The meaning of the word Slum

Typically, slums are found on land that is less suitable for building than where the planned city goes. Favelas in South America are often found on steep slopes. Dharavi is built on marshlands. The word ´slum´ actually has its origin in the problematic location of housing. According to The Making of the English Landscape (Hoskins 1977) the etymology of the word ‘slum’ goes back to the 1820s and refers to the geology of the land on which the upcoming large scale industries in England were built. Since steam-power was not yet available for trains in the early Industrial Revolution, most of raw materials and finished products were transported by canal-barges. Industries therefore were located near canals, often on grounds that lacked sufficient drainage. In those days, the local term for these marshy lands was 'slump,' meaning wet mire. The same word also occurs in Saxon and Scandinavian languages. Most of the accommodation for the working class developed near the factories and consequently the ´slums´ were the housing that often suffered from drainage problems.
Nowadays the word slum raises debate as it is often used to express a negative sentiment about areas and to derogate the people who live there. At the same time, slum dwellers don't mind so much or even take pride in using the word. Certain academics claim it is politically correct to avoid the s-word and stick to 'informal settlement' whereas the UN and many other organizations keep it simple; they call the spade a spade and thus call the slum a slum. Since this blog promotes an open attitude towards slums, we deliberately use the word slum in order to counterbalance the negative connotation.
Hoskins, William George. 1977. The Making of the English Landscape. Repr. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Formal and Informal, example of a wormhole

The slums at Versova Beach are unintentionally sanctioned by a combination of laws (see text). The slums of Sagar Kutir on the left are permanent whereas the shacks on the right are only seasonal. Image Google/DigitalGlobe.

Sagar Kutir in Mumbai's Versova neighborhood is an example of encroachment on a similarly dangerous area, the beach. Although an environmental protection program for coastal areas nowadays forbids new permanent construction closer than 500 meters to the water, many pockets of settlement still exist within reach of the waves. Sagar Kutir is exposed directly to the Arabian Sea and houses are occasionally washed away in tropical storms. In order to protect people, local authorities order inhabitants to leave the houses that are most at risk and to seek shelter elsewhere. The informal and the formal sector meet here in a fascinating way. Since the settlements as such are informal and illegal, but dwellers are protected from eviction by law[1], authorities are forced to tolerate the erection of temporary shelter on coastal land. In addition, eviction during monsoon is considered too much a burden on dwellers and thus never takes place. Migrants use this legal loophole every year. On the beach therefore, one finds a seasonal presence of farmers besides the more permanent informal dwellers. As a result, informal settlement in Versova Beach consists of two pockets: a permanent one with pucca houses (Sagar Kutir) and a seasonal kacca part made of tents. Families who lose their pucca home in a storm move to the neighboring kacca area until the rainy season is over. Then repairs can begin and people move back, or a new home is found somewhere else.

[1] The 1995 Slum Rehabilitation Act protects from eviction those who can produce a document proving they lived in the city of Mumbai before January 1995.

The Perfect Slum, the Book is Out!

Years of research and writing come together in one handable book.

Hundreds of photos and illustrations
 How to order?
Its cover wraps it all up

Interior of a Students 'Slum' Dwelling

The interior of many a so called slum dwelling is very neat and tidy. In this chapter we will show you the full interior of a students' home in Dharavi Mumbai. We could of course show you some snapshots, but we think we have something better on offer. For our research we rebuilt the students' home as a 1:20 scale model. By recreating it to the tiniest detail, we were forced to identify every item and to research why an item is where in the room. In addition to the interviews with the students who live here, we learned from the model how ingenious this household actually is.

Floor area is about 9 x 12 feet / 2.7 x 3.6 m. In this scale model of 1:20, the floor has approximately the length and width of my hand.

Four young men live here: three students and an engineer. Laundry is put were it doesn't hinder: along the walls and over the stairwell.

The students' home is on the fop floor. (And of course: unlike in this model, the other floors are certainly occupied :-)

Water: drinking water in bottles on the left, washing water in the blue tank. Metal tank on the ledge is used to carry water, whereas the hose on the right is used to bring water from a tap at the ground floor.

Study: table with books, maps of India and the world on the wall. The laptop saves a lot of space compared to a desktop computer. Below the map of India lies a roll of mats and sheets which is rolled out at night for bedding.

The sheet makes a nice place to sit, as my friend Noushad is demonstrating.

The mezzanine floor above Noushad, just under the roof, is ideal for storage.

Under the mezzanine is a bookshelf, within reach from the study table. Note the blue rope hanging in the stairwell, it is an important support when you use the steep stairs.

The kitchen: a plastic bag with potatoes on the wall (left), a cauliflower lies on the box, stove, pots and pans, drinking water in bottles on the right.

We are sure you will agree this home a great place, and well kept tidy. Without doubt you noticed the four seperate groups of clothing, the neat stacks of books, the table arrangement, the logic of the kitchen, the cell phone and the pencil.

Making models is a powerful tool in architectural design. It helps us understand what a future building will really look like. Perhaps modeling is even more powerful for architectural research on the already existing world.