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 . 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 , a similar policy was followed in between 1925 and 1950. New roads were opened through the center, causing the displacement of a significative part of ’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: Castroni, Marco. "Learning from the slums (1/2):literature and urban renewal" 08 Mar 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed 28 May 2015. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=15271>
  • Mark

    Detroit’s urban fabric has been victimized by eminent domain and urban renewal where highway construction, mass housing projects, and auto factories were seen as a tool for wiping out so called slum neighborhoods. This has led to the destruction of such neighborhoods as paradise valley, black bottom, and pole town. Although government intervention had led to more sanitary and safer environments, it also has destroyed many of the cultural institutions that contributed to the city’s identity.

  • http://fairdkun.multiply.com slothglut


    explained the shifting paradigm briefly. like you, i’m still questioning this approach towards ‘slum as illegal settlements’ vs. ‘slum as self-built community.’

  • http://www.eva-atelier.net Miguel Sá, Arqt

    If the idea is to highlight the opposite in cities, well, enough for me to visit the historic city of Oporto and then visit the Music House area.

  • utopian robot

    slums need to be demolished, they are unsafe and you would know this if you’ve ever actually been to one. but in the process of demolishing them you need to preserve the community fabric. some people who live in slums are highly organized and having lived in some for so long are “owners” of the land they are on. certainly the plan voisin or other super sanitized housing projects are not appropriate, such as what has been happening in China recently.

  • aktu1

    Every third person will be a slum dweller within 30 years.
    with such populations, can we talk about demolishing slums and building new cities?

    and i believe that western historic cities with narrow streets are somewhat different from slums in the third world, which are being built in empty territories from found materials.

    try searching, for example, “mumbai slums” in google earth!

    • http://apeiron.themamak.com wfong

      I agree that western historic cities are different from third world slums. Simply because vehicular proportions at that time were limited to horse drawn carriages as the largest thing on the road. I like to think of it as a more “human-scale” development.

      In certain places like Zhou Zhuang in China, the streets are equally as narrow and equally as old and dirty, but present themselves as great tourist attractions.

      This begs the question: If slums are breeding places of crime and social disease… Would today’s suburbs be considered the slums of tomorrow?

    • http://sallalani.carbonmade.com Sal

      what is a slum? its simply temporary, informal settlements by poor people on land that they do not own… they have no incentives to invest in their conditions because they have no security of land ownership or tenure >> that is the basic premise. There are numerous examples across the world (Jordan, India, Pakistan, etc,) where the local government has chosen to recognize the slums, incorporate them into the rest of the city infrastructure and guaranteed land tenure with the condition that families begin to build better and more permanent homes and volunteer to maintain their facilities … and this has shown to be a HUGE success. Crime rates have dropped because people were more willing to pay a little more to install water and sewage connections to their homes. These places have maintained their small scale character and charm but are now cleaner and happier and not viewed as burdens. The BOTTOM LINE IS SECURITY OF LAND TENURE, without which WHO would be willing to invest in a permanent home.

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  • Lee

    Regardless of urban form, concentrations of poverty lead to crime and other urban problems. Many “slums” are also constructed on land available only because it is undesirable – due to flooding, landslides, train tracks or other conditions that make life unsafe for residents. Relieving poverty and its root causes, not masking it, must be our priority in improving the lives of slum dwellers.

  • Ash

    Replacing an organic structure with an industrial concrete structure is not the answer. Look at the architecture from the 60s in London, its horrible! These buildings were designed by architect trying to impose their ideals of housing with not a clue how the final residents will use them. And worse they build such ugly, depressing, soulless buildings which took the people from one dirty dump to another (expensive) concrete dump.

  • Craig

    It’s not always the building themselves that make slums bad, but the infrastructure. A lot of Washington DC alley “neighborhoods”, built within larger blocks, were destroyed in the earlier 20th century by people (outsiders) who saw them as awful places. They dispersed the communities that lived there, razed their houses, etc. Now they were rather disease-ridden and dirty, but the problem could have been solved by providing proper plumbing and sewage systems instead.

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  • Uapa

    My mum was born in Tiburtino III. They lived in 6, in a house with just one big room, kitchen and bathroom, but they were happy :-)
    You could trust each other and leave the door of your flat open, you could rely on each other. Children were free to play around and everyone knew each other. It was a poor place, also cos the war had just finished, but they had everything they needed there: shops, schools, church, sport centres and people were honest and welcoming.
    Now the place is just full of concrete and people barely know each other even in the same building!
    Nice memories in that old slum :-)