The future of shanty towns

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Guayaquil shanty towns, the biggest city in the country, Ecuador. © Yann Arthus-Bertrand / Altitude

Shanty towns aren’t just poor precarious areas; they are also hubs of life, economic activity and social networks.

Shanty towns are built on the edge of cities where land is cheaper and they absorb most of the population growth in cities: farmers who leave the countryside and move to towns often settle there. Every year, 27 million people are crammed into shanty towns and they are now home to over a billion people– and probably 1.4 billion by 2020.

Common characteristics of shanty towns include a lack of basic services such as access to water or electricity, bad hygiene due to poor sanitation and flimsy houses built illegally by the residents, often in dangerous areas, because of mudslides, for example.

The government sometimes tries to demolish shanty towns because they tarnish the city’s image and they are seen as sources of insecurity. Or because like Dharavi, a slum with 700 000 inhabitants in Mumbai, they are built on valuable and sought-after pieces of real estate. But demolishing homes in shanty towns only displaces the inhabitants ; it does not solve any problems. It even worsens poverty there by driving shanty town residents further away from employment centres.

But shanty towns are also dynamic. Dharavi has the most leather manufacturers in India. The annual turnover of these thousands of small workshops is estimated at 340 million Euros. The leather bags are sold in Mumbai as well as in the United Kingdom and Gulf countries !

We should try and include these areas better within the formal city rather than destroying or isolating them and grant their inhabitants easier access to microcredits and jobs. This would put the valuable human resources in shanty towns to good use and help lower poverty. Mobilising the various local resources is better than stigmatising them.

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