Vernacular Urbanism, Part III


A slum in Manila.

“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful: but the beauty is grim.”  Christopher Morley, Where the Blue Begins.

I continue to search for a vernacular urbanism for the next city. After some reflection, I have concluded that what I am looking for is an urbanism that is local in character, conditional, circumstantial, meaningful and of value (in every sense – not just financially) for its inhabitants, rooted to its surroundings and its past, an urbanism that is founded on local resources and the specific nature of a particular place, that is based on the found and the available and the renewable. And so I have found myself thinking about slums. Let me explain.

Today one half of the earth’s population lives in cities. That means that something more than 3 billion of us are city dwellers. Of that 3 billion in cities, one third of all city dwellers lives in a slum. Many sources put the world slum dwelling population at something near or over 1 billion people. The UN, among others, tells us that by 2030, one third of the population of the planet will live in slums. This is powerful data, and calls us to look at these places, and learn what we can.

Barrio, favela, shanty town, ghetto, squatter city, wasti in India, katchi abadi in Pakistan, refugee camp, the slum has many names, and many faces. They share some things in common, wherever they may be: they are always home to the very poor, the displaced and the outcast; they all feature substantial problems with sanitation, health, crime, education; they are fragile, and often the shelter they offer is insufficient for local climates; they are crowded, and very dense; they are not subject to romance or nostlagia of any kind – they are very hard places to live in in every way.

A favela in Morumbi, in Sao Paolo. The favela is on the left.

The term slum is seen by most, except slum dwellers themselves, as a pejorative term evoking squalor, filth, disease and crime. Slum dwellers, however, often defend their fragile communities in an articulate and powerful fashion, and aggressively organize themselves to secure improved conditions, access to infrastructure (water, sewers, energy), education, and access to some kind of health care.

Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai.

I think that there may be lessons to be learned from spending time studying these places. As an example, listen to what the distinguished Indian architect Prakash M. Apte said recently about Dharavi, one of the largest slums in the world, located in Mumbai, and home to nearly a million people:

“A unique characteristic of Dharavi is its very close work-place relationship. Productive activity takes place in nearly every home. As a result, Dharavi’s economic activity is decentralized, human scaled, home-based, low-tech and labor-intensive. This has created an organic and incrementally developing urban form that is pedestrianized, community-centric, and network-based, with mixed use, high density low-rise streetscapes. This is a model many planners have been trying to recreate in cities across the world. A simplistic re-zoning and segregating of these activities — common in the United States — would certainly hurt this very unique urban form.

The ‘unplanned’ and spontaneous development of Dharavi has led to the emergence of an economic model characterized by a decentralized production process relying mainly on temporary work and self-employment. The multiplicity of independent producers makes the production process extremely flexible and adaptable. Its viability is proven by the national and international market its products command.”

Dharavi, Mumbai.

Here are some of the characteristics of slums that might make them valuable in thinking about a vernacular urbanism for the next city:

-They are not designed by architects, developed by developers, marketed by marketers, or legislated by legislators.

-They are participatory, collective efforts.

-They are instinctive. They are vernacular.

-They are organic and incremental. They change and evolve over time.

-They do not look like this:

Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago – a paradigm of failed social housing, now razed.

-They are spatially and socially complex.

-They are very dense, they are definitely not auto-dominated, and they accomodate a dizzying mixture of uses.

-They use very little energy, recycle, and have what could be called small carbon footprints. They are constructed of what’s left over.

-They are intensely local.

Slums are filled with many very serious problems and unmet needs. But many are also robust and lively communities, highly social, and offer some bit of dignity to those most cultures ignore, or cast out. As physical, designed places, they are inventive and intuitive. Slums are always reshaping themselves, always focusing on creating shelter and shared spaces that deal significantly with local circumstance – how to deal with heat, cold, rain, wind, and work, using what is at hand.

We must find our way to the next city in any way we can, as we try to shape a durable, usable urban future. Perhaps the slums of the world can help to show us a way.

Rooftops in Dharavi.

13 thoughts on “Vernacular Urbanism, Part III

  1. This touches a sensitive bone with me. The org I worked with in Nepal, Lumanti, works with slum dwellers– they called them squatter communities at the time, but I think that’s gone out of fashion, too– to provide the sorts of improvements that the dwellers WANT. Paved lanes. Access to water and electricity. Just what you’re saying here.

  2. I was quite struck, in doing research, at the strong voices coming from slums around the world. Take a look at Among many sites, this is an interesting starting point for looking at slums worldwide.

    Then there is the next level of urbanites, below slum dwellers as I understand it. These are the pavement dwellers – not organized, not centralized, simply those who live on city pavement, and are nomads.

  3. The most interesting thing those cities have going for them is how natural they look and how personally attached their residents are to them, which is what I assume you want to replicate in a future American city. In comparison, a housing subdivision looks totally unnatural and creates no ties to their residents.

    I’ve been looking for the key to this mystery myself and wrote a note about it you might find interesting.

  4. Some see slums are a necessary transitional mode on the way to industrialization. Others compare slums to the mono cultural suburban sprawl that we see in the Northern hemisphere.

    But I think you are right when you say that slums have potential as sustainable communities, in spite of their many problems.. It has been argued that architecture, business, politics and sustainability all have one thing in common: locality. We might be looking at a new mode in urbanization here.

  5. Maurits, I think you are exactly correct. Locality is central to the identity, and morphology, of slums. Locality, and ideas of local-ness, need to be a fundamental focus of the next city.

    You mention business as having locality in common with architecture, politics, sustainability. I would broaden that by using the term economics. Ironically, at a time when we are all increasingly connected globally, our technologies increasingly also allow for the local.

  6. i would add political corruption. I can speak to Brasil, where my wife is from and i travel often, everyone HAS to vote, and with a small middle class, the politicians buy them off for votes, essentially placate the masses in a similar “bread and circus” way that the Romans once did. Give them land and entertain them and you will win the crowd. This is very sad and North Americans have a hard time swallowing this idea…to see it is terror… a kind of Lebbeus Woods “free zone” utopia gone very bad. I still would like to visit a Favela but my wife’s orders are to stay away.

  7. Dear aandh, thanks for a very cool blogpost. When I was a youth activist I worked with UN Habitat and I recognize many of the different aspects you highlight from working with young people living in slums.

    I am wondering – I now work as a communications adviser for the Climate and Pollution Agency in Norway and I am helping our director general with a presentation she will give on climate adaptation later this week – would it be possible to borrow the picture titled “A favela in Morumbi, in Sao Paolo. The favela is on the left” for her presentation? We will for sure ensure credits to your blog.

    Best regards Christoffer Grønstad

  8. “Slums are filled with many very serious problems and unmet needs. But many are also robust and lively communities, highly social, and offer some bit of dignity to those most cultures ignore, or cast out. As physical, designed places, they are inventive and intuitive. Slums are always reshaping themselves, always focusing on creating shelter and shared spaces that deal significantly with local circumstance – how to deal with heat, cold, rain, wind, and work, using what is at hand.”

    Like most of that which is written by dreamy-eyed leftist world-changers, the underlying objective of your premise remains unclear. Is this a suggestion that today’s slums are the model for tomorrow’s cities?

    Certainly Levittowns and Chicago’s housing projects leave most intelligent people feeling cold. “I still hold that the suburbs ought to be either glorified by romance and religion or else destroyed by fire from heaven, or even by firebrands from the earth.” – G.K. Chesterton

    Are these garbage heaps the only alternative? Include me out.

    Mark Slater
    Wheat Ridge, Colorado, USA

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