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Inside Shanty Towns: Impending Crisis or the Future of Global Housing?

Inside Shanty Towns

Events over the past ten years have changed the outlook for the global economy considerably, with new bargaining tools and new opportunities increasingly available to emerging powers and developing states alike. This has given rise to some startling economic revelations, such as that debt now seems to be increasingly stockpiled in more affluent countries and that the fastest-growing trade relations tend to be between developing countries themselves, and between developing countries and the BRICs.

Despite this, however, the primary connotations associated with global shanty town development have in many ways proven durable and our treatment of this housing paradigm consequently has become outdated. By the early to mid-1800s, the slums that had proliferated in British cities as a result of the industrial revolution were denigrated for being dens of drunkards, prostitutes and thieves. Fast forward to the more recent past and the conventional wisdom remained little changed, being for the most part equally as blunt and dismissive in regard to the shanty towns that were by then growing at a rapid rate in other regions and continents.

The anthropologist William Mangin, for example, was one of the first to undertake field analysis in the Pueblos Jóvenes or ‘young towns’ that were springing up in various quarters of Lima in Peru throughout the 1950s and 60s. Mangin described how these shanty town developments were widely perceived by the authorities of the time to be hotbeds of crime and political agitation, whereas the reality was in fact quite different. Considered study revealed not only surprisingly well-planned urban structures in these young towns, but local populations residing within them who tended towards both civic participation and self-improvement.

However, over this same period, there was one trend about which everyone eventually appeared to agree upon: the shift in shanty town development in terms of its prime geographical location and concentration. The paradigm of slum housing that had originated in Europe and America was gradually displaced from the developed world as living standards rose unabated after World War II. It is important to note, however, that slum housing often persisted in developed countries in some form or another for far longer than is typically thought. A photo-documentary series undertaken by Nick Hedges, for example, revealed extant slum housing in British cities as late as the 1970s; and it was only in recent years that the Spanish government announced plans to start resolving the Canada Real Galiana shanty town located close to Madrid, reputed to be Europe’s largest surviving shanty town community.

As the 1970s were drawing to a close, however, the economies of Europe and of North America were on the brink of de-industrialisation to a greater or lesser degree; and the economic ideology of neo-liberalism was about to be unleashed, destined to irrevocably alter the inner-workings of the global economy in ways that would affect all states, developed and developing alike.

Elsewhere in the world, the combined forces of decolonisation, industrialisation and urbanisation were already exacerbating shanty town development across a whole plethora of new and old cities and, just as with processes of deindustrialisation across the West, the particular effect this troika of forces visited upon different urban centres in developing states varied hugely depending on context.

In the former colonies of Africa, for example, decolonisation was a contributing factor to shanty town development, albeit indirectly. This is because shanty town development tends to be more pronounced in those urban areas where inequality is entrenched and where antiquated property and land laws impede innovative urban planning. Too often, the socio-economic structures that the newly-independent African states inherited once transfers of power were complete reflected these indicators, with colonial inequalities far more likely to be replicated by the new ruling elites than overhauled by them.

Similar patterns can be observed in India and Pakistan. Indeed, a review of the largest slums in the world reveals that a great number of them are located in areas of particular importance to the former colonial powers, from the Dharavi slum in Mumbai to Kibera just outside of Nairobi. Although it is not helpful to simplify the very complex causality inherent in decolonisation processes, the congruence is nevertheless striking.

In China, in contrast, it was the unprecedented scale and deepening processes of industrialisation that accounted for the development of shanty towns across the mainland. China’s industrial path is notable in two ways. The first is the relatively short timeframe over which China has achieved its staggering levels of industrialisation and its concomitant economic reorientation towards its cities, over the past three decades alone. The second is the present maturing of the industrial process within China and the investment that China has been consistently willing to make in order to sustain urban growth, facilitate ongoing rural-urban migration and improve urban housing for its burgeoning industrial workforces. This has often come at the sacrifice of the rights of agriculture workers due to land seizures, however, and has been seen by some as a contributing factor to an oversupply in the Chinese property market.

Caught somewhere between these two processes, it is the urbanisation forces underway in South America that are now often treated as emblematic of the broader, arguably global trend towards informal shanty town housing. Moreover, with decolonisation having occurred much earlier in South America, and with industrialisation being by and large less intense than in Asia, it is the shanty towns of South America that are perhaps most likely to be problematised by the international community today.

This is mainly due to two reasons. In the absence of a distinctive phase of industrialisation underpinning migration into urban centres, shanty town development can be decoupled from urban productivity and can therefore feed into unemployment and stagnation. Secondly, due to the prevalence of drug trafficking across South America, it is often the shanty towns that bear the brunt of the high levels of crime that such trafficking involves. Some of the largest and most well-known shanty towns in South America- from the barrios of Caracas to the sprawling Nezo Chalco Itza shanty town in Mexico City- are characterised by high crime rates and pronounced inequality. Insecurity has long been the main concern in South American societies.

Impending Crisis or the Future of Global Housing?

In view of the present scale and prevalence of shanty towns around the world, there are a number of considerations that it is important to keep in mind when formulating academic and policy approaches.

As the above review hopefully demonstrated, we need to avoid generalising shanty town development and we need to avoid downplaying the importance of context. When we treat shanty towns as a single, monolithic housing category, it feeds into this tendency to critically isolate the shanty town paradigm and to perceive it as a ‘problem’ that can somehow be segregated within or eliminated from the urban planning process. The sheer scale of shanty town growth and the sheer pace of projected urbanisation for the foreseeable future makes outright eradication unfeasible, to say nothing of the questionable ethics such a policy aim as and of itself would imply. UN Habitat, for example, predicts that 6 out of 10 people can be expected to reside in urban areas by the year 2030.

Processes of social integration, innovative urban planning that embraces mixed land use and ongoing land reform, both formal and informal, will be much more meaningful towards managing this transition and should be the goals that inform the collective mindset going forwards. Slum improvement projects that provide links to amenities and transport infrastructure, similarly, are achievable ambitions which can render tangible benefits and which would do justice to the social mobility and economic activity that shanty towns could, and in some cases have already provided, often despite the failures of government to achieve the same. In contrast, treating shanty towns as an impending crisis and then subsequently seeking to relocate residents can have devastating repercussions, severing residents from their support networks, their jobs and, in the worst instances, simply leaving them homeless.

Secondly, and perhaps even more critically, we have to move away from this idea that shanty towns are somehow containable to less developed countries. The financial crisis that began in 2007, and the misguided housing policies that it revealed on the part of Western governments- a lack of sustainable, affordable housing stock, untenable mortgages, credit and property bubbles and a renting sector in disarray- should serve as a stark reminder that the Western housing paradigm is equally vulnerable to modern economic forces. Rather than treating shanty towns as interim, semi-permanent communities that will inevitably be phased out as economies achieve a high enough standard of living for the majority of its residents, it is time to start implementing approaches that envisage shanty towns on a much more permanent basis, one that will increasingly erode the distinction we make between developed and developing countries.

The signs are already here that shanty towns may be on the brink of revisiting developed countries in various ways. Concern about the ‘broken’ housing model of London is becoming a regular refrain in the UK, with some arguing that the ‘beds in sheds’ phenomenon of a growing yet largely invisible migrant population being housed in substandard conditions across certain boroughs prefigures a return to this type of housing. Others cite evidence that poverty is increasingly being concentrated in the suburbs of a number of major American cities in a way that likewise reflects a return to slum housing.  In view of such evidence, and in view of global population increases, it seems shanty towns are far more likely to be the future of global housing long before they become a thing of the past.

Author Biography

Heather Emond is an MSc graduate in International Relations from the London School of Economics, with a focus in advanced international security, European security and defence policy and Arab-Israeli Relations. Upon graduation, she worked in the fields of economic development and external affairs for local government in Edinburgh, assisting with a number of EU, international and telecommunications projects. More recently, Heather has collaborated with the United Nations Association of Edinburgh and is currently based in Northern Chile volunteering for a teaching programme co-delivered by the Chilean Ministry of Education and UN Development Programme.

Twitter: @HGEmond

*Cover image by author


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