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BROCK HICKS | ESSAY ONE

COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT & HOUSING POLICIES | 10 FEBRUARY 2014

FRAMING SLUMS:
EXPLANATIONS FOR WHY THEY EXIST, PERSIST, AND GROW
 
THE LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR: A BRIEF 
CRITIQUE OF THE SLUM CONCEPT .............................. 2 

CRITICAL THEORY: FURTHER EXPLANATIONS FROM 
THE ACADEMIC LITERATURE ....................................... 6 

TRADITIONAL RATIONALES NORTH AND SOUTH ........ 2 

CONCLUSIONS ............................................................. 8 

CURRENT RATIONALES ................................................ 4 

BIBLIOGRAPHY ............................................................. 9 

Of the twenty odd resources consulted for the writing of this essay, at least 95% introduced the topic of
slums with a litany of demographic statistics intended to either frighten (such as Davis 2007) or impress
(Neuwirth 2006). Demographic change and urbanization certainly has been dramatic over the past fifty to
sixty years. A long parade of the statistics, however, serves to obscure rather than draw out the root causes
of slum emergence, persistence, and growth. The fundamental issue at hand, counterintuitive as it might
be, is not population growth. Further misleading explanations focus on market failures and institutional
impediments. All rely on two fundamental concepts: the poor as static, nearly inanimate actors; and the
poor as responsible for their poverty. Instead, root causes are found in a confluence of factors: the
emergence of globalized production and increased urbanization, historical underdevelopment of urban
centers due to vested interests, and the poor’s political agitation for a right to the city. Stokes (1962)
evocatively writes: “a possible reason why the elimination of slums has failed is that the explanations are
inadequate.” More than just inadequate explanations, an unwillingness to cede poor people equal rights on
any other platform than the hegemonic private property model is the topic of this essay.

 

 

The lowest common denominator: a brief critique of the slum concept
Gans, in his book The Urban Villagers (1982), writes: "Whether or not it actually was a slum is a question
that involves a number of technical housing and planning considerations and some value judgments”; and:
“the term ‘slum’ is an evaluative, not an analytic, concept.” This understanding of the slum concept is
critical to any discussion of so-called slums. The term is a reduction of a vast array of heterogeneous
environments, histories, and people into one narrow category that “reflect[s] the value pattern of uppermiddle-class professionals.” As Gilbert (2009) put it, “Generalizing about slums fails to recognize the
awkward exceptions and tends to reduce the lives of all poor people to the lowest common denominator.”
Moreover, the wholesale classification of low-income urban neighborhoods and squatter settlements into
the single, value-laden denomination of slum automatically justifies their renewal, redevelopment, or
removal. They are not only the site of infrastructural decay or lawless self-made shelter, but also the dens
of the “antisocial or pathological” (Gans 1982) who do not fit into respectable or formal society. However,
in order to analyze the framing of slums globally, it is necessary to utilize reductionist terms like slum and
slum dweller irrespective of the great differences between people and places lumped into this category.

Traditional rationales North and South
In the United States, slum dwellers have long been cast as the other, people who fit into several categories
related to, alternately, the indolent or the more respectable “climbers” or “entrepreneurs”. Seeley (1959)
breaks up slum dwellers into a matrix of “likeliest term of involvement” and “primary reason for slum
involvement”. The matrix produces groups like “The Permanent Necessitarians” and “The Temporary
Opportunists”. This is the quintessential blaming the victim explanation; slums exist and persist because of
an inherent poverty of character in its residents. Only through individual effort can a slum dweller climb
out. This explanation has persisted in popular representations of slums (which this essay will not delve
into).

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Stokes, in "A Theory of Slums" (1962) explains them in functionalist terms: they are indices of the economic
growth of a city. It is supply and demand microeconomics, namely a wage differential between “the city
and its hinterland” that inexorably draws impoverished peasants into squalid slums. He goes on to say:
"The function of the slum at any moment in city development is to house those classes which do not
participate directly in the economic and social life of the city.” In this way, slums are cast as warehouses
for the poor.

Not only do slum dwellers serve the function of engines of economic growth via a cheap labor pool
constantly replenished from the hinterlands, they also remain unintegrated due to an “ability barrier which
tends to separate the city populace into those who will be fully utilized in the economic and social life of
the city and those who will not be regarded as being of the required level of social development" (Stokes
1962). Two main conceptualizations take shape here. One, the poor as inadequate and hence culpable for
their slum status and two, the poor as non-actors in city life, as yet not “integrated into the life of the city.”
This last premise is a particularly pernicious fallacy, akin to the popular idea that countries like Cuba and
Afghanistan exist during a different time period (visiting them is like firing up a time machine to the 1950s
or the Stone Age). A poor quality of housing, low-incomes, or lack of state-issued real property titles does
not equate slum dwellers to an unconnected limbo on the peripheries. Just like the formal housing dweller,
their actions have weight and impact. Here we see the beginnings of a persistent theme: poor people who
live in slums have no agency and are passive, static actors in the social, political, and economic interplays
of urban life.

Explaining poverty by pointing at the poor is particularly present in the American narrative on slums. Stokes
(1962) revisits simplistic typologies with his “slums of hope” and “slums of despair”, contending that the
latter is frequently found in the US. He casts the concept teleologically, contrasting regions of the Global
South with the industrial US:
Whereas, in underdeveloped countries it is very possible that the distribution of incomes will be
positively skewed as contrasted with the distribution of abilities which is more than likely normal,
with the growth in per capita income there is a tendency for the distribution of income to

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approximate more and more closely the distribution of abilities. What this means is that in
advanced societies poverty and lack of ability become more and more correlative. Thus, in an
advanced nation the "poor"-not only the poor in income terms but more significantly the poor in
"ability"-will be found living in the slums of "despair." That is where those who cannot meet the
society's minimum standards for full utilization and employability on any normal basis reside (pp.
190)

This also gets back to the idea of slums as engines of economic growth for cities, and here adds an
evolutionary bent: slums of despair are more common in the US whereas slums of hope are the norm in
underdeveloped countries because they serve a “necessary purpose”, urbanization and economic growth,
which has already been achieved in the US. Unabsorbed labor is relegated to slums where they despair of
finding a place within the urban fabric.

Roy (2005) compares “Third World informality policy” with “American poverty policy”, highlighting some
important dichotomies in the explanations of slums along North-South lines. Both fundamentally rely on
culture of poverty justifications, where American policy casts the problem as a “ ‘tangle of pathologies’ ”
and Third World policies interpret slum dwellers as “ ‘heroic entrepreneurs’ ”. This analysis is particularly
well suited to the literature within the Stokes genre of blaming the victim. In this view, the slum is “the
culprit rather than the structural forces of racism and poverty that lead to segregation.” The concentration
of the poor and the inability or unwillingness of state and city governments to implement adequate housing
policies is thus circumvented in a feat of circular political [mis]representations. A veneer of alarmist
demographic statistics and institutional development reports are wrapped around our eyes as we are sat
down in the theater of misdirection, unwittingly inoculated with a distorted politics of poverty.

Current rationales
In their seminal report, The Challenge of Slums (2003), the United Nations Human Settlements Programme
(UN-HABITAT) states: “Solutions based on [slum upgrading or eradication] have failed to address the main
underlying causes of slums, of which poverty is the most significant.” This explanation omits the
liberalization of national markets and failures of state housing policies, key historical causes of urban

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segregation. Once again, poverty itself is blamed, exonerating the state from their part in the emergence
and persistence of slums.

Within the international development industry, a few usual suspects pop up repeatedly as justifications for
slums: (1) a population explosion in developing countries and rapid urbanization; (2) economic growth in
the age of globalized production; and (3) institutional failures/impediments (to the proper functioning of
markets). In particular, the lack of formalized tenure is blamed for the persistence of slums.

Fox (2014) identifies these three explanations as modernization theory, which argues that squatter
settlements and slums are ‘‘both the product of and the vehicle for activities which are essential in the
process of modernization.” Slums are therefore “natural and temporary manifestations of a market failure
arising from the dynamics of structural change in labor markets.” She contests the modernization theory in
three ways: one, sub-Saharan Africa has “experienced two decades of ‘urbanization without growth’ ”,
countering the assumption that urban population growth is linked to urban economic growth (in which
slums developed to house labor migrants); two, the small degree of socioeconomic mobility across
generations of slum dwellers, counterpoint to the implicit assumption that “economic growth will trickle
down”, enabling slum dwellers to rise out of poverty; and three, by pointing out the variability of costs for
living in slums, where some residents pay premiums for housing and services, refuting the classic idea that
slums “provide cheap housing for cheap labor.”

Institutional impediments/failures, which inhibit the proper functioning of markets and deter investment,
have long been popular explanations. The prescription for these failures are de Soto-style land
regularization programs (to the benefit of cadaster departments), which have been implemented across
the world to negligible results. The failure of this explanation is evident in the persistence of slum and
squatter settlements. Implicit in this policy prescription is de Soto’s idea of “helping the poor help
themselves.” As Roy (2005) puts it, “This celebration of self-help obscures the role of the state and even
renders it unnecessary.” Fox (2014) concludes that modernization theory explains slums by pointing to “a

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specific dynamic of market failure.” Therefore, slum emergence and persistence are problems of demand
and distorted incentives:
Rapid urban population growth is essentially portrayed as a source of ‘‘excessive demand”; urban
poverty results in ‘‘defective demand” and constrains investment; and inappropriate institutional
arrangements distort investment incentives. Put differently, slums can be understood as a
manifestation of ‘‘disjointed modernization” in which urban population growth outpaces urban
economic and institutional development (193).

Boiling the arguments of the international development sector down, poverty is sufficient explanation for
the growth and persistence of slum conditions. This rationale is at its heart an evasion of responsibility by
the state and international actors, and effectively “devolve[s] responsibility for poverty to the poor
themselves” (Roy 2005).

 

Critical theory: further explanations from the academic literature
Fox and Roy provide further insights into the political economy of slums, pointing to the emergence and
persistence of slum conditions as a response to historical underinvestment in housing and infrastructure.

A historical perspective switches the discussion from correlates to causes of slum emergence. Fox (2014)
discusses the importance of colonialism in African urbanization and slum formation. During the colonial era,
cities were developed as key administrative and transport hubs for the extraction of raw materials to fuel
the rise of market exchange economies in Europe. They were extraction points designed to house a
European elite, particularly in the absence of European settler colonies and direct rule. This precluded
significant investment in urban infrastructure and housing. This historical legacy is evident in the exportdriven, path dependent economies of former European colonies. Industrial production was discouraged.
Fox contends that “urban underdevelopment has proven politically and economically beneficial to a wide
range of actors in African cities”, hence its persistence. Underdevelopment was compounded by misguided
anti-urbanization policies in international development discourse, limiting investment in urban infrastructure
and actively discouraging rural-urban migration, which arose during the same period as unprecedented
levels of urbanization were occurring on the continent. In his recent article, Fox positively correlates “legal

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fragmentation in the colonial era… with contemporary slum incidence” (see the article for a statistical
analysis of these historical data). Colonial legacies, instead of uneven modernization, account for the
historical roots and contemporary persistence of slums.

Roy (2005) posits that "dealing with informality requires recognizing the "right to the city"—claims and
appropriations that do not fit neatly into the ownership model of property. [She] argues that such issues
are of relevance not only in Third World contexts but also to American planners concerned with distributive
justice." This is the most overlooked cause of slums. As Roy (2011) terms it, slum settlements can be
understood within the context of “subaltern urbanism”; the slum “as a terrain of habitation, livelihood, selforganization and politics.” This analysis does not preclude other explanations, and in some ways is the
most straightforward. Slum dwellers are not simply inanimate objects simultaneously tossed about by
market forces and entrenched in poverty, but communities of agency, practicing a politics that defies the
hegemonic “ownership model of property.” Instead of backwards, hopelessly poor peasants stuck in slums,
or alternately slumdog heroes who embody the entrepreneurial spirit, slum dwellers are practitioners of a
new urban politics in which they challenge the right to exclude embedded in the ownership of property
model. This analysis fundamentally breaks with the traditional view that separates the formal from the
informal, firmly situating slum dwellers as important actors in the era of urbanization. This provides an
explanation of a different flavor. Slums then are not simply symptoms of modernization, but politically
contested territories that exist because those who live there advocate for their persistence. This also
disentangles the poverty justification for infrastructure and income poor settlements from the analysis. A
slum is not therefore simply defined as a node of poverty. The contestation of urban space posited by
informal slum and squatter settlements poses the fundamental question at the heart of contemporary urban
development: “what sorts of markets are at work in our cities and how [do] they shape or limit affordability”
(Roy 2005)?

 

 

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Conclusions
Population growth, rapid urbanization, urban labor markets, and institutional impediments like lack of
formal title all indirectly rely on the traditional rationale for slums: poverty in and of itself is sufficient
explanation. The more people there are as wage rates rise in cities, the more who will migrate and stay.
Without legal title, real property markets cannot function efficiently. Their simple existence, outside the
bounds of the formal or respectable city, renders a certain segment of the population poor. And the poor
live in slums. Slums are a cancer which we are inadequately equipped to deal with, instead of the
consequences of historical and political processes. The argument is summed up by Stokes (1962): "To the
extent that poverty and lack of "ability" become socially synonymous, the problem of the elimination of the
slum of "despair" becomes more and more like that of a disease requiring a therapy which we have not yet
worked out."

As counterpoint to these simple explanations, which do not recognize poor people as political actors, Roy
(2005) writes: “Informality [and public space in American cities] indicates that the question of to whom
things belong can have multiple and contested answers.” Planners, therefore, cannot simply concern
themselves with the formality and order of land use and “exchange value of the right to property.” A right
to the city, instead of property, is what is at stake. And in the switch from exchange value to use value
concerns, slums can cease to be slums, and in their place we can make out the heterogeneous settlements,
neighborhoods, and urban districts that they are, formed by multiple histories and trajectories. In this
context, prescriptive, de Soto-like anti-poverty or informality policies have no place. Instead, the right to
space, services, and respect must be negotiated.

 

 

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Bibliography
Davis, Mike. 2007. Planet of Slums. Verso.
Fox, Sean. 2014. “The Political Economy of Slums: Theory and Evidence from Sub-Saharan Africa.” World

Development 54: 191–203. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2013.08.005.
Gans, Herbert J. 1982. Urban Villagers, Rev & Exp Ed. Simon and Schuster.
Gilbert, Alan. 2009. “Extreme Thinking About Slums and Slum Dwellers: A Critique.” SAIS Review 29 (1):
35–48. doi:10.1353/sais.0.0031.
Neuwirth, Robert. 2006. Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World. Routledge.
Roy, Ananya. 2005. “Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning.” Journal of the American

Planning Association 71 (2): 147–58.
———. 2011. “Slumdog Cities: Rethinking Subaltern Urbanism.” International Journal of Urban and

Regional Research 35 (2): 223–38. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2427.2011.01051.x.
Seeley, John R. 1959. “The Slum: Its Nature, Use, and Users.” Journal of the American Institute of

Planners 25 (1): 7–14. doi:10.1080/01944365908978293.
Stokes, Charles J. 1962. “A Theory of Slums.” Land Economics 38 (3): 187–97.
United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT). 2003. The Challenge of Slums: Global

Report on Human Settlements, 2003. London ; Sterling, VA: Earthscan Publications.

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