The Dilemma of the Slum

In societies that have large populations living in slums such as Brazil and Kenya, it is often asked what should be done about them. There are many who advocate for bulldozing shacks and putting everyone in modern apartment buildings. This solution is unrealistic, expensive and is not in the best interest of residents. From my window here in Kibera I can see an example of this. There are apartment buildings where huts once were, but while the stated intention was to house former slum dwellers, everyone has told me that higher- income people have moved in because the rent is much higher than in the slum, where one can rent a house for the equivalent of a few US dollars a month.

It is important to understand that so-called slums are often tight-knit communities that have local leaders and institutions doing amazing work, which I’ve witnessed firsthand through my projects. There is an incredible amount of creativity, ingenuity and perseverance in the face of obstacles. The idea that the residents are happy living in filth and precarious situations is completely wrong and ignorant; if given the opportunity to own their homes and the resources to improve their living standards the overwhelming majority of people will. I recently visited a community on the outskirts of Mexico City that was a perfect example of this. It was formerly a shantytown, and stayed that way for many years because the residents did not have deeds to their land and therefore did not feel secure enough to risk putting resources into their homes. Through a long struggle, they became recognized by the government and given ownership of their properties, after which they slowly but surely built their community up until it became a normal working class neighborhood with paved roads, houses strong enough to withstand earthquakes, electricity and other infrastructure, much of which the residents built themselves.

Kibera is the opposite of this; people do not own their homes and have limited access to jobs and resources, so they continue to live in mud huts with open sewers running by decade after decade. Under the right circumstances, Kibera could gradually and naturally evolve into a clean and safe community just as the neighborhood in Mexico did. This concept is highlighted in an interesting book called “Shadow Cities” by Robert Neuwirth, who studied squatter communities by living in them for two years across four continents; Brazil, India, Turkey and Kenya, where he lived here in Kibera. He also researched the former shanties of cities like New York City, Paris and London, and how they evolved into regular neighborhoods over time. I recommend it to anyone interested in this topic. —Joel B

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