The History of a City is Written in its Slums

Currently around 1 billion people worldwide live in slums. Between the years 2000 and 2010 the number of slum dwellers has increased by six million every year. The prognosis is that this growth will pinnacle around 2050 when over 7 billion people will live in slums, which makes every third person on Earth.

Slums seem to be our future so it might be worth it to take a closer look at the characteristics of these fascinating urban dwellings. In this article I argue that by examining their social and spatial structures, one can read a history of a city, with its past, present and future, hiding in its slums.

The past

The conditions that describe a slum, such as poor sanitation conditions, overcrowding, lack of security and justice, poor water quality and  insufficient food are hardly unfamiliar to various parts of the globe from all periods of history. In fact, todays slums in Africa, South America or India very closely resemble vast areas of many European cities all the way until late 19th century or even early 20th century in the USA, where slums could be found in every major urban region. The turm slum originates from London’s East End neibourhood, from where sources describe conditions even worse than some of todays dwellings in Mexico or Central Africa. The UN-Habitat might be predicting that most people will be living in slums  in the future, but truely, most communities already have.

The present

One characteristic of slums is that they tend to form in the most vulnerable parts of a city- places that have been neglected by the autorities for a long period despite a growing need for attention. They are also known to depict very clearly the problems the adjacient city has. Like an echo, slums absorb all problems of the city, but unfornunately in a larger and ever more extreme degree. For example, if a city cannot provide adequate mental care, untreated patients, unable to lead a normal life, loose everything and end up living in the slums. Same applies to general problems of healthcare, education, housing or even climate change. It is the slums that highlight and signal the shortages and features of a city.

The future

The most fascinating property of a slum is doubtlessly its resiliance and dynamic. When asked why people voluntarily move from the picturesque villages they were born to the inhumane conditions of the slums all answers sound the same. In the rural areas in developing countries the lack of education, basic healthcare and jobs drives millions of people from their homes to the urban dwellings in the search for improvement. Thus the slums become a container for ingeniuity and progress, a fierce struggle for movement forward. And although it is probably insensible to call the community “creative” when this creativity is induced by a struggle for basic survival, the woken and dynamic responsivness of each cell in the organism that a slum is, contributes to the complex and resiliant system it has become. A slum has an exceptional structure of borrowing and occupying space. Many of the structures are usually temporary shelters, which allow for the entire neibourhood to be dynamic and flexible and therefore to be able to react fast in crusial situations, like for instance natural disasters.

As catastrophic as it might look, a slum is a sign of transition forward and progress. It describes peoples desire for context and unstopping will. If in the future our cities are in danger, it would probably be due to the restrictive and deterministic character of planned urbanism. We are entering a design age where all that can be determined is the algorithm and key parameters – although that is a planning concept our cities might be far from accepting, slums already did and are currently teaching us a lesson.


References :

Tomorrow’s Cities: A day in the life of a smart slum, BBC News, 5 April 2017

Learning from slums,, 1 March 2009




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