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“SLaM the SLuMs”

Understanding architecture through the poor

Malini Foobalan
November 26th, 2009
more than 3.4 million more than 12 million

about 20 million 42.6 million people

more than half of Two out of
Cairo’s population three Lagos residents

10 million inhabitants
and is still rising..
Over one billion people live in slums across the globe.

That is about one sixth of the world’s population and three times

the American population. According to the United Nations, this number

could double by the year 2030 if the situation is not given serious


According to Dr. Tibaijuka of United Nations Centre for Human

Settlements (UNCHS), slum-dwellers not only live in misery, but their

focus tends
plight often goes unnoticed as the traditional

to be on the rural poor
The shanty homes in Dharavi slums, Mumbai

The definition of slums differs distinctly from country to country,

however they all have one thing in common, which is poverty.
Slums are considered to be a residential

settlement in an urban geographic area that is inhabited by
the extremely poor who have no tenured land of their own.
These people end up squatting on vacant land, which is either private

or public land.

Kids playing in garbage which also counts as their ‘backyard’ in this slum in Nairobi.
These slum dwellers live in shanty homes, with no potable

water, no proper sewage and low quality housing. With

most of them having no access to education, the shanty homes

are the most one could expect out of them. It is however,

Kibera Slums in Nairobi important for these slum dwellers to find a way to survive in

their own ‘competitive world’ before they fall behind the face
Poor infrastucture - Kibera Slums
of the most demeaning social lifestyle.
One of the first problems that must be faced is the ques-

tion of proper physical infrastructure. With

little money, education, and few marketable skills, the only

Dilapidated wood shacks option available to many urban migrants is to illegally build

shelters on a vacant piece of land.
Manilai slums, Philipines
This leads to a bad system of urban planning such as

shaky housing structures, undefined
road systems, and poor ammenities
(water and electricity). These poor systems
eventually causes designers and planners to be blamed for their
Flood in Dharavi slum, India

bad planning and inadequate understanding of the problem.
Daily lives around the slums of Mumbai


According to Lebbeus Wood in a blog entry titled “Slums: the problem”, there are many

problems that seems impossible to solve. The writer claims that this is because the causes of the problems are

either not known, or not well understood, that they cannot be effectively identified and resolved. “The

problem of slums is one of these seemingly insoluble problems. They are a global problem and a growing one, as

exponential population expansion in many countries forces a disproportionate number of people into

increasingly untenable living conditions” says Wood in his blog.

Based on how would
this one signify
current the

involvement of today’s designers in slum development
as an effective effort? According to a statement adapted from a seminar titled “Are architects and

planners obstacles to enabling housing strategies in low-income countries?” by ARC.PEACE, efforts to address the slum problem have

yielded very limited results. One reason why efforts have been unsuccessful is that decision-makers continue to apply outdated methods

to address the growing slum problem. The speakers explained that conventional approaches to the slum problem often include demands

for space standards, procedures for land regulation and building permits that are impossible for the poor to meet. Unfortunately

architects and planners in many cases have exacerbated the problem instead of playing a creative role to meet the needs of the poor.

However, this statement is not proven to be a hundred percent true. Many

architects have been continuously trying creative methods to solve the global slum problem.
“Having established the

connection between slums, the

best infrastructure paths of

the city and its environment

spine, the slums can
actually improve whole
cities rather than be
parasitic on the
parent infrastructure.” A roadway in
a Mumbai slum
So people who live outside before and
after the
the slums also benefit. development.

Instead of seeing squatters and their communities as a nuisance — the inevitable consequence

of malignant urban growth — Parikh looks for and reinforces resources within the community.

He had observed that slums develop in neglected land areas along rivers and canals, often the

natural drainage paths of a city. So his approach develops a topographically sensitive layout

that links several slums of a city to optimize shared infrastructure.

Over the past decade, Architecture for

Humanity has helped design and build mobile HIV/AIDS clinics in sub- Ambedkar Nagar community complex in
Tamil Nadu, India.
Saharan Africa and joined in earthquake recovery efforts in

Turkey and Iran, “They design with us. They construct the buildings.

We pay them to construct the buildings. But in the process of doing

this, we were able to introduce rainwater catchment systems, natural

ventilation, solar, and almost 95 percent of our structures

internationally are off the grid, so the community can
maintain them in the long run.” says Cameron Sinclair, founder of CAMERON
Architecture for Humanity over a phone interview with a New Jersey news SINCLAIR
room. Sinclair claims that by keeping the maintenance bills low, the “Strip away all the ego in
families could afford home insurance. He says that’s architecture and all the
equity. With that, if there is another disaster, these dwellers don’t design theory, the hype, and
lose everything. Instead they would have the funding to rebuild. the hot magazine articles,

all we do is

provide shelter. If you can’t

do that, you can’t call

yourself an archtect.”
With slums continuing to grow and efforts being increasingly thrown in to provide better living
conditionds for the poor, I believe every individual must take it as their right to propose a solution to help
resolve this issue. I also believe that as architects and designers we can make better contributions to resolve
the global slum pandemic.Even simple solutions as outlined below could potentially have a huge impact on the
development of slums.

Labor Material
Despite the lack of education, slum 95% of slum dwellers live alongside

dwellers successfully build their own garbage. A lot of this

homes; hence, with some garbage is worth as
proper guidelines in construction, reusable materials for
they should be able to assist

designers in the renewal of
Communication reconstructing homes for the dwellers.

This effort could potentially see the
In order for a problem to be addressed,
their home. This would be a huge
designers and dwellers will need to
reduction in garbage around the slum
contributor to the area as well as a good use of green
communicate. Nothing can progress if there is
reduction of labor cost in design in community development.
refusal in communicating, as
urban development.
would not be able to know what
the dwellers want neither would
dwellers be able to understand the designers

ideas and solutions.

Villagers helping to build the Villagers signing off on the adjacency Walls constructed with large bales of
Architecture for Humanity’s primary plan for the new community center in shredded, corrugated cardboard waste in
school in Kutamba Ambedkar Nagar, Tamil Nadu, India. the living/study complex of Rural Studio

Humane architecture rests completely upon a

designer’s willingness to be involved .As much as we dream

of fancy designs for the rich who make us famous, I believe

we should also be looking at the poor who are

beginning to make up most of the global population
“With over one billion poor people
living without adequate shelter and
basic services in slums and squatter
settlements, the challenge of the urban
millennium is to improve the living
environment of the poor … we must
all dedicate ourselves to the task of
ensuring that, one day, we will live
in a world of cities without slums,” -
Executive Director of UNCHS
(United Nations Center for
Human Settlements – Habitat).
Hopenow. (August 30, 2008). A new house kit for slum dwellers that is safe and easy to build . Message posted to

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Ward, P. (1976). The squatter settlement as slum or housing solution: evidence from Mexico City. Land economics, 52(3), 330-346.

WOODS, L. (Jan 18, 2008). SLUMS: The problem, Message posted to