French urban development expert: ‘In 2050, 3 billion people will live in slums’

Slum dwellings in Nairobi, Kenya. [Trocaire/Flickr]

Slums develop as a response to poor city planning and a lack of affordable accommodation. While they exist all over the world, up to 90% of the population of the poorest countries live in these insecure settlements, Pierre-Arnaud Barthel told EURACTIV France.

Pierre-Arnaud Barthel is a project leader in the French Development Agency’s Urban Development division. He will take part in the ID4D conference Slum is beautiful? Rethinking slums in Paris on 16 March. Barthel spoke to’s Cécile Barbière.

This interview is published in partnership with the ID4D blog, coordinated by the French Development Agency.

How can we define the notion of a slum?

The UN Habitat agency defines a slum as an overpopulated area with inadequate access to water and sanitation, where housing is very poor and made from low quality materials.

On the other hand, some stigmatising expressions have crept into our vocabulary, like “illegally inhabited” areas, “favelas”, or in Tunisia, simply “working class districts”.

But at the French Development Agency (AFD) we prefer the notion of an “insecure settlement”, which can cover all forms of exclusion. Urban exclusion means areas that are poorly served and badly connected to the places people work. These areas are also affected by social exclusion, as well as exclusion from land ownership. Finally, they also suffer exclusion from the fiscal system and environmental protection.

The common denominator of all kinds of insecure settlements is the lack of social response, for example through social housing. As there is no legal supply of housing that families can afford, residents create their own district in an unplanned way. And sometimes, for lack of space, people choose to set up in insecure areas, like along riverbanks or cliffs, such as in Rangoon and Addis Ababa. This adds environmental insecurity to the list of other forms of insecurity.

This phenomenon of insecure settlements is common to all continents, from the highly developed countries of Europe to the developing countries of Asia and Africa. Is urban insecurity disconnected from the level of development?

Yes this is a global phenomenon. Slums began to reappear in Europe in the 2000s. But insecure settlements have a common root in the developed North and the developing South: namely, financial speculation on property. These practices have accentuated problems in access to housing and rarefied the affordable supply of family accommodation. The weakness of the public response and the increase in migration are also common explanations.

Today we believe that one billion people live in the world’s slums. And this population is growing.  By 2050 it will reach three billion, as the urban population continues to rise.

But the countries most affected by the phenomenon of insecure settlements are the least developed countries (LDCs) and countries in crisis. For example in Chad, Sudan and the Central African Republic, which are among the poorest countries in the world, 90% of the population lives in slums. In slightly more developed countries the proportion of the population living in these conditions varies from 30-60%. There is a correlation between a country’s level of development and the number of its citizens that live in insecure settlements.

What role do land rights policies play in the development of slums?

There are ways of legalising the residents of these districts and giving them property rights. But there is a big town planning job to be done: cities need more transparent public planning tools, clearer construction regulations on what can and cannot be built, for example. Helping cities in this regard is precisely the role of development organisations like the AFD.

Concretely, what response should be brought: knocking down districts to build higher quality and healthier accommodation, or trying to improve the quality of life of the people that live in these districts?

Our approach at the AFD is quite hands-on in this regard.  Since the 2000s, we are one of the donors that has been pushing the case for in situ redevelopment, rather than demolition. But when we are confronted with a slum built on an elevated level in the middle of a city, there can be certain contradictions. We support the improvement of these districts, but also the development of dense cities for sustainability reasons. These are ever-changing settlements, so the idea is to help them in their development.

Insecure settlements also respond to the need for accessible housing from part of the population. Without them, are public authorities able to meet the growing need for urban housing?

Today slums are a dominant form of urbanisation. In some countries the settlements built by the residents and unofficial landlords are sometimes more efficient than public policies. In certain situations it is a good job these settlements exist. For example, without the slums, the city of Cairo would already be twice the size. If we push this reasoning, we see that slums are often more economical in terms of density and resources.

The public response can sometimes be to build new cities in the desert, badly placed, far from economic centres. Some public housing projects, when they even exist, aim more at creating mass accommodation far from the economic zones and which take up a lot of land. This shows that even without official planning it is possible to house the planet.

Insecure settlements have their place in the future of urban building, but what is important is that they are guided by public authorities and connected to the rest of the city.

There is a certain logic behind slums, but they have their limits. The district of Imbaba, in Cairo, developed in an efficient, progressive way that was suited to the means of its inhabitants. But it has been overtaken by urbanisation. Some slums that were once on the edge of the city suddenly find themselves in the centre, which leads to problems with congestion. So some of the accommodation has to be demolished and the district map redrawn.

Doesn’t the uncontrolled expansion of these districts run the risk, in the long term, of creating mega-cities that it is impossible to connect to one another?

A city will die of its own accord if it is not mobile. There is one solution whereby cities try to work to hold back urban expansion, particularly in the capitals, which can reach populations of up to 25 million people. They need policy to develop intermediate cities. As part of this policy, we need to work on employment, because these people that migrate to capital cities do so in search of work. We also need to work on the networks and the basic services of the secondary cities.

For example, in Ethiopia, the government develops differently themed industrial parks in different regions. This is an initiative aimed at creating jobs outside the capital, Addis Ababa, which today has four million inhabitants and will double in size in the next decade.

This will not stop the creation of insecure settlements, because they will spring up in the secondary cities. But it will limit the uncontrolled growth of mega-cities.