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Healing the urban divide

Despite Campaigns on Urban Governance, and Secure Tenure, by UN-HABITAT, almost one third of the world’s urban population live in slums, without access to decent housing or basic services, and in neighbourhoods where disease, illiteracy and crime are rampant.1 Furthermore, there is a realisation that the vulnerability of cities is increasing due to extreme weather events, while at the same time urban slums are expanding into areas vulnerable to floods, landslides, industrial pollution, and other hazards.2

According to Daniel Biau, Director of UN-HABITAT’s Regional and Technical Cooperation Division, “Slums are economically useful, a reflection of the urban social divide, and a bedrock of human resilience… they are not a market failure, but a market success…” Slums accommodate one-third of the world urban population and while they are the main physical expression of urban poverty, they still allow people to be housed cheaply in cities. Thus, before being a problem, it could be argued that slums are a solution at a particular stage of economic development. They were a solution in Victorian London and they are a solution in Mumbai today, in the Dharavi neighbourhood.

Slums differ across the world with some slum areas being densely populated, others less so. They are however a manifestation of social injustice with the poor being excluded from the benefits of urban life. Yet the urban poor, who are experts at survival in an often hostile environment, can become dynamic and energetic entrepreneurs creating their own employment opportunities, and forming community groups to defend their interests thereby transforming their environment.3

The challenge to heal the urban divide is a massive one but there are many groups and NGOs around the world who are rising to the challenge, including the following three examples: Slum Dwellers International (SDI), which has recently joined the UN Habitat Cities Alliance project, is an international network of urban poor who are organised into Federations ranging from pavement dwellers in Mumbai to shack dwellers in South Africa. SDI seeks to engage with government and state institutions in order to help the most marginalized and vulnerable people secure tenure, and to provide decent affordable housing in cities. It has millions of members across 24 countries. SDI ranges from groups of a few hundred in Zambia to in excess of a million and a half in India. The strategy of SDI has its detractors, who argue that it works too closely with repressive regimes, giving them credibility; however the counter argument is that engagement brings results.4

The Asian Coalition for Housing Rights is a regional network of grassroots community organisations concerned with urban poverty. An example of their work is the Baan Mankong Community Upgrading Program being implemented in 226 cities. There are almost 500 projects covering people from 957 communities in 75 provinces. The focus is on secure land tenure and collective land lease or land ownership by cooperatives for communities previously facing eviction: for example, a roadside community facing eviction joined with others to buy land nearby with a community loan.5

The Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) is an independent research organisation, working in the UK and internationally, promoting sustainable development and innovation in housing; their research addresses a range of current housing issues worldwide. One issue recently addressed concerns the rights of Gypsies and Travellers, who face widespread discrimination and are considered to have the poorest life chances of any ethnic group in the UK. In June 2007, BSHF organised a consultation, bringing people of experience and expertise together to help identify and develop ideas and practical ways to meet this challenge. Another recent initiative was an International Study Visit to the Johannesburg Housing Company - the winner of the 2006 World Habitat Award - in order to gain an in-depth understanding of their techniques, strategies and project-management approaches, which they employ to adapt for re-use city centre buildings for mixed-tenure, affordable rental housing, while also triggering regeneration of the surrounding area.6

While there is international acceptance of the need to tackle urban poverty, much needs to be done at country level, especially in the Least Developed Countries, which are urbanizing rapidly without sufficient institutional resources. The solution requires political will and affirmative action as well as a holistic approach at all levels, including economic, housing, local government and employment. Only then will the divided city become the more inclusive city.7

1. Information from UN-HABITAT website, www.unhabitat.org

2. UN-HABITAT Global Report on Human Settlements 2007. Foreword by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary – General United Nations.

3. From: Three things we should know about slums, available on www.unhabitat.org

4. www.sdinet.org

5. www.achr.net

6. www.bshf.org

7. See 3.