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Urban Squatters and Slums
Flashback to 1987, and an Eye to the Future in 2022

Hari Srinivas
Concept Note Series E-153. November 2022.

Part I: Flashback to 1987

Part I of this document was written in 1987 as a fold-out for an awareness campaign on the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless (IYSH). The scenarios and issues mentioned are as relevant then as they are today!

1. Introduction

For whatever reason, developing countries lend themselves rather easily to facile generalizations - the oft quoted one is that people live largely in villages. This is not however the truth. Rapid industrialization, urbanization, depleting natural resources, biased development priorities and many other factors have led to massive rural-urban migration.

In the year 1900, three were only 11 cities with a population of 1 million. But by 2000, there were more than 300 of them. The number of cities with more than 15 million will be about 50, of which more than 40 will be in developing countries.

In India for example, more than 23 percent or 164 million people were based in its cities, which means that though India is a predominantly rural country, it already has an urban population equal to that of USA. Consider Bombay - 20 years ago there were less than 400,000 squatters in a population of 4.5 million. Today there are 4.5 million in a population of nine million. Thus, while the nation hs grown by 50 percent, and the city by 100 percent, the squatters have increased by more than 1100 percent!

2. The Great Migration

People are coming to the cities, packing their belongings, moving in the most massive movement of people the world has ever seen. People move for many reasons - to find employment, to escape calamities like floods, famine and drought. Rural poverty is the most fundamental reason for migration to the cities. The vast majority of these men and women are farmers and farm labourers who, in their villages, lack resources and opportunities. A migrant's toehold in the city may be a squatter shanty or nearby marginal lands (a riverbank, railway 'right-of-ways, or marshy areas). They often stay on undesirable public sites hoping that the authorities will not notice their 'invation' of public or private lands.

3. Where does the answer lie?

The solution to homelessness, especially in the lower-income bracket, lies not in the supply of finished homes but in releasing and supporting the people's creative energies in building and improving their homes and neighbourhoods. People have been building for centuries and one of the factors overlooked by government agencies is that the people themselves are a resource.

As a person improves his economic base and social standing, his position on the society consolidates and he expresses this in terms of the finesse of his house. He may even change his location (albeit to another 'better' squatter settlement) in the city. Programmes that do not take this mobility pattern into consideration will most likely fail because they use criteria - availability of public lands, or the desire to improve the aesthetics of the poor areas - different from those perceived by the squatters. Providing just 'homes' misses out the point that they are already finished and leave no room for flexibility. The squatter will not be able to enlarge or improve his own dwelling when his life improves.

People have the necessary skills, the necessary resources, the necessary involvement, the necessary commitment to build a user-oriented shelter complementary to his needs and standing in the society.

The influx of rural families to the cities has transformed metropolitan areas into settlements of 'rural villages' and planners and government officials must take rural forms and traditions into consideration in formulating policies and programmes for squatters. Religion, traditional ways, social organization, and lifestyles, must be interwoven with the more modern forms of the city. They lend variety and rich diversity to the management of urban life. Survival of the rural forms poses a basic challenge to urban planners and authorities in developing countries.

4. The Need for New Attitudes and Perceptions

Local governments have been slow to understand the evolutionary processes involved in the housing of squatters. Thus, projects are often carbon copies of housing in developed countries, despite the difference in climate and culture.

So what must happen now is for planners and local governments to recognize the now-quite-clear new directions that planning and enlightened government intervention should take - directions that take into account the migrants traditional living patterns and integrate them into public efforts. The problem of housing encompasses several fields and this is why architects and housing planners may need to go beyond their professional boundaries and interact with other professionals working on other related fields such as sociology, cultural heritage, anthropology, mediatory politics etc.

Thus, what is required is this new holistic way of looking at the problem - what we need here is not a physical plan or a layout, but an attitude (or change in attitude) - a new way of thinking. A revamping of the entire schedule of approach is needed. The words, 'commitment, interrelationships, occupation/jobs, seld-help, community skills, upgrading' etc. should be as much a part of the vocabulary of an architect or planner as are standards, infrastructure, finance, services land etc.

5. Conclusion

Housing is not only a technical problem, it is also a socio-political one. It requires an integrated and holistic approach to solve the problems of housing. Self-help housing not only provides shelter, but also creates confidence and resourcefulness in the minds of the people. It helps to covert a 'house' into a 'home'.

In spite of the gravity of the problem, and limited resources, to shelter the homeless is not an insurmountable problem, but is a manageable challenge.

Part II: An Eye to the Future in 2020

Part II was written in September 2022, when the above IYSH fold-out was 'discovered' during a spring-cleaning of GDRC's Library! It updates some of the current thinking that has evolved since then.

While the basic tenets of homelessness outlined during the IYSH in 1987 still remain true, our thinking on squatters and slum dwellers has evolved. The call made for integrated and holistic thinking has indeed evolved, looking at the problem of homelessness and squatters from within the larger perspective of urban environmental management.

This evolution is illustrated by the UN Centre for Human Settlements itself, which in 1987, spearheaded the IYSH. Since then it has become the UN-HABITAT - its programmes also evolving into two key themes of a 'Campaign for Secure Tenure' and a 'Campaign for Good Governance'

1. Emergence of the sustainability concept

The emergence of sustainability in its contemporary form stems from the UN's creation in 1983 of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), headed by Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway. The General Assembly asked the commission: to propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development by the year 2000 and beyond; to recommend ways concern for the environment may be translated into greater co-operation among nations; to consider ways and means by which the international community can deal more effectively with environmental concerns; and to help define shared perceptions of long-term environmental issues In 1987, the WCED, known as The Brundtland Commission, published its landmark report, Our Common Future. The most well-remembered quote from the Brundtland report defined sustainable development as ". . . development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

In 1992, five years after the publication of the Brundtland report, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), known as the "Earth Summit," took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Here a concrete definition of sustainable development was proposed - as development that requires meeting the basic needs of all, and extending to all, and the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations for a better life.

The Earth Summit brought together more than 182 world leaders and other stakeholders They agreed to the Rio Declaration -- which "made it plain that we can no longer think of environment and economic and social development as isolated fields" -- and adopted a global program for action on sustainable development through the Agenda 21: "a comprehensive blueprint for a global partnership [that] strives to reconcile the ... requirements of a high quality environment and a healthy economy for all people of the world, while identifying key areas of responsibility, as well as offering preliminary cost estimates for success."

2. Housing, homelessness, and urban environmental management

The significance of the above movements was the upscaling and mainstreaming of the issues related to low-income slums and squatter settlements into larger processes of environmental development and management. The interrelationships between the quality of the environment and health statuses also came to the fore, along with the need for inclusive policies that integrated informal economic jobs and incomes into the overall economic growth strategies.

Homelessness became, as a result, an issue larger than just "lack of homes". Providing the necessary economic incentives, including skills, training, jobs and other income-generating opportunities was identified as having externalities that percolated into investments in housing markets as well.

This "outside-looking-in" approach to homelessness provided a more holistic and integrated incentive to tackle the underlying causes. Homelessness is still a problem worldwide - one in seven persons around the world live in slums or squatter settlements - and action is still needed. But a better understanding of the key public policy inputs has gone beyond "providing homes" to "facilitating the conditions to increase investment in housing."

3. MDGs to SDGs

The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) [1] - which range from halving extreme poverty rates to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all by the target date of 2015 - formed a blueprint agreed to by all the world's countries and all the world's leading development institutions. They galvanized unprecedented efforts to meet the needs of the world's poorest.

All the eight MDGs targeted the underlying causes that, among other impacts, caused homelessness to continue to be an urban priority in cities worldwide. While the MDGs (implemented between 2005 and 2015 created a global momentum to address pressing societal problems from a human perspective, the achievement of the goals themselves were mixed and incomplete.

The world community came together once again to continue to work on global development challenges by expanding their work mandates into a broad-based framework that became the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Of the 17 Goals, the targets included within SDG #1 (No Poverty), #8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), #10 (Reduced Inequalities), and particularly #11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) are especially relevant to the challenges of homelessness.

3. The New Urban Agenda and homelessness

The New Urban Agenda was adopted at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in Quito, Ecuador, on 20 October 2016. It was endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly at its sixty-eighth plenary meeting of the seventy-first session on 23 December 2016.

The New Urban Agenda represents a shared vision for a better and more sustainable future. If well-planned and well-managed, urbanization can be a powerful tool for sustainable development for both developing and developed countries.

Embedded within its basic goals is that of tackling homelessness - a challenge that still exists today as it did in 1987.

Provide basic services for all citizens
These services include: access to housing, safe drinking water and sanitation, nutritious food, healthcare and family planning, education, culture and access to communication technologies.

Ensure that all citizens have access to equal opportunities and face no discrimination
Everyone has the right to benefit from what their cities offer. The New Urban Agenda calls on city authorities to take into account the needs of women, youth and children, people with disabilities, marginalized groups, older persons, indigenous people, among other groups.

Promote measures that support cleaner cities
Tackling air pollution in cities is good both for people"s health and for the planet. In the Agenda, leaders have committed to increase their use of renewable energy, provide better and greener public transport, and sustainably manage their natural resources.

Strengthen resilience in cities to reduce the risk and the impact of disasters
Many cities have felt the impact of natural disasters and leaders have now committed to implement mitigation and adaptation measures to minimize these impacts. Some of these measures include: better urban planning, quality infrastructure and improving local responses.

Take action to address climate change by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions
Leaders have committed to involve not just the local government but all actors of society to take climate action taking into account the Paris Agreement on climate change which seeks to limit the increase in global temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Sustainable cities that reduce emissions from energy and build resilience can play a lead role.

Fully respect the rights of refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons regardless of their migration status
Leaders have recognized that migration poses challenges but it also brings significant contributions to urban life. Because of this, they have committed to establish measures that help migrants, refugees and IDPs make positive contributions to societies.

Improve connectivity and support innovative and green initiatives
This includes establishing partnerships with businesses and civil society to find sustainable solutions to urban challenges

Promote safe, accessible and green public spaces
Human interaction should be facilitated by urban planning, which is why the Agenda calls for an increase in public spaces such as sidewalks, cycling lanes, gardens, squares and parks. Sustainable urban design plays a key role in ensuring the liveability and prosperity of a city.

4. Ingredients of a good housing curry

Much remains to still be done with urban homelessness that still exists in our cities. A key policy approach to tackling homelessness will be the recognition of the slums and squatter settlements as an issue that needs to be tackled as a part of human rights-based policies. Strong urban governance systems both at the national level, as well as at the local level are critical to provide an enabling environment for appropriate housing policies.

Longer-term economic policies that target jobs/employment and skills development for low-income households, as well as infrastructure development policies that "reintegrates" slums nd squatter settlements into the urban fabric will go a long way to help homeless families.

Housing for low-income households is still a hit-and-miss affair, plagued with poor infrastructure and with forced evictions, insecurity of tenure and livelihood affecting the households. A more inclusive and integrated policy environment that takes into account these shortcomings will be necessary, as will long-term financial investment and inclusive financing options that support housing markets.

A combination of goal development policies - encapsulated within the New Urban Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals, and others - has once again highlighted the "Housing at the Core" approach which places housing at the core national and urban development policies.

Focusing people and human rights, these global policies aim to integrate broader urban planning and development processes with other poverty reduction and development strategies, including the SDGs. But the challenges of homelessness remain. Despite the significant contribution that informal households make to an urban economy (up to 50% of a city economic output in most developing countries), not much attention is paid to ensuring a safe, secure and liveable environment for low-income households.

[1] The eight MDGs were:
  • To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • To achieve universal primary education
  • To promote gender equality and empower women
  • To reduce child mortality
  • To improve maternal health
  • To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  • To ensure environmental sustainability
  • To develop a global partnership for development

Further reading:

  • Homelessness and the SDGs - Slide show [PDF] from UN-HABITAT

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