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Slums: labs for the sustainable city?

We see slums as islands of misery and insalubrity – and they are. But they are also something more: places experimenting innovative ways of saving resources and energy. These neighborhoods are constantly improved by their inhabitants. They may seem chaotic to urban planners or Western tourists, but these urban clusters are actually organized. Slums are, in their own way, labs for everyday urban life. They are also labs for the sustainable city.

November 2017
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Executive Summary

Slums are also labs for the sustainable city. They are not models, but they do inspire new ideas and, above all, they help us to envisage the city and life differently. The sustainable nature of slums can be summarized in ten points: 1. Density. 2. Functional mixing. 3. Recycling. 4. Economic dynamism. 5. Innovation. 6. Participation. 7. Low carbon footprint. 8. Modularity. 9. Pedestrian. 10. Digital.

We should not let the word “sustainable” mislead us. Today, the term has positive overtones, in the sense of sustainable development, but it also expresses a concern in terms of time. Slums will certainly pose collective problems for a long time, but they are also places of sustainability (in the form of density and functional mixing). Slums are not models, but they do inspire new ideas and, above all, they help us to envisage the city and life differently.

The 10 dimensions of sustainable cities

The sustainable nature of slums can be summarized in ten points. The following list, while much more valid for slums in poor countries than for those in rich countries, provides food for thought.

1. Density

Slums occupy little space and are very densely concentrated. They illustrate what urban developers like to call “the city on the city”. Buildings are rarely more than one or two stories high, but they allow large households to live in limited spaces. They have a maximum density of 100,000 to 1 million inhabitants for 1 to 5 square kilometers in some districts of Mumbai or Nairobi (10 to 100 times the density of a city like Paris). The common denominator of these reports is vague and their numerators unreliable. However, one fact is indisputable: slums are among the densest urban areas on the planet.

2. Functional mixing

In small spaces, commercial premises are intermingled with production and residential spaces. Nowhere else can such extreme proximity and blending of functions be found. One hut or cabin serves as home, the next as stall or workshop. Another is used as housing by night and a store by day. In functional terms, it would be difficult to blend things any further.

3. Recycling

Slums are resourcefulness labs. Everything is recycled and resold. Of course, slums built on landfills and economic systems depending on trafficking and interpersonal exploitation should never be magnified. However, in terms of activities, recycling is constant. What the rest of the city would see as waste is a resource. It can be used to build a new object that becomes (or goes back to being) goods.

4. Economic dynamism

Slums show extraordinary economic vitality. From the small, informal and illegal shops (everywhere in the Calais jungle) to factories (Dharavi), high levels of production come alongside very low labor costs. Inventiveness, youth and necessity combine, to shape an extremely dense and productive economic fabric. This is useful to slum inhabitants for the businesses it enables. It is also useful to other areas of the city, providing cheap labor and products. It is useful to the world, because large slums, especially in Asia, are home to workshops that export globally.

5. Innovation

Frugality breeds constant innovation. And innovation takes hold faster where institutions and regulations are weak. Slums are the forced sites of frugal innovation, so often highlighted today.

6. Participation

Where inhabitants are left to their own devices, they suffer crime, but they also demonstrate self-protection, self-construction, self-promotion and self-management skills. They participate in the organization of their daily lives, because when faced with an absence or lack of collective services, they are forced to invest themselves.

7. Low carbon footprint

The ecological argument is tough to support, because sites are often degraded. Those who consume little (like most poor people) pollute little. Slums live with few resources and recycle as much as they can. In a sense, they are naturally better for the environment, all other things being equal.

8. Modularity

There is nothing as modular as slums, taken as urban forms. Sheet metal, tents and precarious developments evolve constantly. Quickly arranged and quickly moved, these buildings transform and adapt permanently. In a way, slums exemplify what urban planners study and value today in terms of ephemeral urbanism: temporary projects on urban wasteland.

9. Pedestrian

Where the road and the car are rare, the preferred means of travel is on foot – also known as “soft mobility.” Life is hard but mobility is easy. People move on foot, by bike, by rickshaw, or with collective taxis, usually colorful minibuses, which have become associated with these neighborhoods.

10. Digital

The connection to mobile phones is immeasurably more secure than the connection to drinking water. Cell phones and smartphones are changing the lives of inhabitants, who can communicate, pay or insure. The digital revolution has a greater impact on the lives of slum dwellers than on other inhabitants of the city. People living in slums, in France or elsewhere in the world, are the first “phono sapiens”. They connect, collaborate and move thanks to their phones, knowing that charging these instruments is as crucial to their daily lives as any other basic service. From the cadaster to the reconstruction of plans, and even traffic lanes, the analysis of data collected from the telecommunication networks helps to build what slums have lacked since their creation: the first steps of urban planning.

In ten different ways, slums illustrate dimensions and qualities that brochures like to attribute to sustainable cities: pedestrian, dense, digital, modular, eco-friendly, participatory, innovative, dynamic, mixed and recyclable. Density, diversity, connectivity, mutualization, reversibility, mutability, even “walkability”: all these terms are extensively used to describe the sustainable city of tomorrow.

Slums are obviously not a model. But the solutions they deploy and the inventiveness that is expressed in them could be a source of inspiration.

This article is an excerpt from Julien Damon's latest book, Un monde de bidonvilles. Migrations et urbanisme informel (Paris, Seuil/La République des idées, Oct. 2017). All rights reserved.

Julien Damon
Associate Professor at Sciences Po, President of Eclairs Consulting