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Megacities without slums

Wherever people have to live in impoverished urban areas, there is a lack of political will to integrate migrants from rural areas. To house and feed them in a manner that maintains their dignity is primarily a matter of planning – or more accurately, 'urban planning'. There is no lack of relevant know-how; it is up to the local population to mobilise the political will.

What is a slum, really? The 1973 edition of the German encyclopaedia, Brockhaus, explains that the expression 'slum' originated as a vulgar and disparaging name for poor quarters of large cities. They were – and are – places where people live in degrading conditions, with poor housing and an even worse standard of public services. Added to this are miserable social conditions in which disease and crime flourish.

That Brockhaus encyclopaedia, nearly 40 years old, also observes that slums are 'especially widespread in the United States.' Today, the word is hardly ever used to describe areas of urban poverty in industrialised countries. That could be in part because in both the UK (since 1936) and the USA (since 1949), legal provisions have existed for 'slum clearance' – a special kind of redevelopment. Poverty areas still exist in these countries, but they are no longer called slums. The word 'slum' is now more commonly used for areas of urban poverty in the megacities of developing and emerging countries, even when the districts in question have different names in the respective languages, for example 'bidonvilles', 'shanty towns' or 'favelas'.

Large-scale movements of people into cities are nothing new

Today, 50 per cent of people worldwide live in urban areas, and it is expected that cities will grow rapidly all around the world. According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, UN-HABITAT, by 2050 some 75 per cent of people worldwide will reside in cities. Many of them will end up living in slums in metropolitan areas and megacities, if these places continue to develop new settlements and districts 'without the advantages of urban planning and national planning' – as it says in a paper on urban development in Egypt by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). These are now called 'informal settlements', where people live in overcrowded conditions with inadequate social support, often with no access to clean drinking water or organised sanitation and waste disposal systems.

Large-scale movements of people into cities are nothing new. This is also pointed out in the encyclopaedia mentioned above. Ever since the 19th century, people have flooded into cities where industrialisation has taken place.

Germany has also experienced such periods of migration. After the Second World War, within just a few years, around 14 million people streamed westward from Germany's former eastern regions into the areas that would later form the Federal Republic of Germany. Many of the towns and cities they found there had been destroyed by the war. There was a lack of adequate living space even for the original inhabitants; then the millions arrived from the east.

At the time, German politicians did their utmost to integrate the immigrants. The state subsidised the construction of housing and new settlements, and municipal authorities planned and designed whole new districts. For many people who had little enough to live on themselves, the close coexistence with the newcomers wasn't easy. Yet even so, the 'miracle' happened, and integration succeeded.

Megacities without slums: the key word is urban planning

That was nearly 70 years ago. Today, there are different reasons why the people in emerging and developing countries are flooding into the cities. Yet the same principle still holds: the key to their successful integration is planning. It requires political will to steer the unavoidable streams of people moving from rural areas not only to smaller cities but also to giant megacities, and to take steps to ensure they are appropriately housed.

Wherever people are forced to live in slums or bidonvilles or favelas, that kind of political will is missing or in short supply. This is a problem local people must tackle for themselves, for example by voting different politicians into power, wherever possible.

At the same time, the orderly and planned development of new urban settlements often 'only' fails due to a lack of money or requisite know-how. In the large number of building programmes for social housing that were carried out in Europe and North America in the decades following World War II, there are many good examples of how to channel private capital into the construction of homes for poor and low-income tenants. There is also a plentiful supply of knowledge about urban development, urban planning and municipal administration. It just needs to be tapped.

Germany and the European Union are already giving financial and technical support to many countries for the development of their urban regions. In this respect, Germany's main focus is on smaller and medium-sized cities in Asia, although it also assists cities with several million inhabitants. One solution now being practised is to develop metropolitan regions which have diverse functional interrelationships that transcend the municipal borders.


What are your experiences of living in a city? How is your city developing? Are there any poverty areas there? Who's doing something to help, and what? Join in the discussion about megacities without slums in the comments below.

Author: Wolfgang Köhler

September 2012

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