Residents of the world’s slums are battling to carve out a place in the cities of the future.

Home to 900 million people — nearly 1 in every 7 people — slums are emerging as a “dominant and distinct type of settlement” in the 21st century, the United Nations says.

One-quarter of the world’s city dwellers live in slums — and they are there to stay.

The U.N.’s 193 member states on Thursday adopted the first detailed road map to guide urban growth so it is sustainable, does not destroy the environment and protects the rights of the vulnerable.

Held once every 20 years, the U.N.’s Habitat III conference comes at a time when, for the first time in history, more people live in cities than rural areas. In 2014, 54 percent of the global population lived in cities. By 2050, this is expected to rise to 66 percent.

“We live in the urban century. … When planned, built and governed well, cities can be massive agents of positive change,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a recent statement.

The U.N.’s policy document, the New Urban Agenda, says there has been “significant” improvement in the quality of life for city residents over the past two decades, but the pressures of population growth and migration from rural areas are increasing dramatically.

The U.N. plan stresses that providing transportation, sanitation, hospitals and schools is imperative but city strategies must also “go beyond” physical improvements in order to integrate slums.

Experts say this policy represents a significant shift in thinking among city planners and authorities, who have historically seen bulldozers as the answer to slum settlements.

High-density communities geared to pedestrians, along with properties that mix business with housing, can offer lessons for management of future growth, they say.

Today, unchecked population growth and migration in many cities mean slums must increasingly be seen as an important part of the wider city.

Security first

The U.N. road map highlights that a critical impediment to upgrading informal settlements and sustainable redevelopment is the lack of ownership of land or property.

In 2003, 924 million city dwellers were estimated to be without title to their homes or land. This number, according to the United Nations, likely has grown “exponentially.”

This is a particularly pressing problem in Africa, where more than half of the urban population live in shantytowns and 90 percent of rural land is undocumented.

Living without secure tenure means living under constant threat of eviction. Slum dwellers who have no way of proving ownership of assets also have no access to credit, eroding any motivation to improve homes and neighborhoods.

For governments, slum areas without title are a particularly vexed problem, as the great majority are not mapped, little is known about their demographics or spatial use, and the way residents have settled is often so dense that housing and services are hard to fit in.

The lack of basic information also means they cannot use common official land registration systems.

Working slums

One of the toughest aspects of life in the slums is the battle to find regular work. Cities are job hubs, and proximity to employment has long been a major driver of slum expansion.

According to the International Labour Organization, 200 million people in slums were without jobs in 2013. UNESCO estimates that more than a quarter of the young urban poor earn little more than $1.25 a day.

Despite this, in many developing economies, the engine of job creation is found in the heart of informal economies like those in the favelas of Rio or the bustling hives of activity in big Indian cities like Mumbai.

Author Robert Neuwirth spent four years researching his book “Shadow Cities,” which looked at informal economies in global shantytowns. He believes these unlicensed economic networks are vastly underappreciated in scope and estimates they account for 1.8 billion jobs.

“It’s a huge number, and if it were all together in a single political system, this economic system would be worth $10 trillion a year. That would make it the second-largest economy in the world,” he said.

In Mumbai, where an estimated 1 million people live in the bustling Dharavi slum, resident-owned small businesses — from leather workers and potters to recycling networks — have created an informal economy with annual turnover of about $1 billion.

Residents live and work in the same place and are now campaigning to ensure that any redevelopment of their homes or construction of new housing takes into account the need for home-based ground floor work spaces.

“People think of slums as places of static despair as depicted in films such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ ” said Sanjeev Sanyal, an economist and writer, referring to the Academy Award-winning movie that exposed the gritty underbelly of Dharavi. “If one looks past the open drains and plastic sheets, one will see that slums are ecosystems buzzing with activity. … Creating neat low-income housing estates will not work unless they allow for many of the messy economic and social activities that thrive in slums.”

Rahul Srivastava, a founder of Mumbai’s Institute of Urbanology, said the biggest impediment to upgrading informal settlements is their “illegitimate” status due to the absence of title.

Settlements that are home to fifth-generation migrants cannot be classed as “informal,” he says, and it is high time the narrow perception of these neighborhoods is changed.

DIY services

In Pakistan, Orangi Town in the port city of Karachi is believed to be home to around 2.4 million people — although nobody knows exactly, as the last census was in 1998.

Widely cited as Asia’s largest slum, it sprawls over 8,000 acres (3,200 hectares).

Unlike many other slums, the lack of services — not housing — is the major problem.

Communities have built two and three-room houses out of concrete blocks manufactured locally. Each house is home to between eight and 10 people, and an informal economy of micro-businesses has emerged.

In the early 1980s, some residents decided they had had enough of waiting for governments unwilling or unable to fund sanitation. They embarked on building a sewage project on a “self-help” basis.

Now globally renowned, the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) has helped residents design, fund and build their own sewage systems and pipelines. Since 1980, it has brought latrines to more than 108,000 households. To date, 96 percent of the settlement’s 112,562 households have latrines.

“People in the town now consider the streets as part of their homes because they have invested in them, and that’s why they maintain and clean the sewers too,” said OPP’s director, Saleem Aleemuddin.

Bottom-up development

Jose Castillo, an urban planner and architect in Mexico City, says that Ciudad Neza, home to 1.2 million people, should serve as a model for other blighted urban areas.

Short for Nezahualcoyotl, Neza sits on the bed of Lake Texcoco, which was drained to combat devastating flooding.

However, the land was too salty for farming and was slowly picked up by developers, who laid out a grid of streets and sold off boxy parcels, most without proper titles.

The settlement really grew in a burst of urban migration in the mid-20th century when new arrivals to Neza set up shacks of wood and cardboard, living without electricity, a sewage system or running water, schools or paved roads.

In the early 1970s, residents banded together to demand services and a government program to formalize ownership and provide land titles.

Today, despite severe problems — from continuing poor access to transport and schools to high crime rates — Neza’s development holds lessons in growth and resilience for others. Neza is teeming with micro-entrepreneurs working from home or sharing spaces.

“Let’s stop asking what urban planning can do to fix the city, and let’s focus on understanding where we could also learn from those processes,” Castillo said. “There’s a strong sense of pride in place. It’s a community based on the notion that jointly these people transformed this territory.”

Slums are cities

The document adopted at Habitat III in Quito is the result of months of closed-door negotiations. Some critics are disappointed it contains no tangible targets and is nonbinding on member states.

“It’s easy for governments to sign something that is not enforceable,” said Michael Cohen, a former senior urban affairs official with the World Bank, who has advised U.N. Habitat. “It doesn’t have much bite. It talks a lot about commitments but has no dates, places or numbers.”

Supporters, however, argue the New Urban Agenda will not only focus attention on the urgent need for holistic planning of cities but also work to fundamentally change the way urban growth is debated and discussed both nationally and globally.

Important drivers of planned growth are a well-oiled system of land ownership, title and tenure, which then paves the way for governments to collect revenue to pay for new services.

Equally important is the need for concerted planning approaches so new hospitals, bus services and schools are placed where they are needed, with thought given to future growth and employment opportunities.

There has also been criticism of the U.N.’s shift from a traditionally rural focus to an urban one and its failure to link the New Urban Agenda to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals and climate change benchmarks.

Shivani Chaudry, executive director of the Housing and Land Rights Network in India, said the bias away from rural interests in the New Urban Agenda will leave many people behind.

She said many countries had argued forcefully for the adoption of goals and targets — for example, increases in housing and a drop in forced evictions — but nothing was agreed on.

“Rural populations have not been adequately represented: farmers, forest dwellers, indigenous and coastal communities — all suffer the consequences of uncontrolled urbanization,” she said.

“There is so much exploitation of these people, and our fear is that so many have been left out.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.