Squatter settlements

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Shanty towns

The United Nations estimates that at least one billion people20% of the world's populationlive in crowded, unsanitary slums of the central cities and in the vast shanty towns and squatter settlements that ring the outskirts of most Third World cities. Around 100 million people have no home at all. In Bombay, India, for example, it is thought that half a million people sleep on the streets, sidewalks, and traffic circles because they can find no other place to live. In São Paulo, Brazil, at least three million "street kids" who have run away from home or have been abandoned by their parents live however and wherever they can. This is surely a symptom of a tragic failure of social systems.

Slums are generally legal but otherwise inadequate multifamily tenements or rooming houses, either custom built for rent to poor people or converted from some other use. The chals of Bombay, for example, are high-rise tenements built in the 1950s to house immigrant workers. Never very safe or sturdy, these dingy, airless buildings are already crumbling and often collapse without warning. Eighty-four percent of the families in these tenements live in a single room; half of those families consist of six or more people. Typically they have less than 22 ft2 (2 m2) of floor space per person and only one or two beds for the whole family. They may share kitchen and bathroom facilities down the hall with 5075 other people. Even more crowded are the rooming houses for mill workers, where up to 25 men sleep in a single room only 75 ft2 (7 m2). Because of this over-crowding, household accidents are a common cause of injuries and deaths in cities of developing countries, especially to children. Charcoal braziers or kerosene stoves used in crowded homes are a routine source of fires and injuries. With no place to store dangerous materials beyond the reach of children, accidental poisonings and other mishaps are a constant hazard.

Shanty towns are created when people move onto undeveloped lands and build their own houses. Shacks are built of corrugated metal, discarded packing crates, brush, plastic sheets, or whatever building materials people can scavenge. Some shanty towns are simply illegal subdivisions where the landowner rents land without city approval. Others are spontaneous or popular settlements or squatter towns where people occupy land without the owner's permission. Sometimes this occupation involves thousands of people who move onto unused land in a highly organized, overnight land invasion, building huts and laying out streets, markets, and schools before authorities can evict them. In other cases, shanty towns gradually appear.

Called barriads, barrios, favelas, or turgios in Latin America, bidonvillas in Africa, or bustees in India, shanty towns surround every megacity of the developing world. They are not an exclusive feature of poor countries, however. Some 200,000 immigrants live in the colonias along the southern Rio Grande in Texas. Only 2% have access to adequate sanitation . Most live in conditions as poor as those of any city of a developing nation. Smaller enclaves of the poor and dispossessed can be found in most American cities.

The problem is magnified in less developed countries . Nouakchott, Mauritania, the fastest growing city in the world, consists almost entirely of squatter settlements and shanty towns. It has been called "the world's largest refugee camp." About 80% of the people in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and about 70% of those in Luanda, Angola, live in these squalid refugee camps. Two-thirds of the population of Calcutta live in shanty towns or squatter settlements and nearly half of the 19.4 million people in Mexico City, Mexico , live in uncontrolled, unauthorized shanty towns and squatter settlements. Many governments try to clean out illegal settlements by bulldozing the huts and sending riot police to drive out the settlers, but the people either move back or relocate to another shanty town elsewhere.

These popular but unauthorized settlements usually lack sewers, clean water supplies, electricity, and roads. Often the land on which they are built was not previously used because it is unsafe or unsuitable for habitation. In Bhopal, India , and Mexico City, for example, squatter settlements were built next to deadly industrial sites. In such cities as Rio de Janiero, Brazil; La Paz, Bolivia; Guatemala City, Guatemala; and Caracas, Venezuela, they are perched on landslide-prone hills. In Bangkok, Thailand, thousands of people live in shacks built over a fetid tidal swamp. In Lima, Peru; Khartoum, Sudan; and Nouakchott, shanty towns have spread onto sandy deserts. In Manila in the Phillipines, 20,000 people live in huts built on towering mounds of garbage amidst burning industrial waste in city dumps.

Few developing countries can afford to build modern waste treatment systems for their rapidly growing cities, and the spontaneous settlements or shanty towns are the last to be served. The World Bank estimates that only 35% of urban residents in developing countries have satisfactory sanitation services. The situation is especially desperate in Latin America, where only 2% of urban sewage receives any treatment. In Egypt, Cairo's sewer system was built about 50 years ago to serve a population of two million people. It is now being overwhelmed by more than 11 million inhabitants. Only 217 of India's 3,119 towns and cities have even partial sewage systems and water treatment facilities. These systems serve less than 16% of India's 200 million urban residents. In Colombia, the Bogota River, 125 mi (200 km) downstream from Bogota's five million residents, still has an average fecal bacterial count of 7.3 million cells per liter, more than 7,000 times the safe drinking level and 3,500 times higher than the limit for swimming.

Some 400 million people, or about one-third of the population in developing world cities, do not have safe drinking water, according to the World Bank. Where people must buy water from merchants, it often costs 100 times as much as piped city water and may not be safe to drink after all. Many rivers and streams in Third World countries are little more than open sewers, and yet, they are all that poor people have for washing clothes, bathing, cooking, and, in the worstcases, for drinking. Diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, and cholera are epidemic diseases in these countries, and infant mortality is tragically high.

A striking aspect of most shanty towns is the number of people selling goods and services of all types on the streets or from small stands in informal markets. Food vendors push carts through crowded streets; children dart between cars selling papers or cigarettes; curb-side mechanics make repairs using primitive tools and ingenuity. Nearly everything city residents need is available on the streets. These individual entrepreneurs are part of the informal economy: small-scale family businesses in temporary locations outside the control of normal regulatory agencies. In many developing countries, this informal sector accounts for 6080% of the economy.

Governments often consider these independent businesses to be backward and embarrassing, a barrier to orderly development. It is difficult to collect taxes or to control these activities. In many cities, police drive food vendors, beggars, peddlers, and private taxis off the streets at the same time that they destroy shanties and squatter settlements.

Recent studies, however, have shown that this informal economy is a vital, dynamic force that is more often positive than negative. The sheer size and vigor of this sector means that it can no longer be ignored or neglected. The informal economy is often the only feasible source of new housing, jobs, food distribution, trash removal, transportation , or recycling for the city. Small businesses and individual entrepreneurs provide services that people can afford and that cities cannot or will not provide.

The businesses common to the informal sector are ideal in a rapidly changing world. They tend to be small, flexible, and labor intensive. They are highly competitive and dynamic, avoiding much of the corruption of developing nations' bureaucracies. Government leaders beginning to recognize that the informal sector should be encouraged rather than discouraged are making microloans and assisting communities with self-help projects. When people own their houses or businesses, they put more time, energy, and money into improving and upgrading them.

[William P. Cunningham Ph.D. ]



Hardoy, J. E., and D. E. Satterthwaite. "Third World Cities and the Environment of Poverty." In Global Possible, edited by R. Repetto. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 1985.

Livermash, R. "Human Settlements." In World Resources 19901991. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute, 1990.


"The World's Urban Explosion." Unesco Courier (March 1985): 2430.

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SHANTY TOWNS as an American social phenomenon first appeared during the lag in reemployment after World War I, rising on dump heaps or wastelands within or at the edges of large industrial cities. Such communities also existed during the Great Depression, when they received the indulgence if not the approval of officials. The shanties were constructed and occupied by single men who had fitted into an economy of abundance as transient workers. Forced to stay in one place, they built crude homes of any free material available, such as boxes, waste lumber, and tin cans. Some occupied abandoned boilers, boxcars, and caves. They continued to take odd jobs when they could be found, living on the scant wages with the extra aid of social agencies.


Fearis, Donald F. The California Farm Worker, 1930–1942. Ph.D thesis. University of California-Davis, 1971.

Charles J.Finger/a. r.

See alsoBonus Army ; Depression of 1920 ; Poverty .

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shanty towns Improvised housing settlements, usually but not exclusively associated with Third World cities. Common characteristics include illegal occupancy of land (squatting); concentration on land of low economic value (such as river-banks or rabbish-tips); self-built housing; overcrowding; a lack of public utilities and social services; and low-income households. Over time, individuals and neighbourhoods may improve their circumstances, introducing considerable variation within and between shanty towns.