Stuck in Slums: (Im)mobility and Poverty

Feb 23, 2015

I saw the wall grow a few inches taller every day. Construction workers with their lungis pulled up over their knees dutifully added layer upon layer of bricks. The erection of the wall was meant to separate the main road from the adjacent slum settlement, Korail, where I was doing my research. Over time I witnessed how the makeshift houses next to the road disappeared from sight and I saw many informal routes and trails change their course. Tea-stalls that were previously located directly at the roadside were all at once separated from their customers by a blind wall and many of the pathways that meander through Korail suddenly led toward a dead end.  

There were other walls dividing and surrounding the slum as well; on average about 7 feet tall and typically adorned with pieces of cut glass sticking out of the cement. The inhabitants of Korail dealt creatively with this form of confinement; more than once I witnessed how people made their way to the ‘other side’ through big holes dug under the wall. In spite of this inventive form of mobility, however, the fact remains that reduced mobility is very much part of the everyday lives of the poor.

Congestion and Confinement 

During my research in Korail slum, the people I spoke to frequently emphasized the overall atmosphere of congestion that characterized their living environment. The narrow roads, the lack of trees, open space and fresh air, the abundance of dust, the accumulating heat; it all seemed to contribute to an almost suffocating experience of crowdedness. This prevalence of congestion not only resulted in bodily discomfort but also instigated a sense of confinement. 

When asking people for their opinion about the neighbourhood they lived in most men and women would evaluate their area in terms of whether or not they could move around freely and had easy access to the rest of the city.  Most roads, however, would be too narrow even for rickshaws to enter and would inevitably clog whenever a larger vehicle tried to access the community. Concerned about this inaccessibility of the slum, a member of the local Mosque Committee expressed his anxiety over fire outbreaks. He explained that makeshift gas-lines constituted a constant threat of fire. This risk was exacerbated by the fact that the congested roads and the walls surrounding Korail made it impossible for fire trucks to enter in case of an emergency, and similarly, obstructed people from leaving.

The Entrenchment of Urban Poverty

Poverty is often defined in terms of a certain stuck-ness. This stuck-ness however is generally perceived to be of an economic rather than a physical kind. When we talk about, for example, ‘poverty traps’ it is seldom to designate spatial confinement. We think of poor people as trapped in a downward spiral of never earning enough money, and not necessarily as ‘trapped’ in the more conventional sense of the word. Namely: as unable to leave a certain place. Economic vulnerability, however, is often hardened and perpetuated by spatial segregation and isolation. 

Already in the early 1900s the sociologists Robert Park and Ernest Burgess(1) called attention to the spatial qualities of urban poverty. Their views on residential segregation are still influential today, especially in foregrounding the ecological dimensions of urban poverty. Their approach presents urban neighbourhoods as ‘ecological contexts’ that intervene between urban dwellers and important sources of physical, social and human capital. Rubén Kaztman and Alejandro Retamoso(2), among others, have applied these ideas in making sense of the entrenchment of urban poverty in Montevideo, Uruguay. They argue that the spatial isolation of the urban poor limits their access to the labour market, thereby further amplifying market inequalities. A similar observation is made by Deborah Salon and Sumila Gulyani(3), whose work is on slums and transportation in Nairobi. Their research demonstrates how reduced mobility constricts the everyday lives of the urban poor, especially women. The extensive survey they carried out showed that many slum residents cannot afford any mode of transport apart from walking and are consequently restricted in accessing education and employment opportunities that could lift them out of poverty.

999 KMs of Connectivity

Congestion and confinement are inherent to slum life and relate to issues of bodily comfort, public health and (fire) safety. The above examples, however, show that ‘being stuck’ in a certain neighborhood can also have significant economic repercussions. To overcome spatial and economic isolation of the urban poor UPPR has started to work on the construction and rehabilitation of 999 KMs of footpaths in 23 cities. This 999 KM trail of connectivity is meant to enable access to markets and roads, thereby undermining the mechanisms of spatial segregation. For, segregation is ultimately a man-made reality that thrives by the construction of walls, yet diminishes where connections are build and maintained.

Notes:

1) For a summary of the ideas of Robert Park and Ernest Burgess see: http://www.csiss.org/classics/content/26

2)  See ‘Spatial Segregation, Employment and Poverty in Montevideo’ (2005) by Rubén Kaztman and Alejandro Retamoso: http://repositorio.cepal.org/handle/11362/11063

3)  See ‘Mobility, Poverty, and Gender: Travel ‘Choices’ of Slum Residents in Nairobi, Kenya’ (2010) by Deborah Salon and Sumila Gulyani: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01441640903298998#.VOjVzPmsU1I 

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