The 'Urban' in Urban Poverty

Jan 8, 2015

I have always enjoyed cities; the bigger the better. I like to listen to the murmur of the streets; to  trace the twists and turns of narrow pathways; to immerse myself in the bustling crowds of people; and, above all, to learn from the great human diversity that the city harbours. Hence, I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with the sociologist Richard Sennett who wrote that the jungle of the city, in all its vastness, has a positive human value. However, more often than not, the city – with all its jungle-like qualities – is conceived as a breeding ground for a set of distinct problems relating to infrastructure, housing, and health.  

If the city itself tends to be understood as a potentially problematic entity, this is even more true for the poorer segments of its population. Not seldom are the urban poor portrayed as the embodiment of certain problems associated with urban settlement. Intuitively urban poverty is brought in connection to haunting images of urbanization gone wild, of unstoppable flows of city-dwellers, and of the threatening expansion of unsanitary slum settlements. Perceptions on urban poverty are thus very much fraught with assumptions and ideas about what a (liveable) city should be like. The question therefore arises what it is precisely that links ‘urban’ to ‘poverty’.

Cities and Poverty

The relation between cities and poverty has long been understood as mutually reinforcing. The idea of an ‘urban underclass’ originated in nineteenth century Europe, when the late Victorian middle class came to associate the presence of the urban poor with the possibility of proliferating dirty diseases, dangerous upheavals and revolution. These perceived threats were conveniently lumped together under the common denominator of ‘poverty’ and gave impetus to the practice of urban planning.

In Europe some of the earliest planning schemes that aimed at solving the newly discovered problem of urban poverty resulted in the dispersal and dislocation of the urban poor. The renovation of nineteenth century Paris provides an apt example in this aspect. Under the auspices of Baron Haussmann the crowded and illegible medieval city centre of Paris was entirely demolished and transformed into a neat  grid of boulevards. This new design was intended to create a more hygienic and more controllable city. The wide boulevards provided an easy access to the military and were designed to safeguard Paris from popular insurrections.  However, this pretense of safety came at a certain price, for with the destruction of the old city centre thousands of poor residents were disinherited and displaced to the margins of town. Exiled from the modern and aesthetically imposing city that Paris was meant to become.

Displacement or Inclusion?

This mechanism of displacing poverty is still very much prevalent in contemporary megacities, especially where urban planning modalities frenziedly try to ‘solve’ the problem of slums. Unfortunately such solutions often come in the form of evictions that are carried out in the name of hygiene, safety, beautification and modernity. In New Delhi, for example, attempts to create a truly ‘Global City’ have gone hand in hand with so-called cleaning missions aimed at sweeping the poor away from the city centre[iv]. Such cleaning missions seem to imply that the presence of poor people is somehow an aesthetic  offense to the city. A view that is further reinforced by environmentalist discourses that link the masses of poor urban dwellers to the prevalence of pollution, congestion and the overall clogging of the urban system. 

UPPR has strived to envision a more positive relationship between cities and their poor residents, as is epitomized by the recently launched video: ‘Let’s Build Inclusive and Safe Cities in Bangladesh’. It is not the presumably threatening presence of the urban poor that is problematized in this video, but their lack of viable connections to the city. Likewise, the proposed solutions do not focus on displacing the poor but rather aim at transforming slum settlements into legitimate communities. The recognition of the poor as bona fide citizens of the city requires enabling both infrastructural and legal avenues for urban inclusion. One way in which UPPR tries to achieve this is by negotiating with local landlords over tenure security. For creating secure, legal and accessible homes for slum dwellers is a promising first step towards dismantling rather than displacing the phenomenon of urban poverty.  

We may conclude by observing that the real challenge of city planning is not to feign control and safety by keeping poverty out of sight, but to foster inclusion. Urban poverty should not be treated as an ugly stain on the gown of the modern city, as some sort of aesthetic offense, but rather as a manifestation of both spatial and economic inequalities.


In the introduction of his book ‘The Uses of Disorder. Personal Identity and City Life’ (1970) Richard Sennett states that he intends to convince the reader of something ‘distasteful’ to the most, namely that “the jungle of the city, its vastness and loneliness, has a positive human value”.



In his book ‘Cities of Cities of Tomorrow. An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century’ (1988) Peter Hall describes how urban planning emerged as an extension of late Victorian middle class fears of the ‘urban underclass’. The human geographer Guy Baeten has elaborated upon this point in his article ‘Hypochondriac Geographies of the City and the New Urban Dystopia’ (2002).



The renovation of nineteenth century Paris has been analyzed by James Scott in the book chapter ‘Cities, People, and Language’, which was published in ‘The Anthropology of the State: A Reader’ (2009).



The anthropologist Ursula Rao reflects on the impact of these cleaning missions and the resettlement of poor people in government-led schemes in her article ‘Making the Global City: Urban Citizenship at the Margins of Delhi’ (2010). For access see:



Watch the video here:




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