For the billion-plus people currently living in the over 200,000 informal settlements, these self-built habitats of last resort provide shelter despite the massive housing shortage in the rapidly urbanizing Global South. Whatever their local names – favelas in Brazil, barrios in Columbia, bustees in India, or slums in Nairobi – these informal settlements are characterized by self-built housing, usually constructed illegally, as well as with a lack of basic infrastructure and services, including sanitation, electricity, water, and waste services.


A central tenet of the UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as adopted by 193 member states in 2015, is to refocus urbanization around the needs of the disadvantaged. However, the concentrated spread of COVID-19 within informal settlements exposes how little has been done to serve the most vulnerable.


Informal settlements often look startlingly distinctive from planned areas of cities, so much that some, like Mumbai's Dharavi, have become tourist destinations. Dharavi gained notoriety as the backdrop for Slumdog Millionaire, cast as both a place of remarkable vibrancy and unmitigated squalor. Dharavi’s self-built shanties fuse into makeshift skyscrapers with their myriad of wooden panels, corrugated metal sheets, brick walls, and improvised windows and waste pipes, creating architectural anarchy. 


Some urban critics fiercely condemn the systemic inequities that produce these state-neglected districts, while others argue for the acceptance of informal settlements as an inherent urban element that will grow to become an ever-larger part of future cities. In 2019, the UN estimated that approximately 25% of the world's urban population – over 1 billion people – live in informal settlements. It is challenging our perception that future cities of glass and steel will instead comprise a myriad of salvaged materials.


Postcards from the Future, a digital photo series depicting how future London sites, including Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, and the Gherkin, might be transformed by future climate refugees into what the artists term "shanty towns." Although troubling in their characterization of "exotic" slums of the Global South, these images startling juxtapose the highly formal and exclusive city with the often unacknowledged “other.”


Slums have long been seen as parasites of the city. Policymakers strive to formalize their informalities, thereby sterilizing communities whose physical structures, social norms, and visual aesthetics do not conform with modernist and formal conceptions of what the city should be.


Informal settlements manifest extraordinary creative resourcefulness in establishing their own self-regulating service provision, entrepreneurship, and governance. Theorizing the slum as an agent of urban transformation reveals another layer of what the modern city can be – socially, culturally, economically, and materially. 


For current and future city builders, the so-called rehabilitation of the slums might mean learning how to integrate them into the city. Unless policy settings seek to understand the rules and governance behind informal settlements, the preoccupation with design, materiality and aesthetics will continue to disengage from the needs of the growing cohort of urban slum dwellers.





Check out Ananya Roy and her work on slums and global cities. 


Ali talks about Mukesh Ambani’s home in Antilia next to the Gherkin slum in Mumbai in this NY Times piece.

Read this Toronto Star piece on tent cities that have popped up outside City Hall in Toronto as a result of COVID-19.