Culture, identity and slum areas: opportunities and challenges seen from slum dwellers’ perspective

14 April 2010

By Sheela Patel, SPARC

Adapted from remarks given at Habitat Norway’s panel discussion on “The role of cultural heritage in poor urban settlements,” 5 October 2009, in Oslo.

Despite the rapid spread of urbanization, we do not know enough about cities and who lives in them. Words like “degradation” and “deprivation” are frequently used to describe slums, with little recognition of their amazing capacity for growth and change. It is this capacity that brings people to cities, and that makes them incredible engines for transformation. It does not make sense for people to stay in villages where they have no jobs, no incomes, and no opportunities when cities offer the chance for a brighter future. Instead of bemoaning the problems caused by the growth of cities, therefore, we need to revisit and rethink images of slums, cities, and urbanization.

Urbanization is hardly a new phenomenon. Many Northern countries have forgotten the former poverty of their own countries and the migration of millions of people from villages to the growing urban centres of Europe and North America just a century ago. Many neighborhoods in those cities were also slums, but they were transformed over time into historical districts that reflect the heritage of their cities and countries. Yet few plans to redevelop the slums of the global South recognize this potential for transformation or the value of what those who live in the slums have built.

At the same time, it is clear that Southern cities will never become European cities. Already, many are five to ten times larger and still growing: the slums of Mumbai, for instance, are home to more people than the entire country of Norway. We must therefore work with the development community to adapt the lessons of Northern cities to a uniquely Southern context.

Envisioning a new urban future will also require us to reevaluate the way we think about slums. The word slum conjures images of squalor, crime, and disease. Yet slums are places of enterprise, of innovation, of creativity, and of hard work. Despite their seeming chaos, slums are vital and energetic, efficient and purposeful. Nothing is wasted, and no opportunity is missed. The culture of the slums is built on the unique knowledge that communities own and use to address the challenges that they face. This local, community-produced knowledge is key to the resilience, growth, and vitality of the thousands of informal settlements in cities throughout the global South, even as they are being threatened by development schemes that do not acknowledge their strengths and needs.

It is estimated that 70% of people in Southern cities work in the informal sector, a sector that is frequently described as “marginal” even though it accounts for the majority of the population. Yet for all the vitality of the slums, they are slowly crumbling for lack of infrastructure. This is in part because development plans have tended to privilege the private domain over the public. Whether consciously or unconsciously, all development investment makes huge decisions about this issue. These decisions have tremendous consequences for the future of Southern cities, and ripple effects that stretch far beyond their intended impacts. Although the informal sector, for example, is currently thriving, it is being threatened by certain types of development. As foreign investment comes in, informal markets are being demolished to make room for air-conditioned malls, and street food vendors selling traditional fast food like samosas and sev puri are being replaced by Western chains like McDonald’s.

These choices about public and private goods are also made on a very large scale. Mumbai, for example, planned two transportation projects to be built in tandem: one public transportation upgrading plan, and one aimed at improving roads and private transportation infrastructure. The public project was negotiated with the World Bank, and has been in progress for fourteen years and counting. The second project, consisting mainly of upgrades to roads and flyovers, cost the same amount but was finished in 4.5 years. This is clearly a case of misplaced priorities in a city where just 5% of the population drives cars as opposed to the 65% who use public transport systems on a daily basis. Yet elites in Southern cities are often aligned with the Northern development elite in their view of what a city should be, favoring investment in private over public goods.

Poor people are not merely objects of development to be dealt with. Of course, almost no one in the development community would argue otherwise: individually, we all want people to be able to make choices about their lives. We talk about participatory planning, community-led development, and so on, but institutionally and organizationally, we have yet to see these principles truly put into practice. And so we must ask, how do we make choices about development? What is the culture of development that does not allow communities to make their own decisions? What role do poor people really play in development and what contributions do they make?

Community-led decision-making is time-consuming, messy, and complicated, to be sure. And nothing is messier or more complicated than dealing with slums. Their problems encompass not just the slums themselves, but an entire system that has ignored the rights of people who have uprooted themselves in pursuit of their aspirations. But why do we run away from things that are messy and complicated? It is those processes and issues that have the greatest potential for transformation. Instead of dealing with them head-on, however, cities and countries have attempted to create boundaries to stem the migratory tide. But it cannot be stopped: it is not a tide, but a tsunami. Throughout history, across continents, people have always moved when they see greater possibility over the horizon, and have proved themselves willing to make any sacrifice to change the lives of their children for the better.

The solutions offered by global institutions often result in consequences that communities were not able to truly accept because they did not have a true choice. The ability to dissent requires institutional capacity, and most informal communities do not have the type of institutions that allow them to make their views known. So when those of us in the development community seek to make changes in slums, we need to recognize the extraordinary sacrifices people have made to come to cities and the extraordinary capacity they have shown to thrive once there. We must listen to the people who have built their homes from the bottom up, and hear what they have to say about plans to redevelop their communities. This is what SPARC seeks to do by supporting the urban poor in organizing their own communities and learning from each other’s experiences. It is only by putting power in the hands of the communities themselves—the power to know the options available, the power to discuss and negotiate for one’s interests, and the power to ultimately make a choice about one’s future—that development can truly claim to be community-led.