Stop using the word “slum”

The world’s highest percentages of slum-dwellers are in Ethiopia (an astonishing 99.4 percent of the urban population), Chad (also 99.4 percent), Afghanistan (98.5 percent) and Nepal (92 per cent). The poorest urban populations, however, are probably in Maputo and Kinshasa where (according to other sources) two-thirds of residents earn less than the cost of their minimum required daily nutrition. In Delhi, planners complain bitterly about ‘slums within slums’ as squatters take over the small open spaces of the peripheral resettlement colonies into which the old urban poor were brutally removed in the mid-1970s. In Cairo and Phnom Penh, recent urban arrivals squat or rent space on rooftops: creating slum cities in the air.

(Davis, 2004, p.13)

I built a large shack here that everyone was jealous of. It was just like a home in the USA. It was really big, square, wooden home where I, my wife, my daughter, my son and sometimes my son-in-law stayed. From there, we started to finish those parts and begin to build an actual house. I made the entire structure. In front I used 4.5 cubic meters of material for each support column here in the foundation because it is in a large ditch. To find a firm location to start construction you have to have a really good foundation, which is why this was the most work. It was really difficult, hard work and a lot of money. After that we made the living room and kept expanding. I spent 20 years building this house.

(Daniel Ferreira Campos, 2016)[1]

The first quote presented here comes from the Planet of Slums book published fifteen years ago by Mike Davis. The second quote is part of the life story of Daniel Ferreira Campo, resident of the favela Vila União de Curicica in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro. His story is part of a series of articles published by the Rio on Watch website. The series is a collection of stories of how people build their homes in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, most of the times using their creativity, own know-how about construction, and available resources.

The first quote presents a series of statistics to show the widespread of poverty and slums in the mega cities of the Global South. The second quote describes the construction process of a house in a favela that lasted over 20 years. The first quote describes a reality where slums are everywhere, taking every space in the city. Davis describes slums as being a concern to authorities, planning professionals and higher-income dwellers. Slums are considered a threat. The second quote shows the history of the man who took 20 years of his life to build a home for his family. A man that built his legacy starting from nothing, and with no help from the government, planners or architects. What is different between the two quotes? 

Both quotes are about poor neighborhoods, but there is a significant difference between the two: the human component. While reading Davis’ article and parts of his book, you almost forget that he is talking about people’s homes. Families who do not have a place to live. Building a house with whatever means they had was the only alternative, besides living on the street. Residing in a slum was probably never a choice. It was the only option available. Not because of any fault of their own, but due to a society in which inequality and poverty prevail for the great majority. Poor communities around the world are developed by human beings in search of one of the minimum conditions for a person to survive and prosper: shelter.

The matter of terminology

The use of the word slum has been intensely criticized for the past twenty years, and for good reasons (Angotti, 2006; Gilbert, 2007; Arabindoo, 2011).  The word carries a significant amount of negative connotations and myths, especially in English-speaking countries. For example, Angotti (2006) points out how the word slum is usually used by authorities as a way to justify the elimination of poor communities. The federal urban renewal program in the US responsible for displacing millions of people, mostly poor racial minorities, was fixated in slum clearance.

Hoskins (1970) traces the word slum to the late period of Industrial Revolution in the 1820s. Slum comes from “the old provincial word slump, meaning ‘wet mire.’ The word slump in Low German, Danish, and Swedish means ‘mire,’ that roughly described the dreadful state of the streets and courtyards” in England during the Industrial Revolution (Hoskins, 1970, p.172-173). Since it first started to be used the word slum was associated with misery, filthiness, and diseases. 

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word slum as:

1.  a densely populated usually urban area marked by crowding, run-down housing, poverty, and social disorganization [2]

This definition carries bias and prejudice against poor communities, considered disordered and chaotic for being outside of government laws and regulations.

The word slum had been widely discredited until the 1990s when the United Nations launched the City without Slums initiative, bringing the word back into the policy vocabulary (Gilbert, 2007). The City without Slums initiative proposed an action plan endorsed internationally by 150 heads of state in 2000 aiming to improve “the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers[3] by 2020. According to the City Alliance, the goal will be measured by two indicators: the proportion of people with access to improved sanitation; and the proportion of people with access to secure tenure.

Gilbert (2007, 2009) criticizes the revival of the word slum by the UN because of the negative associations the term implies. The word carries a pejorative meaning related to unsanitary places, stigmatized as a center of crime and fear, recreating old stereotypes about the poor. The biggest problem with the use of the word slum is its homogenization power, including under only one term any low-income area that is assumed to be problematic in some way. The assumption of homogeneity among low-income settlements around the world is a generalization that promotes meaningless stereotypes and ignores context (Abrams, 1964; Gilbert, 2007, 2009; Perlman, 2010). Such dualism (slum / non-slum) overshadows the tremendous array of diversity regarding housing condition, tenure status, urban infrastructure, and socioeconomic and cultural factors that also play an important part in the shaping of any built environment. 

Beyond the negative meanings associated with the word, most of the Global South countries facing this issue are non-English-speaking countries. Most of the English-speaking countries in Africa were British colonies and had the English language imposed upon them during the colonization period. The concept of the slum was created by English-speakers. In fact, most developing countries have their own terms, definitions, and parameters for low-income settlements. Brazil’s favelas, Peru’s barriadas, Colombia’s tugurios, Morocco’s bidonvilles, Singapore’s kampongs, Turkey’s gecekondu. The term slum, like many other themes and discourses, is an imported concept to most countries in the Global South. Davis’s perpetuation of the word slum in his article and book reveals the lack of understanding of the massive heterogeneity found in low-income settlements across the world and the complexities of urban environments. His approach to low-income areas is the reproduction of the idea that these places must be eliminated.

Notes

[1] “Building the Favela: The Story of Daniel Ferreira Campos in Vila Uniao de Curicica,” Rio on Watch, accessed June 20, 2019. https://www.rioonwatch.org/?p=29267

[2] Merriam-Webster dictionary, accessed June 20, 2019.  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slum

[3] “Cities without Slums Action Plan,” Cities Alliance, accessed June 20, 2019. https://www.citiesalliance.org/cities-without-slums-action-plan

References

Abrams, C., 1964. Housing in the Modern World: Man’s Struggle for Shelter in an Urbanizing World. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 

Angotti, T., 2006. “Apocalyptic anti‐urbanism: Mike Davis and his planet of slums.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 30(4), pp.961-967.

Arabindoo, P. 2011. “Rhetoric of the ‘slum’ Rethinking urban poverty.” City,15(6), pp.636-646.

Davis, M. 2004. “Planet of Slums: Urban Involution and the Informal Proletariat Urban Involution and the Informal Proletariat.” New Left Review26.

Davis, M. 2006. Planet of Slums. London: Verso.

Gilbert, A., 2007. “The return of the slum: does language matter?”.International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 31(4), pp.697-713.

Gilbert, A., 2009. “Extreme thinking about slums and slum dwellers: a critique.” SAIS Review of International Affairs, 29(1), pp.35-48.

Hoskins, W.G. The Making of the English Landscape. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1970.

Perlman, J., 2010. Favela: Four decades of living on the edge in Rio de Janeiro. Oxford University Press.