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  • Writer's pictureHarshita Singh

Sustainable Redevelopment of Slums and Squatter Settlements

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

Brixel, Sustainability, Redevelopment, Slums, Settlements

India's development over the past two decades has led to one of history's biggest human migrations – from the Indian villages to its growing metros. The ongoing industrialization of the country, while stopping and riddled with errors, has driven and will continue to drive the transformation and migration of its predominantly (rural) agricultural labour-power into urban areas as industrial and service workers. The massive exodus of people has strained to the point of cracking India's urban infrastructure, creating large slums with insufficient housing, sanitation, basic services and protection. There has been abundant evidence that the poor have developed creative solutions to improve their own living conditions. For many urban cities of the 21st century the Squatter colonies or slums are inevitable phenomena. In India's financial capital Mumbai, which features some of the most expensive real estate in the world, about 8-9 million people (or more than 40% of their households) currently live in slums, which the Indian Census briefly describes as "unfit for human housing residential areas." Interestingly, the slums of Mumbai, though evidently omnipresent, are estimated to occupy just 6-8 percent of the landmass of the city. In relation, nearly every city in India is facing similar challenges. The 2011 census demonstrates that there are 14 million families residing in slums in Indian cities (or approximately 70 million people considering an average family size of five individuals).

Brixel, Mumbai, City, Slum, Settlements, Dharavi, Redevelopment
Mumbai: A city of contrasts - Image Courtesy: Business Insider

Slums: A brief Definition

A squatter settlement or slum can generally be characterized as a residential area in an urban locality occupied by the very poor who have no access to tenured land of their own, and hence "squat" on vacant property, either private or public. Therefore, as these settlements expand illegally on vacant lands, urban strategies are not really effective in regard to the development of such areas. With the help of their limited construction skills, the basic shelters that the slum dwellers build can be erected and re-erected at short notice.

“Slums are litmus tests for innate cultural strengths and weaknesses. Those peoples whose cultures can harbor extensive slum life without decomposing will be, relatively speaking, the future’s winners. Those whose cultures cannot will be the future’s victims.”

-Robert D. Kaplan, The Coming Anarchy, 1994


The characteristics of squatters and slums vary from place to place; slums are typically characterized by urban degradation, high poverty statistics and unemployment. They are widely viewed as "breeding grounds" for social problems such as crime, drug abuse, alcoholism, elevated mental illness rates, and suicides. They display high disease rates due to unhealthy conditions, malnutrition and a lack of basic health care.

brixel, slum, affordable, housing, social, economic status
Image Courtesy: ArchDaily

The primary reason is the inability to afford any other type of accommodation, and the liberty from rent and civil obligations. In squatter settlement, the initial structures are small in size, made from low-quality materials such as polythene sheet, straws, used corrugated iron sheet etc. The simple buildings they erect can be dismantled, re-erected, and even extended at short notice, in accordance with their basic construction skills. "The Slums Challenge: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003"—the largest study ever conducted by the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat)—found that urban slums grew faster than expected. Nearly one billion people live out their life in the destitution of a slum; one out of every three city dwellers, a sixth of the world's population. Without radical changes, the number is meant to be able to double in 30 years. By 2050 there could be 3.5 billion slum dwellers, out of a total urban population of about 6 billion, as per the study.

A Higher and More Stable Income- Productive job opportunities in the urban center are likely to yield higher and more coherent personal disposable income than at the place of origin – likely a rural, farming center.

Social mobility for the next generation- Raising children in an urban environment creates a better “option value” for the subsequent generations. Usually cities offer a broader range of opportunities for education and jobs. This contrasts with a child growing up in a rural dominated by a sub-scale farm with limited opportunities for education and work, which is unlikely to ever have the same social mobility opportunity.

Brixel, Slum, Redevelopment, Squatter, Education, NGOs
NGO Working for Urban Slum; Image Courtesy: Metro

Lack of Options- Unfortunately, for the vast majority of migrants, slums are the only way to inhabit the city. With little accessible low-cost housing of decent quality close to the city center, a rural migrant would have to go well outside even the city's suburbs and outskirts to be able to afford property. This can establish a major trade-off for migrants in terms of the jobs available and their earnings potential, given the weak transport linkages to the cities. As a result, most are willing to compromise, and make the slum housing exchange-off in the city closer to the workplace. Thus, squatter and slum housing is becoming the housing solution for this low-income urban population.

Possible Solutions

Slums development and maintenance requires continuous collective coordination of land development, shelter building, essential services and social security. But they need to be more coordinated and extended as a community if their conditions are to be enhanced. In addition, urban poor need to be aware of and informed about their rights, and how they can work together, taking the lead role in improving their conditions. Various approaches have been implemented to enhance conditions for squatter settlement, such as micro credit, compatible technology etc.

Security of Tenure- Tenure protection is a critical factor which contributes to the housing processes of people across the globe.

Self-involvement in Design and Construction- With the help of architects, the occupiers will continue to play an important role in designing & constructing their homes and communities. Contemporary architectural practices and research should establish some design examples of low-cost sustainable housing settlements with basic dwelling standards (such as sanitation, water, electricity) to adapt these designs to different regions' climates. The designs must satisfy the first requirement for urban slum- affordability, secondly it fulfill the requirement that the owners should construct in simple, conventional methods.

Brixel, Laurie Baker, Architect, Redevelopment of Slums
Laurie Baker’s Chengalchoola Housing,Trivandrum (FlicKer)

Creating a ‘Sense of

Belonging’ Through Design- Their usual living pattern had been ignored in most of the design of these redevelopment buildings as substitute for slums such as no open space for social activities and play area for children had been provided. In addition, inhabitants weren't involved in the development process. As a result, no sense of belonging worked for those urban squatters in those settlements. One of the common features of the slums is that they consist of dynamic people's communities and incorporate a wide range of social and community spaces and facilities into their lives. Every slum, for example, has a niche; a small shrine or temple, a mosque or a church, based on their common faith, where they meet and have social gatherings. Most of these informal social engagement events, such as children playing, shopping, chatting, etc., take advantage of the most minimal space for socialization at the door, circulation and open spaces, and of maximum community spaces for numerous social and cultural activities.

Brixel, Architect Laurie Baker, Low cost structure, Housing Solution
Courtesy: SciEP

Housing Solution through Design- The ideas of Architect Laurie Baker (1917-2007) may be stated in this point of constructing high-rise settlements for urban poor, which claim land value but are contrary to their living attitudes. The architect was known for his works on cost-effective energy-efficient architecture. In his writing, “What can we do with a slum?”, and he replied, “A great deal. We can "recycle" it; that is to say, we can build at the same site low-cost structures that accommodate an equal number of persons, and provide plenty of open space and other facilities.” He proposed simple-structured housing units up to four storeys, with open spaces for recreation activities and gardens at different levels.

Use of Pre-fabricated Structure- In contemporary architectural practice, the issue of replacing standard housing units is commonly debated in the pre-fabrication of structures. Since the structures need to be installed with the assistance of experts, they will serve as a forum to address urban slum problems because of their advantages of cost savings for mass manufacturing, easy installation, re-assembly at different locations and erection. Prefabricated housing units have been a massive help to many alternatives to post-disaster shelters.

Based at the features and development of slum settlements around the world, living units in slums are perhaps the best examples of the most optimal use of living space. In addition, the slums use minimal construction materials to create their living room that is readily accessible, such as old & used tin sheets, wooden rafters, joists & posts, plastic sheets, country tiles and other recycled materials. The use of traditional building materials in these settlements, which are easily available by nature, is also a characteristic of these households. Such dwellings make use of optimal space and natural resources, which are an example of sustainable living. In addition, a more realistic design approach through new materials and harmony with the surroundings needs to be built in order to enhance the urbanization and development of Indian cities.

Brixel, rehabilitation, Kathputli colony, success story of redevelopment
A rehabilitation success story; Image Courtesy:

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