The Publication of Habitat for Humanity International | September 2005
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Critical Mass
Too many people, too few opportunities make for an explosive mix.

by Shawn Reeves

Urban Struggles
Each week, more than a million people move to the cities of the world, seeking jobs and public services, stability, promise and a better quality of life. Some find it; others don't. In the next 25 years, a full 95 percent of this urbanization will occur in developing countries, whose cities already bend under the weight of too many people competing for too few opportunities.

Wooden poles hold up a tarpaulin that Ram Shri uses to waterproof the roof and front wall of the house he shares with his wife and four children in Madanpur Khadar, a slum resettlement community outside Delhi, India. Inside his tiny living space, it's difficult at first to see that the walls resemble nothing so much as a bird's nest, woven of layer upon layer of empty rice bags, posters and calendars, cardboard boxes and palm branches. With wind, sun and rain providing a steady test, he's built it up over five years.

Before moving here, he lived for 15 years in a colony of squatters in Nehru Place, a commercial district in the city. He would be there still but for a city government effort to eliminate the homemade, shantytown housing of street vendors and housemaids that springs up in and around cities like mushrooms.

Annie Joseph, a social worker with the Discipleship Centre, a 30-year-old Christian, nongovernmental organization that has worked for more than a decade to improve the lives of the impoverished and marginalized in Delhi, says most of the slum dwellers here are unskilled migrants from small villages, and their earning capacity is limited.

Similarly, their housing--and that of their counterparts in cities throughout the world--falls far below substandard, with little likelihood of improvement.

Squatters' shacks are stacked solid beneath a highway overpass. It's like being in a cavern. The noise of trucks, cars and auto rickshaws is amplified. It's hard to breathe; dust and exhaust fumes foul the air and mingle with the odor of cooking fires.

--Kathryn Reid, HFHI correspondent, in Jakarta, Indonesia
Their shelter options being so restricted, the urban poor are often forced to create, then occupy, illegal housing. Their fear of eviction is constant. They have no land tenure, no ownership of anything permanent, and this, according to Kurt Firnhaber, manager for Urban Initiatives in Habitat for Humanity's Africa and Middle East region, makes them less inclined to attempt certain basic home improvements-even if they could afford to make them. They never know when they will be forced to move.

In June, hundreds of thousands of poor urban dwellers in Zimbabwe, for example, found themselves homeless in the wake of a campaign known as Operation
Murambatsvina--literally, "Drive Out Trash." Defended by the government as urban renewal, the campaign resulted in mass arrests and burned and bulldozed shantytowns. Residents were left to sleep outside in wintry weather.

Human rights groups called Murambatsvina a "crime against humanity"; the Zimbabwe government justified it as part of a long-term effort to create cleaner, safer communities.

In either case, Drive Out Trash speaks clearly to the fragility with which the urban poor attempt to build and maintain their homes--and their lives.

In addition to their questionable construction, shantytown homes often are questionably sited, situated on marginal land along riverbanks and railroads or near garbage dumps, where they're susceptible to both man-made and natural disaster.

In order to live closer to their work or to public transportation that will carry them to their work, poor families often have to make their homes in harm's way. In Nairobi, for instance, Firnhaber has seen families create housing a mere arm's length from railroad tracks. In Johannesburg, he says, people drown each year in the Jukskie River, having populated its banks for lack of safer places to make their homes.

"The urban poor are often under different and sometimes more intense pressure to sustain their livelihoods," says Firnhaber. "This is partly based on the fact that many of them have emigrated from rural areas of subsistence farming and now live in a currency-based economy."

As difficult as subsisting might have been for these families in the countryside, it is often more challenging when they immigrate to cities, Joseph explains. They can't fish or harvest fruit or vegetables; and it can be both difficult and unsanitary to raise revenue-producing animals such as chickens, goats and cows.

Ironically, she says, the big city can look enticing to a villager who is dirt poor. The perceived opportunities, however, are usually illusionary.

Unfulfilled Promises
Some 2.8 billion people live in the world's cities; 1.2 billion of them share an urban experience that is loud, smelly, constantly uncomfortable. Their urban experience includes meager incomes, nonexistent public services, political upheaval, illiteracy and other woes too many to catalog.

Their number is growing. Another 1 million people migrate into urban centers every week, a steady trek that is expected to drive worldwide urban populations to 5 billion over the next 25 years. Ninety-five percent of this projected growth will occur in developing countries, whose governments already are overwhelmed by the struggle to provide services and assistance to the poor.

"The urban poor are trapped in an informal and 'illegal' world in slums that are not reflected on maps, where waste is not collected, where taxes are no paid and where public services are not provided," notes the introduction to
The Challenge of Slums, a report by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. "In some cities, slums are so pervasive that...it is the rich who segregate themselves behind gated enclaves."

And as urban populations explode in the coming decades, these problems will only deepen.

Urbanization--this mass migration to the city--is driven by the search for a better life. People move to the city looking for better employment opportunities, health care and public education. Some bring their entire families; others come by themselves, hoping to generate income to send back home to family members. They congregate in city slums because that's where the cheapest housing stands.


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