructure systems.

For example, when Dharavi, one of the larger informal settlements of Mumbai, was undertaken for re-development, a part of it, named Kumbharwada or Potter’s colony, was included in the development plan. But Kumbharwada is not a squatter settlement – it actually has a lease-hold agreement with the State government for the entire land it occupies – but was included in the re-development plan because it ‘looked’ like the other parts of Dharavi.

This visual judgment was made through comparisons with the surrounding context as a slum inherently does not have a standard form of its own. This is reflected in the different typology of informal settlements that we see around the world, from the favelas in South America, the rooftop slums of Hong Kong, the ashwaiyyats in Cairo, the gecekondu in Turkey,  the houses on stilts in Manila, to the slums of Mumbai.

Because of this visual bias , slum ‘up gradation’ or ‘improvement’ is often looked upon as ‘cleaning’ or ‘beautifying’ the slum by clearing the existing neighborhoods and building new ‘improved’ housing that is mainly inspired by the middle class or upper middle class housing typologies that are present in that particular context. In most cases today, this means high rise apartment style housing units. The high rise configuration also clears valuable real estate for other commercial exploitation if developed in-situ. Many of the ‘new improved’ units have a standard house plan of a living room, kitchen and bedrooms, a typology which might not be necessarily suitable for a slum resident who also runs a small manufacturing workshop from his or her existing house in the slum.

A slum, though lacking in formal infrastructural systems, is actually anchored upon a lot of other socio- economic systems which operate within the community and also interact with the larger city. These do not get replicated in high-rise apartment style housing so that living in such typologies becomes difficult for slum residents. They cannot continue their livelihood activities in such apartments or lose those income generating networks when relocated into rehabilitation housing on the outskirts of the city. A slum is not a collection of houses of poor people but a network which is in dialogue with itself and the larger city, a dialogue on which it survives.

Nowadays you see a lot of interest and research going into producing materials for low-income housing, such as earth bricks, bamboo, steel pipes and what-not. Though some of them are quite innovative solutions, for me they come from this same mentality of providing a cleaner looking, orderly solution to the ‘slum problem.’ They all try to provide new materials which are claimed to be sustainable, economical , cheaply available, recyclable etc etc.

But if one looks closely at the existing slum itself, you will find that the materials which are used to build the slum are far more sustainable, economical, and recyclable then any new material can ever be. Because the sustainability of building materials of a slum unit comes from the flexibility of mixing and matching materials that are cheaply and readily available in the city at that time and which suits their purpose.

Its economy comes from its ability to not depend on anyone particular production system and to source out materials as they are needed.  It is difficult for any single material which needs a centralized production system to achieve this flexibility and will be only possible if supported with additional subsidies. A particular material is suitable for a particular context. Sustainability of the material has not only to be in the product but also in the process of using the material. The mass producers of ‘housing kits’ also forget that a house is not just a physical space with utilities but also an expression of one’s personality, culture and beliefs.

In my view, by proposing similar mass produced houses, one is forgetting that the poor also have aspirations and desires. A box of corrugated steel may not necessarily be the image of a house a poor family has dreamed of. Any low income housing solution has to work with problems of scale, sustainability, finance, among others. But too many forget the aspirations and dreams of their inhabitants.

Ashwaiyyats in Cairo

Rooftop slums in Hong Kong

Houses on Stilts in Manila

Gecekondu(building on the right) in Turkey

Favelas in South America

Dharavi in Mumbai, India



Hong Kong slums: http://indaacefall2010.blogspot.com/2010/09/rooftop-shanty-towns-of-hong.html
Dharavi: http://audreyandthane.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/dharavi600.jpg
Manilla slums: http://infodennis.blogspot.com/2010_02_01_archive.html
Favelas: http://www.awakeinmydreams.com/archives/527
Slums in Cairo: http://alajeel.wordpress.com/
Image of the slum in Turkey was taken from David Smith’s blog.

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