New Internationalist

Urban Explosion: the facts

Issue 386

For the first time in human history most of us live in cities: many in desperate conditions. The NI takes the measure of urban growth and poverty.

The UN Millennium Development Goals aim to improve the living conditions of 100 million slum-dwellers by 2020. But the number of slum-dwellers is estimated to grow by nearly 500 million between now and then.

Mega-city growth

Of the billion people designated very poor, over 750 million live in urban areas.

  • Over the next 3 decades, urban growth will bring a further 2 billion people into cities in the Global South, doubling their size to about 4 billion people. These cities are already growing at a rate of about 70 million people per year. Overall almost 180,000 people move into cities every day. In Mumbai alone, an estimated 300 new people a day arrive from the countryside.2
  • Of the 23 cities expected to reach a population of more than 10 million by 2015, 19 of them will be in the Global South.3
  • While official Chinese sources put the population of Beijing and some other Chinese cities in the top 16 (above), independent sources outside the country don’t.

Cities and slums connect

While not all squatters live in slums and not all slum dwellers are squatters, the categories substantially overlap. Slum population by region1

  • In 2005, an estimated total of 1 billion people were living in slums worldwide – about a third of the world’s total urban population.4 By 2030 this figure is predicted to grow by another billion. Amongst the population of the Top 16 cities (left), a staggering proportion live in slums: between 40% and 50% in Jakarta (Indonesia), and a third in mega-metropolises like Dhaka (Bangladesh), Kolkata (Calcutta, India) and São Paulo (Brazil).5
  • Asia has 60% of the world’s slum-dwellers, Africa 20% and Latin America 14%.4

Security of tenure

One of the biggest issues for the urban poor is their right to stay where they are.

Each year millions of people are evicted from their homes:

  • In July 2000 nearly a million people were pushed out of Rainbow Town in Port Harcourt (Nigeria).6
  • In early 2004 around 150,000 were evicted in Delhi (India) and 77,000 in Kolkata (India).6
  • In Beijing an estimated 300,000 people have lost their homes in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games.6
  • In 2003-4 in Jakarta (Indonesia) over 100,000 people were either evicted or threatened with eviction.6
  • Slum clearance and relocation costs 10 times as much as slum upgrading as a method of dealing with urban poverty.4


Squatting is often the most reasonable and inexpensive way for poor people to move to the city.

  • In Latin America less than 30% of dwellings are built by the formal housing sector.
  • In Caracas (Venezuela) over the past 50 years the state has constructed 1 million homes, the private sector about 2 million and the inhabitants of barrios have constructed 3 million themselves.7
  • In 20 years the city of Mumbai has grown by 100%, but the number of squatters has increased by more than 1,100%.8
  • In the Philippines, a study of squatters in the capital, Manila, found that although only 10 per cent of them are as well off as their poorest established neighbours, they were still 10 times better off than they had been in their villages.9
  • An estimated 70% of households in sub-Saharan Africa cannot afford mortgage loans.4

Life on the edge

Poor people build in undesirable areas – but at a price.

  • Earthquakes have destroyed over 100 million homes in the 20th century – mostly in urban shantytowns and poor villages.10
  • The residents of the Nairobi shantytown of Kibera (Kenya) pay 10 times more for water than residents of wealthy neighbourhoods connected to the metered municipal water system. In times of shortage this goes up to 30 or 40 times the official price.3
  • There are 20,000 pavement-dwelling families in India’s biggest city, Mumbai. Just breathing Mumbai’s polluted air is equivalent to smoking two-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day.8
  • Despite their difficult existence, it is estimated that only 1% of the residents of Brazil’s favelas are involved in the drug trade.3

Disease and services^11^

The quality of life in shantytowns can be significantly improved through the provision of basic services. World diarrhoeal disease distribution

  • There is 1 toilet for every 500 people in the slums of Nairobi (Kenya). Worldwide an estimated 100 million people have to use the ‘wrap-and-throw’ technique of getting rid of their faeces.
  1. Global Urban Observatory, UN Habitat, Nairobi, 2003.
  2. The Challenge of Slums, UN Habitat, Nairobi, 2003.
  3. Robert Neuwirth, Shadow Cities, Routledge, New York, 2005.
  4. Financing Urban Shelter, UN Habitat, 12 November 2005, Nairobi.
  5. Water and Poverty, Asian Development Bank, Water and Poverty Report, May 2002.
  6. ‘Forced Evictions Worldwide’, Environment and Urbanization, April 2005.
  7. Sabine Britner and Helmut Weber, Caracas, Hecho en Venezuela, Revolver, Frankfurt, 2005, .
  8. ‘Towards a pro-poor framework for slum upgrading’, Environment and Urbanization, April 2005.
  9. Peter Wilsher and Rosemary Righter, The Exploding Cities, Quadrangle Books, New York, 1975.
  10. Mike Davis, ‘Ecology against Capitalism’, Socialist Review, July 2005.
  11. Water and Sanitation Report, UN Habitat, Nairobi, 2003.

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This article was originally published in issue 386

New Internationalist Magazine issue 386
Issue 386

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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