Has our focus on housing distracted us? Towards a right to space
Slum neighbourhoods are teeming with industry and commerce, yet the policy sphere still tends to treat them as residential spaces alone. What are the consequences of this misconception? And is it time to invoke a right to space, where every community member has a right to two or more spaces within a city: a residential space, an employment space, an educational space, etc.?
In the suburbs of Mumbai, facing the Arabian sea, a slum has been cleared to the ground, yet the fishing community who work here remain. Between the water's edge and the road they maintain pristine grounds for the drying of fish, sweeping the dirt floors, sifting their product for market.
A few kilometres inland, in the shadow of Bandra station on the Western rail line, an entrepreneur keeps a dressmaking shop, clearing a space for her customers in an area otherwise surrounded by garbage thrown by fellow residents and by commuters passing overhead.
And south, in the well-documented Dharavi are its famous potters' kilns, great fiery hulks in cramped courtyards where men are paid 40 rupees (£0.50) per day to stamp clay with their feet.
Compare these pictures to a few quotes typical in much of the urban development sector: 'the absolute number of slum dwellers has increased … to some 827.6 million in 2010.' 'UN-HABITAT therefore focuses on the household as the basic unit of analysis.' 'How can organic, self-built slums be turned into livable housing?'
We know that nearly a billion people reside in slums. But how many people work in slums, whether in manufacturing, industry, retail or other services? How many children are educated in slums? How many people receive their medical treatment within them?
Spot the difference? We know that nearly a billion people reside in slums. But how many people work in slums, whether in manufacturing, industry, retail or other services? How many children are educated in slums? How many people receive their medical treatment within them?
My point is that an informal settlement comprises residential spaces, commercial spaces, industrial spaces, and many other kinds of uses, yet professional discourses all too frequently revert to the notion that informal settlements are a problem of housing. The UN-HABITAT definition of a slum doesn't even define a slum, but jumps ahead to defining the 'slum household', suggesting that the two are analytically identical.
Even when professional discourses try to take these other uses into account, their conceptions often still fixate on redefining the house, rather than redefining the slum. For example, we will be reminded that poor households often need to use their homes for livelihood activities; might it sometimes be more correct to say that poor entrepreneurs have to use their places of business as their sleeping quarters?
The primacy given to a slum's residential spaces determines the kinds of policies used to address them, such as affordable housing schemes, housing financing mechanisms, sites and services projects, etc. The beneficiaries of such policies are typically the household, and access to benefits restricted to that type of occupant.
Is this really appropriate? Why should we reduce slums to their residential aspect so easily? Don't we also need to know the number of businesses, the number of employees, students, patients who use the spaces of slums for their essential needs? Shouldn't the beneficiaries of slum policies always include the businesses, schools and other organisations that slums play host to? Shouldn't we insist that a slum upgrading policy or relocation programme include allocation of spaces for retail, manufacturing, education and other uses, not just houses adapted to accommodate meagre livelihood activities?
And every time we allow a slum to be addressed by housing policy alone, are we legitimising the neglect of these other essential functions? Are we saying that we should create improved residential environments for slum dwellers, but that we don't need to create improved employment and educational environments for them at the same time?
More kinds of spaces, and more space for each
While our definitions of slums must incorporate more kinds of spaces, recognising the multiple functions within slums means recognising that slum communities require and deserve much more space than they currently occupy. When we upgrade or replace slum housing on a one-to-one basis, we are maintaining the status quo that slum communities must double-up on how they use spaces, reproducing the overcrowding and health and safety risks these overlapping activities create.
Shouldn't we be providing every slum community member with access to two or more spaces: a residential space, an employment space, schooling spaces, etc?
Might it be time to call instead for a right to space, a right to take up space within the city, a right not to be confined to a single room for all of one's daily activities, the right to more kinds of spaces and more space for each?
This challenges some of the constraints the urban development sector tries to operate within. On one hand, it makes it unlikely that in-situ redevelopment can ever be sufficient, since there is rarely any additional room within an existing terrain to create the multiplicity of spaces a community really requires to live and work sustainably. On the other hand, conceiving of slums in this way sets the bar so much higher, stretching financial and land resources further than they can cope with already. Few cities can afford to make available the additional urban land required to make poor communities spatially sustainable in this way, yet they must if slum conditions are not going to reproduce themselves after every improvement policy has run its course.
As Mumbai-Boston architect Rahul Mehrotra has argued before, and as he repeated during my current visit, whether the city can afford the resources or not, only a regional development plan can begin to address how sufficient spatial allocations might be made in the future.
In the meantime, it may be that we assert a right to adequate housing at the cost of a right to adequate workspaces, to adequate learning spaces, etc. How can we assert all of these rights at the same time without undermining any of them individually? Might it be time to call instead for a right to space, a right to take up space within the city, a right not to be confined to a single room for all of one's daily activities, the right to more kinds of spaces and more space for each?