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Urban housing for the poor: Is vertical housing appropriate?

  • Published at 03:34 pm December 9th, 2019
Climate tribune_November 2019_Pg 20 - 21
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain

Learnings from the fourth Annual National Conference on Urban Resilience to Climate Change 2019

"I lost the area where I lived my whole childhood, grew there, played around it, quarrelled with others… Years after I was forced to leave, when I came back today, this place has a new name, new high rise buildings, wide roads. I wonder if this is that Beltoli, where I lived, and now there is a multi-storied building where I slept!" 

The harshness of these lines from a slum dweller Kulsum Begum made the whole hall room silent at the plenary session on 1st day of Fourth National Conference on Urban Resilience and Climate Change. The session was about "Urban Hazard and Housing for the Poor." 

The discussion of the session started by exploring the risks and vulnerabilities of the urban poor, who face housing problems and lack the basic needs of a citizen. There was some discussion about recommendations for the urban poor. One of these recommendations included the idea of vertical housing for them and was a primary solution from the findings and studies on urban slums, which was followed by some more crucial suggestions i.e. avoiding plastic as a building material, implementing housing strategy and allocating special budgets to reduce the risk and vulnerabilities in the urban poor areas. Further discussion focused on the above mentioned topic and other various logical explanation provided by the guests, panelists, speakers well as the participants.

Slum ecology  

To implement something for the development of urban poor people, we must understand the ecology of these people and the environments in which they live. Who are the people living there? where do they come from? and what influences them to move to Dhaka slums? 

These people came to the city, mostly through internal migration,  which results in triggering the unequal development of our country, which is now being amplified by various climatic events. Though migration itself a multi-faceted problem, we are unable to attribute any binary reasoning about the root cause of the problem, as it is both economical or environmental. People are coming to cities to change their lives and livelihoods, a study shows that cities have engrossed nearly two-thirds of the global population explosion since 1950 across the world. 

Slums have a severe effect on the environment worldwide because they are generally built in places that are vulnerable to various environmental and health hazards. In Buenos Aires, there are slums over a former lake, a toxic dump, and a cemetery, which was abundant or common property and slum dwellers chose to live there because it is cheap and it is needless to say they cannot afford a house in housing societies. So as from the discussion, is it possible to make separate housing communities for the urban poor? 

Housing for the urban poor

Initiatives have been taken to relocate the urban poor people in affordable and sustainable housing around the world. In India, Mumbai has one of the largest slum areas in the world. In the  1970s the Indian government created a modern twin city on the mainland opposite the Bombay peninsula, New Bombay, where the urban poor were promised new homes and jobs. Sadly the new housing went to civil servants and the middle-class instead of the local people on the mainland who as a result were displaced, losing their land and livelihoods. Whereas in Delhi, in a similar project the Development Agency distributed one half million plots. Research shows that only 110000 houses have been built for the poor, whereas Delhi is evicting 450000 illegal slum-dwellers then.

Another example seen in Nigeria was an initiative to rehouse its urban poor in the seventies. However, their third and fourth National Development Plan became charades of this ambitious initiative – less than a fifth of the homes were constructed as planned. In contrast, most of the housing went to other people than those intended, who were politically powerful individuals with incomes high above the eligibility threshold.

So what should we do? 

Let us go back to the story of Kulsum Begum, the story we started with – where she lived back in early 2000, but now there is a high rise building, which is mostly government offices. It is debatable to take choose one decision between them - as is it legal to evacuate the previous occupiers from this place. While there may have been the need for those offices, from a human perspective, we cannot just make these vulnerable people homeless! 

To accommodate this vast amount of people into a better environmental scenario, resettlement in a vertical building is a potential alternative. Nevertheless, from the examples of India and Nigeria, we have learned that there are some complexities in terms of the distribution of those houses. Notably, middle-class poaching and political bias are two significant causes making the situation more complex. 

People migrate to get better opportunities. When people from suburban areas have the chance to live in the city, but not in a slum, in better Living conditions, they will grab it. In order to deal with this, proper guidelines are needed to distribute the homes using appropriate makers to identify the urban poor people being targeted by this policy. 

The bitter future

We are making Dhaka uninhabitable day by day. Slums of Dhaka city are becoming more vulnerable and deadly nowadays, the fire in several slums in Dhaka proves that. People living in slums are exposed to the worst environmental, health and climate related impacts. Rising temperatures rising have a severe impact on slum-dwellers. Dengue and other vector-borne diseases will become more deadly day by day if we do not take initiatives to mitigate these risks as soon as possible. So it is high time to think, as well as implement some great ideas in the wellbeing of urban poor.  

Sakib Rahman Siddique Shuvo is currently studying at the Department of Geography and Environment, Jahangirnagar University. 

Adiba Bintey Kamal is working as a Research Intern at the International Center for climate change and Development.