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SDG 11: A Radical New Way of Thinking about the “Problem” of Slums

By Judith Hermanson (President and CEO, IHC)
September 24, 2015

With Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11, the importance of “urban” areas to global well-being is underscored.  This is truly a victory.    More people now live in urban spaces than in rural.  We passed that tipping point in 2010.  By 2050, fully two thirds of us will be urban dwellers.  That should mean that we can benefit from the stimulation and economic opportunities of city living!  Urbanization and economic progress have historically been linked, and we can hope and expect to see greater innovation, greater social cohesion, and more equitable economic opportunity as we become increasingly urban.  Overall this inevitable shift in population can be a very good thing for the world.  However, it is also not without its challenges.

Can it also be a victory for the hundreds of million who have been marginalized by urbanization?  Who have not had the benefits and opportunities of city life, but rather who live in conditions about which all of us should be ashamed and concerned?  As the urban population continues to grow, so too does the number of people living in woeful conditions.  The really good news about the “urban” SDG is the benefit that it should and can bring to those living in slums and so to the cities in which they live.

As the Millennium Development Goals draw to a close, the proportion of those living in slums has in fact been reduced.   The UN reports that the proportion of the urban population living in slums in the developing regions declined from 39.4 percent to 29.7 percent between 2000 and 2014.   So, we have made progress!   This should be acknowledged and celebrated.

BUT:  The absolute numbers of people living in slums has actually increased.  In 2000 the UN estimated that there were 760 million people living in slums.  Their current estimate is 863 million.  So, 100 million more people living in slums – and continuing to grow.  That is, until the adoption of SDG 11!

With SDG 11, the numbers and proportion of urban population living in slums will continue to be monitored and reported on at a country level.  This “global accountability” is assuredly an extremely important element in keeping focus and assuring progress.  But clearly more is needed.

SDG 11 re-frames the issues of urban poverty and implies a radical new way of thinking about slums.  This new way of thinking holds promise not only for a proportional reduction of people living in slums, but also a reduction in the absolute numbers and ultimately the transformation both of cities and of the lives of their citizens. 

The United Nations defines slums as places where people live and lack any one of these:  Access to clean water, access to improved sanitation, sufficient living area, durable housing and secure tenure.  Millions on millions of people lack at least one of these.  And many millions lack all five.

We have all seen the pictures of some of these appalling conditions.  What we might not realize however is that they live in these conditions because cities have been unable to, have been unwilling to, or some combination of those two, to keep pace with what is necessary for people to live in the most basic decent conditions.

People live in garbage-strewn conditions because there is no municipal trash collection.  They are surrounded by environmental pollution because there are not any toilets.  And too many people are crowded into cramped quarters, facilitating the spread of disease, among other things, because there are no options.  In many places people construct as best they can with cardboard and scrounged material, providing flimsy shelter from the weather and very little physical safety.  The physical precariousness of this existence is exceeded often only by the psychological impact.  People living in slums know they do not have a recognized “right” to live there.  They know they can be removed at the will or whim of something quite beyond individual control.   

Under SDG 11, there is a policy acknowledgement that even the poorest must be included in the fabric of the city – its services, infrastructure and opportunities.  As slums have been thought of as areas of the city to be ignored or razed or to be embarrassed about, now they can be thought of as areas to be uplifted and integral to the sustainability and resilience and safety of the city as a whole.

With SDG 11, cities will be encouraged to think about and address the inter-connectedness of all aspects of urban life.  SDG 11 aspires for cities to be safe, inclusive, resilient and sustainable.   Decent living conditions and active engagement of people now living in slums are fundamental building blocks in this process.  There is a tremendous opportunity for fundamental social and economic transformation, simply by intentionally weaving the human and social capital of the slums into the fabric of the city.    This is the exciting direction in which SDG 11 points us.

One Comment on “SDG 11: A Radical New Way of Thinking about the “Problem” of Slums”

  • Mike Shea October 2nd, 2015 3:21 pm

    I thought that was very good Judith

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