SLUMS: What to do?


It must be said at the outset that no enlightened political leaders in any part of the world can legitimately believe in the practice of what is called ‘slum clearance,’ which refers to the demolition of slums and the displacement of their inhabitants without a thought about where they can go. This is not to say that the brutal practice of bulldozing slums and driving out their inhabitants with armies of police is not being carried on—it is. Recent examples in Africa and Latin America only testify to the persistence of despotic political leaders in places where people have little voice in public affairs. Elsewhere it is well recognized that such an approach simply relocates the problem at a high human cost, postponing the day when it must be dealt with more humanely, and on a more enduring basis.

Secondly, it must be said that the idea of ‘urban renewal,’ which is a less blatantly brutal but still violent approach to the elimination of slums, simply does not work. The practice of demolishing slums and then imposing large-scale housing projects has generally failed, for the reason that slums do have social structures, however misunderstood they may be by those of the higher socio-economic strata from which come the urban planning professionals and bureaucrats who design the renewal projects. It has been shown by many tragic examples that simply replacing slums with planners’ ideas of what people should be living in destroys much of human value that can never be replaced, and causes untold human misery. Slums are inhabited by human beings, many of whom, even at the desperate edge of survival, have invested themselves in their families and communities, and want a better life for themselves and their children. Not unlike many others who are at the lower end of the economic chain, they need help in coping with their circumstances, help that comes from those who control the wealth and resources.

The burning question is: exactly how—in practical terms—is an enlightenment of the ruling, or at least the managerial, classes to come about? What are the best possible scenarios?

At the top of the list: the increased availability of information will make politicians and business leaders aware of the human catastrophe of slums, and this will mobilize them to improve the slum dwellers’ living conditions. In short, government and corporations will make the elimination of poverty a high priority.

This is a most unlikely scenario. The availability of information has done little to mobilize leaders in the past, from stopping the Holocaust to the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, the famines in Africa and Asia, the ‘death squads’ in Latin American countries, and many other human tragedies that could have been stopped by the intervention of political leaders. Knowledge of slums is today widely disseminated in the print and electronic media. Leaders give occasional lip service to this problem, but little else.

Another possibility: elected officials and business leaders will recognize that the vast, interconnected webbing of the global economy cannot carry permanently the burden—financial, political, moral—of burgeoning slums. As a result, government and corporations will find more effective ways of employing the slum’s under-utilized human resources.

This is a somewhat more likely scenario, given the right conditions. The costs of slums, like those of a deteriorating environment, are often hidden because they are purposely overlooked, but they are enormous, and cumulative. Slums are increasing in many urban areas already the most afflicted by them, and so is the economic drain they cause. This drain comes from the costs of ‘containing’ slums, which includes the costs of policing at least the perimeters where they abrade with more acceptable urban areas; the costs of dealing with humanitarian crises caused by outbreaks of contagious diseases that might spread into the wider urban population; and of water pollution from untreated sewage, including human waste, being dumped into rivers and streams that must be shared by all; the costs of lost city services, such as potable water and electricity, that are appropriated by slum dwellers without paying for them; the costs of keeping order when unrest or mass violence occasionally breaks out in the slums for whatever reason; the costs—often indirect—of maintaining a large population of illiterate and uneducated human beings, who nevertheless require not only food and shelter, but also intangibles like personal dignity and social justice, which must be ‘paid for’ by somebody, usually elsewhere, in the social network; likewise, the costs—psychological and moral—of having to live with slums, costs paid for by the other social strata in the society afflicted by them. Slums drain a society’s resources, and are a form of entropy that threatens, in the long run, the society’s survival.

Finally, if the perspective is altered to a purely capitalist one, slums can be seen as an unused pool of human potential—that is, of cheap labor—that could be employed in the global economic system. Businesses, supported by government trade policies, have recognized for many years the advantages of cheaper ‘offshore’ labor in the making of many consumer products. As nations such as China and India and Indonesia develop their domestic economies and expand their global influence, the demand for cheap offshore labor will dramatically increase, even as the present ‘outsources’ dwindle. New sources of skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled labor will have to be found—-or created. With the same sort of investment made in training workers in the garment and other consumer products industries in Southeast Asia, present-day slum dwellers could take a first step up in the economic chain. The main impediment to this happening is that government and business would have to cooperate in a coordinated way, and, so far, neither social sector has shown any real interest in doing this.

However, the idea of turning millions of people who have been held down in abject poverty into millions exploited in subsistence-wage sweat shops and factories is far from an ideal solution to the problem of slums. It might be an economic step up, and a point of entry into the game of capitalism, but it amounts to a type forced labor, where the slum dwellers would have little choice but to accept it, considering the alternative of continued abjection and destitution.

An intriguing hypothesis—advanced by a number of people—emerges: what if the slums could be improved from the inside, rather than from without? Or, to put it another way, what if the interventions coming from without were aimed at empowering slum dwellers to find—-or invent, using their ingenuity to adapt—-the ways to transform their own conditions? After all, they understand these conditions better than anyone, where they work for them and where they do not. If the slum dwellers have admirable ingenuity in surviving under the most terrible of conditions, why should this same ingenuity not be the key to transforming slums and eventually eliminating them?

The biggest task would be addressing the problem of changing the terrible physical conditions of slums. How might the vast pool of human energy embodied in the people who live in slums be liberated to engage the physical transformation of their place of living–their habitat? Answering this question will take much more than political good will, and more than the commitment of money by public and private institutions to such a project, even in substantial amounts. It will require new ideas about how to effect real changes in conditions, and from within.

This is where architects come in.

[To be continued]


About this entry