Theory and reality of urban slums

As pointed out in a recent article by Ivan Turok and Jackie Borel-Saladin in the Urban Studies journal, “the existing literature on urban slums tends to focus on static assessments of their physical and social problems” (p:2). The authors argue that we need to focus on the capabilities and income trajectories of residents.

The lack of dynamic analysis of informal urban settlement has led to a polarisation of views between slums as pathways-out-of-poverty and on the other hand slums as cul-de-sacs, where residents are confined to “unsafe and unsanitary places with little prospect of upward mobility” (p:2).

This dichotomous vision is organized around specific ideas about the inherent quality of these settlements as well as how they evolve and influence residents’ choices. The authors list a number of themes where this division occurs: people– including their aspirations, capabilities and behaviour;
 place – including the location, physical structures and environmental conditions; economy – including externalities, investment, jobs and incomes; and governance – including institutional coordination and public spending.

To be more specific, this polarisation amounts to saying on the one hand that informal urban settlements are well located in relation to urban jobs and livelihoods, and on the other hand that these settlements are on marginal land exposed to hazards.

It is not to say that these arguments are wrong, and even incompatible, but that most of the studies that come to these conclusions are founded on static information that do not evaluate the interrelationships and cumulative effects between these “pathway” or “cul-de-sac” situations.

Bringing temporality into the view of informal urban settlements, the authors argue, would bring a better understanding of the interactions between place, people, and economy in this environment. Further, it can improve our understanding of urban slums in comparison with other environments, such as formal urban settlements or rural areas.

Turok and Borel-Saladin compare labour market conditions in three types of areas — formal urban, informal urban, and rural —  over a six-year period. Using data collected from the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) in South Africa, they show that there is a much larger gap between rural and informal urban areas than between informal and formal urban areas. The proportion of adults who were in work in these areas varied between 49% to 53% for formal urban areas and 44% to 50% for adults in informal urban areas. Slum dwellers thus only have slightly weaker change to obtain a job compared to formal urban residents. This goes in favour of the pathway theory.

Looking at the quality of employment held by residents, the study however shows that slum dwellers have made little progress in income and that they overall work in lower-paid and insecure positions compared to dwellers in formal urban settlements. This gives more credit to the cul-de-sac theory.

This research, which only focuses on South Africa, does not aim to draw a general theory on the relationships between informal settlements and household  trajectories in informal settlements. But it should justify a better understanding of place-people interactions in informal settlements and help to determine thresholds to which the growth of a settlement, and the diseconomies it comes with, “outweighs the benefits for residents to stay there, and the ability of governments systems to manage growth in a way that can be sustained” (p :19).

Article available from Urban StudiesAugust 2016 [sub required]

Image: wikimedia commons.


Publication Type Journal Article
Publisher Urban Studies
Year 2016
Author(s) Ivan Turok & Jackie Borel-Saladin
DOI 10.1177/0042098016671109
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