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The Challenges of Living in a Slum Area

Urban populations have skyrocketed globally and today represent more than half of the world’s population. In this article, we look at the challenges of living in a slum area.

In some parts of the developing world, the growth of the urban population has more-than-proportionately involved rural migration to informal settlements in and around cities, known more commonly as “slums”—densely populated urban areas characterized by poor quality housing, a lack of adequate living space and public services, and accommodating large numbers of informal residents with generally insecure tenure.

Worldwide, almost 1 billion or 32% of urban population are now living in slums. In sub-Saharan Africa, slum populations are growing at 4.5 percent per annum, a rate at which populations double every 15 years.

In Lagos, Nigeria, slum dwellers now live in canoes for fear of the government agencies. The global expansion of urban slums poses questions for economic research, as well as problems for policy makers.

Slums are a transitory phenomenon characteristic of fast-growing economies, and they progressively give way to formal housing as economic growth trickles down and societies approach the later stages of economic development

Even if slum areas appear stable in the short- or medium-term, this argument holds. Living in a slum area only represents a transitory phase in the life cycle of rural migrants: the slum dwellers or their children eventually move into formal housing within the city, for the fortunate ones, while others migrate back to their rural domains

Slums represent the worst of urban poverty and inequality. Yet the world has the resources, know-how and power to reach the target established in the Millennium Declaration.

The challenges of living in a slum area is immense and efforts to improve the living conditions of slum dwellers (especially within developing countries) have been feeble and incoherent over the last decade or so, having peaked during the 1980s.

However, renewed concern about poverty has recently led various world government to adopt a specific target on slums in the United Nations Millennium Declaration, which aims to significantly improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2020.

Slums are a manifestation of the two main challenges facing human settlement development at the beginning of the new millennium; rapid urbanization and the urbanization of poverty. Slum areas have the highest concentrations of poor people and the worst shelter and physical environmental conditions.

Slums have the most intolerable of urban housing conditions, which frequently include: insecurity of tenure; lack of basic services, especially water and sanitation; inadequate and sometimes unsafe building structures; overcrowding; and location on hazardous land.

In addition, slum areas have high concentration of social and economic deprivation, which may include broken families, unemployment and economic, physical and social exclusion.

Slum dwellers have limited access to credit and formal job markets due to stigmatization, discrimination and geographic isolation. Slums are often recipients of the city’s nuisances, including industrial effluent and noxious waste, and the only land accessible to slum dwellers is often fragile, dangerous or polluted land that no one else wants.

People in slum areas suffer inordinately from water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera, as well as more opportunistic ones that accompany HIV/AIDS. Slum women and the children they support are the greatest victims of all.

Slum areas are also commonly believed to be places with a high incidence of crime, although this is not universally true since slums with strong social control systems will often have low crime rates.

Albeit, on the positive side, slums are the first stopping point for immigrants – they provide the low cost and only affordable housing that will enable the immigrants to save for their eventual absorption into urban society.

As the place of residence for low-income employees, slums keep the wheels of the city turning in many different ways.

The majority of slum dwellers in major cities of developing countries earn their living from informal sector activities located either within or outside slum areas, and many informal entrepreneurs operating from slums have clienteles extending to the rest of the city.

Most slum dwellers are people struggling to make a honest living, within the context of extensive urban poverty and formal unemployment. They are in low-paying occupations such as informal jobs in the garment industry, recycling of solid waste, a variety of home based enterprises and many are domestic servants, security guards, piece rate workers and self-

Slums are also places in which the vibrant mixing of different cultures frequently results in new forms of artistic expression.

Out of unhealthy, crowded and often dangerous environments can emerge cultural movements and levels of solidarity unknown in the suburbs of the rich.

Against all odds, slum dwellers have developed economically rational and innovative shelter solutions for themselves.

However, these few positive attributes do not in any way justify the continued existence of slums and should not be an excuse for the slow progress towards the goal of adequate shelter for all.

Many past responses to the problem of urban slums have been based on the erroneous belief that provision of improved housing and related services (through slum upgrading) and physical eradication of slums will, on their own, solve the slum problem.

Solutions based on this premise have failed to address the main underlying causes of slums, of which poverty is the most significant.

There is need for future policies to support the livelihoods of the urban poor by enabling urban informal-sector activities to flourish and develop, by linking low-income housing development to income generation, and by ensuring easy geographical access to jobs.

The majority of slum dwellers in developing country cities earn their living from informal sector activities located either within or outside slum areas, and many informal sector entrepreneurs whose operations are located within slums have clienteles extending to the rest of the city.

The informal sector is the dominant livelihood source in slums.

However, information on the occupations and income generating activities of slum dwellers from all over the world emphasizes the diversity of slum populations, who range from university lecturers, students and formal sector employees, to those engaged in marginal activities bordering on illegality, including petty crime.

The main problems confronting the informal sector at present are lack of formal recognition, as well as low levels of productivity and incomes

In facing the challenge of slums, urban development policies should more vigorously address the issue of livelihoods of slum dwellers and urban poverty in general, thus going beyond traditional approaches that have tended to concentrate on improvement of housing, infrastructure and physical environmental conditions.

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