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Learning from the slums (1/2):literature and urban renewal

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“Slumdog Millionaire” is the movie of the year. Its story of a young guy from Mumbai’s slum of Dharavi, who manages to change its destiny through the “Who wants to be a Millionaire” game has charmed many people, including the Oscars’ jury, who awarded the movie with 8 prizes.

At the same time, the movie has created a debate around slums and how the movie portrays them. “Slumdog Millionaire” follows the mainstream vision of slums, described in the XIX century by writers like Daniel Defoe or Charles Dickens: dark, dirty places, with people packed in small rooms with no water facilities. In slums, riots are frequents, and police can hardly enter: the perfect place for criminals to hide and plan their threats to the society, and the perfect incubator for all sort of diseases.

Dharavi walkway, (image: Flickr)

Glasgow slum, 1871(image: Wikipedia)

This is the vision that paved the way to all urban renewal projects: inhabitants of slums, trapped in it because of a bad fate, need to be redempted, through charity, public intervention, or maybe through a TV show. Urban renewal will clean all the dirt, bigger roads will allow a better control by the police, and everybody will have access to water and light.

One of the first cities to enforce an urban renewal policy was Paris. Between 1852 and 1870, under the direction of Eugène Haussmann, the Boulevards were cut throughout the city. Along with the Boulevards came water pipes, sewers and public transports, and police was finally able to patrol the city.

Paris, quartier des Halles. Boulevards cut the pre-existing urban fabric (photo: Microsoft Virtual Earth)

Paris: a typical pre-Haussmann street. Note the building height/road width ratio, similar to the one in Dharavi or Glasgow.  (Rue Mouffetard, from Flickr)

Paris, Boulevard Haussmann. (Photo: flickr)

In Rome, a similar policy was followed in Rome between 1925 and 1950. New roads were opened through the center, causing the displacement of a significative part of Rome’s population in small boroughs (borgate) in the outskirts of the city. These interventions changed the city so dramatically that they were named Sventramenti (slaughters).

Rome, Trastevere. The ancient urban fabric. (source: flickr)

Rome. A half-demolished district in the city center, near Via della Conciliazione. (photo: flickr)

Rome, via della Conciliazione. completed in 1950, it’s Rome’s last boulevard to be cut through the city center. (photo: flickr)

Rome, Il Trullo: a typical Borgata. (photo: Microsoft Virtual Earth)

A second wave of urban renewal came after WWII. Living standards became higher, and projects became more radical. Their manifesto was Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin (1925), which proposed the destruction of most of Paris city center (seen just as a big slum) and its replacement with an entirely new urban fabric, made of high-rises and gardens. And most of times, the people who were displaced in these new wave of urban renewal projects were the same who were affected by the first wave.

Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin (image: flickr)

Drancy, one of the first examples of the Plan Voisin, portrayed as “the first parisian Skyscraper” (image: wikipedia)

Roma, the borgata of Tiburtino III, in 1935 (image: Wikipedia)

The same place in 2008. Few building survived to a major renewal made in the 80′s. All new buildings follow Le Corbusier standards. (image: Microsoft Virtual Earth)

Are slums such a bad place, which needs just to be demolished or “renewed”? Is leaving the slum the only hope for its dwellers? Are they just a place for poverty and illness, or there is something else in them, even something we can learn from?

More about this on the next issue.

Cite:Marco Castroni. "Learning from the slums (1/2):literature and urban renewal" 08 Mar 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed . <>