In praise of slums?

When I was your age, we would have *killed* to get the chance to live here.

The Roving Bandit races to defend the existence of slums:

Slums are created when people leave their rural village to go in search of a better life/more money in the city. Slums aren’t some kind of alien cancerous growth, they are the result of natural economic forces (*cough* WDR 2009 *cough*), of people becoming more productive when they are closer together, and can more easily exchange their ideas, their labour and their services. Africa may be the fastest urbanising continent in the world but that’s probably because it was the least urbanised to begin with. Urbanisation is a good thing.

I agree that people probably get a little too worked up about the presence of informal settlements. They are more likely to appear than not during intense urban growth, and while they are not generally known for being wonderful places to live, they still represent – to some extent – a symptom of a good thing. That doesn’t mean that they represent the first-best outcome in the range of achievable urban landscapes. That doesn’t mean that more formal growth wouldn’t be a better thing, or that we shouldn’t think about to improve the welfare of slum-dwellers.

I spent a few months this year working in some of Dar es Salaam’s informal settlements. One of them is bordered to the south by a river that is full of trash. It does have another river, which has a lovely, opaque dark green colour. Often during the rainy season a quarter of the residents have to trudge through ankle-deep water when the place floods, mixing together all the trash and pit latrine runoff into nature’s least exciting swimming pool.

Sure, you can look at that and say: “Wow – urbanization is fantastic! This is just a symptom of wonderful things,” but one also could think of ways to nudge outcomes for the better.

One thought on “In praise of slums?

  1. Adam

    November 24, 2010 at 3:18pm

    It’s an interesting debate. A bit of a microcosm of development, really. I’m currently reading ‘The Classic Slum’ by Robert Roberts, which is an account of Salford slums in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s pretty grim, in the way that lots of urban slums are in Africa: probably worse, actually, because there weren’t vaccines for things like measles.

    Yes, people get pushed off the land and have to go to cities. Yes, one reason is because jobs are more widespread there. And no, slums isn’t where people would ideally like to reside, but they can be a good stepping stone to greater and richer things. But we should do more to help people living there, because abstracted from wider concerns they’re pretty grim places a lot of the time.

Comments are closed.