“Shanty” Lessons: What We Learn from Slums

When I was in the architecture school, I enrolled in An Introduction to Urban Planning class. One of the assignments was to visit an informal settlement in downtown Bangkok, Thailand, observe and record the conditions of the built environment in that particular context. My teammates and I went to the one right in the heart of the capital. Despite the general knowledge of slums and the mental image of unpleasant living conditions prior to visiting, I began to see this slum (and slums) differently. There actually is a good side of it that a formal settlement can be envious of.

There was a micro-economy in the slum community. The front parts of most houses were converted into small-scale commercial uses e.g. food stalls/groceries, tailor shops, motorcycle repair shops and so forth.  People optimized the use of spaces as much as possible since it helped them earn a living.  The numbers of buyers and sellers seemed to balance well; the shops reflected real demands especially for basic necessities on the neighborhood-level market. They knew what products to sell and at what price people could afford.

Circulation/traffic within the community was straightforward. Walking, biking and motorcycle riding were the means of transportation. Commuters shared the same 7-8 ft wide paths (normally paved). This means that the paths were obviously not for cars. Due to the limited width, the paths could meander and reach out to the innermost parts and therefore, were frequently used. Being a self-contained and a self-economically generated community actually helped with energy reduction. My assumption is that the carbon footprint in slums compared to that of a metro area of the same size/number of people may be lower. On the neighborhood level, slums were successful in providing walkability and adapting the same traffic circulation to accommodating various (ad hoc) uses.

In terms of social interaction, people tend to know each other well because it was a compact community despite the notorious crowdedness. Such density—the adjoining walls and the front-of-the-house shops normally came with tables and benches, so these components allowed for frequent interaction. They became each other’s eyes and ears (or even hate each other in some cases). It was easier to develop a family-like kind of relationship in this setting.

If there are at least a few good things about slums, then why are they where they are in the first place? One of the explanations is that they are often (and quite noticeably) in strategic and opportunistic locations. Some “slums” might have once been formal, well-established communities with characters, but today they are regarded as such partly due to inability to catch up economically (and materialistically) with rapid urban expansions and gentrification.

Interestingly, even though the general public may regard slums as a scar on the nice cityscape, the insiders see slums as their home. This is why we often see a lot of resistance (at times, aggressive) from them when they see authorities coming in, or even students like me taking pictures for a school project. It is the fear of encroachment that might lead to future changes and re-organizations that they think are unpredictable, not to mention political promises—the fear of loss. Regardless of the categories, both new “real” slums and older settlements (that are called slums in today’s standard) are still in existence because they are another form of affordable housing in big cities.

It is unquestionable that possessing a piece of land without entitlement is still a social issue, but slums indeed have some special characters that can be adopted in a formal settlement.

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