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Urban Squatters and Slums
The Urban Poor and Urban Problems

Fast Facts The absolute number of people living in slums or informal settlements grew to over 1 billion in 2018 - about 1 in 7 persons.

An estimated 3 billion people will require adequate and affordable housing by 2030.

Globally, 2 billion people were without waste collection services or facilities - significantly degrading the quality of their local environments.

An estimated 50 per cent of urban residents have convenient access to public transport (2018), forcing residents to stay close to their jobs, and therefore staying on undesirable and degraded lands.

Nine out of ten urban residents in 2016 were breathing polluted air - seriously affecting their health and their surroundings.

In Mumbai the squatter settlement of Dharavi is now home to over 1 million people. Dharavi lies between two railway lines and is one of the biggest squatter settlements in the world.

Many governments refuse to acknowledge the existence of informal settlements. These settlements continue to be geographically, economically, socially and politically disengaged from wider urban systems and excluded from urban opportunities and decision-making.

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Many advocates of urban low-income families take the view that slums and squatter settlements are a solution, developed by the poor themselves, under the extenuating circumstances that they find themselves in cities.[1]

Slums and squatter settlements, in fact, represent four trade-offs for a low-income family:

  1. A trade off between poor quality of their living places, and being in close proximity to their place of jobs and local markets;
  2. Trade off between the temporary and poor quality of their houses and low and affordable (initial) investment in housing;
  3. Trade off between having no housing or place to stay, and living in a place with tenurial insecurity; and
  4. Trade off between no access to infrastructure services (such as water, electricity or sanitation connections), and informal and intermittent supply of such urban services.

Low-income families in urban areas find themselves with low financial and other assets, working in low-income jobs in the informal sector and have few skills and education.

On the other hand, local governments face their own slew of shortcomings and challenges, in the form of inadequate tax/financial base, ineffective institutional structures and mandates, weak legislation, with their weak implementation. Lopsided policies are further compounded by lack of staff members with the appropriate skills and knowledge to address urban challenges.

These shortcomings, on the part of the urban low-income families and the local government agencies, manifest themselves in the impact they have on the urban character of a city - poor housing conditions for low-income families, lack of formal credit access, land ownership structures, poor infrastructure services provision that result in the slums and squatter settlements that we see today.

We always also need to remember that slums and squatter settlements are always in a constant state of change, where people do invest time, money, and resources to upgrade their homes - particularly over time, as a sense of "perceived" tenure is developed.[2]. Governments have not been idle either, and have in several cases provided utilities, community water taps and toilets, etc. as well as "sites-and-services" programmes that have enabled families to build their own homes on serviced land parcels.[3]

The complex web of needs, resources (and who controls those resources), and who tranfers the resources to the end use - low-income families - calls for innovative solutions that is multi-sectoral, involving different stakeholders.

[1] See a GDRC note on ""Defining Squatter Settlements"
[2] See for example, "Field Observation: Squatter Settlements"
[3] More information on "Sites and Services"

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Adopting a Rational Approach