There Goes the Neighborhood- Slum Relocation and Sustaining Communities

Photo courtesy of BBC News.

In a recent BBC News special, economist Paul Mason took viewers on a tour of Estero de San Miguel, a slum located in Manila, Philippines. In a dark and overcrowded tunnel under a bridge, he saw the contradictions of life in slums on every corner: Business college graduates manning kiosks in self-built corner shops, an active community police force surveying the haphazardly constructed homes over trash-infested waters, and the juxtaposition of “wrap and throw” methods of sewage disposal next to a busy internet café.

Despite squalor conditions and stark contradictions, residents are fighting for their small piece of Manila real estate. But, as Mason’s report and videos show, these communities are fighting for more than land and real estate – a common theme in the vast majority of slum relocations.

The fight to stay in the slum is driven by the changes that come along with slum upgrading and relocation:

  • Employment- The relocation efforts highlighted in this story moved residents roughly 4 hours outside of Manila with scant opportunities for jobs nearby the new communities. Slum relocation often involves displacing residents from dense city centers near their jobs to far, outlying suburbs from which they travel long hours, often with costlier commutes.
  • Infrastructure- In this relocation, the community didn’t have electricity connections nor public transport access. It’s common for relocated slumdwellers to lack transit access, sometimes even connecting roads, to the city center. In the case of this relocated Afghani village, recently reported in the New York Times, residents rely on infrequent buses traveling on dirt roads for nearly an hour just to go grocery shopping.
  • Community degradation- As we are seeing in the case of Brazil’s slum upgrading, reported in, with plans in preparation for the World Cup and the Olympic games comes concerns ranging from lack of planning and investment in maintenance to a decline in public space to neighborhood gentrification. Poor people use established social networks as a safety net. When relocations happen, that social capital is often lost.

While Mason asks the question, “Do we have to learn to live with slums?” in current practices of slum clearance, we have to ask the question of how to upgrade slums and rehabilitate those communities. From India to Kenya to Ecuador, the idea of rehabilitating slumdwellers in situ is not just about responding to housing shortages, but also about equity and urban community building. Municipalities and real estate developers have to work together to keep more people in the city, with their communities, near their jobs, while allowing developers to still earn an appropriate profit on rehabilitated land.

For more, listen to Paul Mason’s “Slums 101″ session on BBC Radio 4.

Edited by Lenora Suki.

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