A slum is identified as an area of unplanned human habitation, which can be found nearly in every country. These settlements, within a city, lack basic facilities such as clean water, sanitation, adequate living space, durable houses, housing security, and receive little to no planning and management. Despite advancements in urban infrastructure, jobs, sanitation, etc., slum management is the world’s most rapidly increasing form of human settlement problem, especially in developing countries. Today, by most conservative estimates, about 1.6 billion people, or 1/4th of the world’s urban population, resides in slums. By 2030, it is expected that 1 in every 4 people on the face of the planet, will live in either a slum or an informal settlement.

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Slum & the City ©Business Insider- Johnny Miller

Slum, Favela, Ghetto, Shanty Town, Barrio Marginal, are a few of the terms used for these informal settlements across the world. The negative connotations of the word “slum” are apparent. But beyond the unhelpful, assumed undertone, the term is inadequate. There is a lack of holistic policy development to tackle the social, economic, and planning issues of informal slum development. The main causes of slum include rapid rural-to-urban movement, no financial resources, job availability, poor development, political affairs, natural calamity, and community divergence.

The shortage of safe and affordable housing, leading to marginalization, is primarily poor construction skills, insecure land tenure, and limited access to financial mechanisms. The environmental conditions typically found in slums create several detrimental and dangerous effects on the slum neighborhood itself. The architecture of slums and informal settlements are driven by requirement and local conditions, with limited resources, rather than aesthetics or style. It is therefore termed as vernacular architecture. The infrastructure and urban layout, with closely placed houses, narrow alleys, open drain, electricity cables, further drive the overall planning of the settlement. 

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The slum is the measure of civilization ©Evidently Cochrane

We have the foresight to understand and predict that the demand for shelter in urban environments will continue to expand, perhaps indefinitely. Several architects have turned their attention to slums, with the right intentions, completing insightful research, and proposing novel ideas. But are such constructive ideas able to shine through without understanding the needs of the population and the vernacular architecture practiced in the areas? 

In light of the aforementioned question, let us discuss the ways some of the biggest slums in the world are shaping their future. Though this is just a drop in the ocean, it surely is the first step to living a better life. 

Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa
Population: 400,000

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Africa’s biggest slum ©Thomson Reuters Foundation

The slum was set-up in the 1980s, as a ghetto for black workers, who migrated to Cape Town in search of jobs, during the apartheid era. Over 99% of the slum population thereby, is black. The sea of ramshackle wood and iron tin shacks defines the architecture of the slum. Water and other essentials are hard to come by, violence and crime prevalent, homes vulnerable to flooding, and sanitation poor.

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The two-story shacks are built densely to use available space as efficiently as possible ©Apolitical
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The rebuilt shacks have become community hubs, with clean construction using cheap materials ©Apolitical

To help ease the problem of densification and lack of durable shelters in this informal settlement, Urban-Think Tank (U-TT), an interdisciplinary design practice, developed a prototype of a safe low-cost housing structure. The units are available in six sizes, ranging between 38 square meters and 84 square meters, and thereby occupy a smaller portion of the usual footprint, leaving fire break spaces that also give emergency services easy access. The dwellings are arranged around a central sanitation core, providing water and toilets. The modular nature allows the opportunity to add another story or two, if required, to accommodate different family sizes. The denser settlement also ensures efficient usage of land with no displacement of communities. The community members are the long-term stakeholders in the project. The design has the flexibility to be modeled as per the specific needs of the settlement, in coherence with the planning framework. The scalable nature of the urbanization scheme can help upgrade the informal settlement, deliver basic services, and create a safer urban environment on a larger scale. 

Dharavi, Mumbai, India
Population: 1 million

Dharavi is a sprawling warren of narrow lanes, interconnected shacks, and single-room living spaces that double as factories. It is a hub for small-scale industries, unorganized sectors such as the leather industry, waste recycling industry, wax printing, aluminum brick making industry, pottery making units, and approximately 5000 other such business entities, with 15000 in-house single-room factories for production. The informal economy exports goods across the globe with an estimated $1 billion annual turnover.

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Earthen pots made by Kumblar community at Dharavi © Hitesh Mahawar

Residents work as potters, leather tanners, weavers, and soap makers, amid the slum’s open drains. More than 50% of Mumbai’s segregated waste is processed in this slum development, indicating the vital role of waste recycling and processing units of Dharavi in the city’s waste management landscape. Not only the management of the waste, but the residents are generating money and employment as well. Dharavi is home to some 30,000 rag pickers- scavengers who find and sort recyclable scarps from the city’s garbage dumps. To assist the thriving local businesses, the houses are constructed with workspaces on the ground floor. It is a slum with immense opportunities and teachings for the informal settlements across the world. 

Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mexico
Population:1.2 million

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Ciudad Neza, a slum-cum-suburban area ©This Is Place

Once a sprawling slum, Ciudad Neza, east of Mexico City, serves as a model for other blighted urban areas. The settlement, laid by developers as a grid of streets and sold off boxy parcels, most without improper tiles, grew in a burst of urban migration in the mid-20th century. The new arrivals set up shacks of wood and cardboard, sans electricity, sewerage system, running water, schools, or paved roads.

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An aerial view of Ciudad Neza, short for Nezahualcóyotl, Mexico State, Mexico © Thomson Reuters Foundation/Johnny Miller

In the early 1970s, residents decided to collude and demand services, ownership, and land titles, from the government. The inhabitants have thereby built a community of contrasts, where the comfortable and destitute coexist. Tin homes sit alongside hovels covered with tattered rags, and horse-drawn wagons carrying garbage beside shiny cars. The bottom-up approach of development has helped Neza become more like a suburb and less like an informal settlement. The strong sense of community, with appropriate urban planning, has helped transform the territory. Neza is far from ideal, yet the brick-and-mortar houses, scattered among improvised shanties, and suburban neighborhoods, hold a lesson in growth and resilience, for the world. 

Orangi Town, Karachi, Pakistan
Population: 2.4 million

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The informal settlement in Orangi Town, Karachi ©Reddit

The cluster of 113 settlements on the outskirts of Karachi, on Pakistan’s west coast, is home to around 2.4 million people. It sprawls across 8,000 acres and is the largest slum settlement in the Asian subcontinent. Residents live in houses constructed using concrete blocks, manufactured locally, with eight to ten people sharing two to three rooms. An informal economy of micro-business has emerged, with several inhabitants employed in making carpets, leather goods, and other products. Unlike other slums, the lack of access to services, not housing, was the major problem here. Deprived of government services, the community financed and built its sewer system, with locals taking responsibility for maintaining it, on a self-help basis.

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The DIY sewerage project © Thomson Reuters Foundation

The globally renowned Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), helped the residents design, fund, and build their sewerage systems and pipelines. It also helped build a network to manage a plethora of programs, ranging from microcredit, water supply, to women’s saving schemes. Since 1980, this has helped bring latrines to over 96% of the population. Now, more than 90% of Orangi Town’s nearly 8,000 streets and lanes have sewerage pipes – all put in, maintained and cleaned, by the residents.


Kavya Jain is an architect by profession with a zest for writing, travelling, reading and eating! She is a young designer trying to use her knowledge for the betterment of the society. She spends her free time pursuing her passion of teaching kids in slums across the city. She is a firm believer of living life one day at a time, because the future will come your way, no matter what anyway!