Skip to main content

A Case for Retiring The Word 'Slum'

In a new book, an urban historian argues that the term distorts the policies meant to help poor neighborhoods.
Boys gather while flying kites in the Cantagalo shantytown community next to neighboring Pavao-Pavaozinho in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Boys gather while flying kites in the Cantagalo shantytown community next to neighboring Pavao-Pavaozinho in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The concept of the slum emerged when industrial capitalism hit its stride in the late 19th century. Derived from Cockney street slang, the word was soon taken up by reformers and moralists of the Victorian period, a loaded descriptor of the densely populated and poorly serviced neighborhoods that housed workers, their families, and the reserve army of the unemployed.

Plenty of people used the word "slum" with the best of intentions, but it is notable that very few have used it to describe their own neighborhoods. A slum is a place to be ministered to, a place to be cleaned up, a place to be cleared out. A "dark continent that is within easy walking distance of the General Post office," as one 19th-century writer put it.

In the new book Slums: The History of a Global Injustice, Australian academic Alan Mayne argues that the term is so freighted with historical distortions that it should be retired. Although the word "slum" is unlikely to be utilized in the contemporary policymaking of advanced industrial nations, it is still expansively applied by bodies like the United Nations rhetoric and among the elites of the global South, including in rising powers like India.

According to Mayne, reformist efforts that still make use of the slum concept are "compromised by using an artificial construct in pursuit of social justice." Mayne's argument is delivered with great heapings of detail, recitations of centuries of policy in Britain, Australia, India, and the United States, and data on the millions displaced in anti-slum campaigns. CityLab spoke with him about the book.

How did you get engaged in this line of inquiry?

My interest in slums was shaped in part by my dissatisfaction with historians who regarded slums unproblematically as a reality, rather than seeing them as a prism that distorted our perception of the internal realities of poor neighborhoods.I began by critiquing historical understandings of slums and wrote a book in the early 1990s called The Imagined Slum, where I think I won the argument when it came to the historical understanding of slums. But that left me unsatisfied, because so what? Historians don't have a great deal to say when it comes to public policymaking today.

Describe the origins of the slum concept and its evolution over the centuries.

The word "slum" developed in the early 19th century from London Cockney vernacular. It became gradually subsumed in a textual form of describing, denigrating, and damning poor districts, initially in London and British provincial cities. Then that cultural baggage got exported to other English settler societies like North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

Why did it fall out of favor in advanced capitalist countries?

Because it lost its shock value. It no longer operates as effectively as a trigger word that mobilizes attention and popular consciousness. In the 19th and much of the 20th century, the slum worked as a galvanizing concept because of the contrast between poverty, criminality, and disorder on the one hand, and the perceived strength of modern nations and culture on the other. By the mid-20th century it was losing its potency because those contrasts no longer fit with everyday people's sense of city realities.

The word lost currency in the developed world, in part as a result of what's been called the gentrification of inner cities: the transformation of renter landscapes into owner-occupied affluent neighborhoods, and the mobilization of those gentrifiers against heavy-handed slum clearance and urban renewal programs. You have those things happening in the developed world. But at the same time the slum is reinvented to describe conditions and shape policy—or to justify a lack of policy—in the developing world. You find the mistakes of the 19th century being repeated on a larger scale in the developing world and being endorsed by non-governmental organizations, by the United Nations, by big development banks.

What about alternative terms like "ghetto" or "favela"? Are these any better, or did they become subsumed in the slum concept?

Yes, I argue in the book that these and other words (like "bustee") were infected or subsumed within the slum concept. I don't think they are better; indeed, Janice Perlman [an expert on informal urban settlements] has condemned the word "favela." They are all trigger words used to evoke a particular response.

Slums: The History of a Global Injustice.

Slums: The History of a Global Injustice.

What term do you prefer for the kinds of neighborhoods described in your book?

One of the problems with "slum" is that it universalizes. There is no one term that can describe the diversity of disadvantaged low-income settlement types. Each such community is the product of particular historical and geographical influences.

Users of the term might say that they are just trying to call attention to the poverty in slums in order to try to help those who live there. Isn't there some good that has come of anti-slum efforts?

Yes, some good. But so much more could have been achieved had not these efforts been constrained by slum constructs. One of my main arguments is that the slum deceits have been perpetuated by well-intentioned people seeking to do good. The [United Nations] Millennium Development Goals are a recent example.

But even if the term was phased out, wouldn't powerful actors and institutions just find another way to couch and justify the same policies?

There's always the risk that, if one's justification for policy intervention is discredited, other terms will emerge. But the word "slum" has been used so extensively for 200 years to encapsulate urban disadvantage, and to offer seemingly straightforward solutions to remove or contain disadvantaged neighborhoods. Unless that term is explicitly removed from the policy agenda, those same policies and outcomes will continue to occur.

There was a time in the late 20th century when the term seemed discredited and no longer likely to affect public policymaking in a negative way. Then, boom: The United Nations Millennium Development Goals came out, and "slum" is enshrined in its principal goal of reducing world poverty. Suddenly you have the Cities Without Slums program endorsed internationally at the highest levels.

It's a forlorn argument, I suppose. Toward the end of my book I refer to a colleague who, having read a draft, said I demonstrate just how unlikely it is that the word "slum" will ever be abandoned.

The policy choices you critique often oscillate between "slum clearance" and mass displacement, and a more repair-oriented policy agenda.

India is a trailblazer there. There you have waves of slum clearance, followed by waves of improvement. But these rehabilitation projects, because they are still shaped by ideas about slums, still happen in very paternalistic ways. They aren't undertaken in conjunction with communities. They are improving and elevating, but the same distance exists between expert opinion and neighborhood opinion.

The key thing here, of course, is the slum stereotypes developed in the 19th century to damn poor districts as centers of criminality and potential revolution. These continue notwithstanding a switch from slum clearance programs to improvement programs.

One of the arguments I develop in the book is that. because of these slum concepts, community development arrangements are often undercut by the entrenched paternalism, however well intentioned, of the people organizing them. One of the greatest tragedies about how slum stereotypes have operated is the way they have distorted the activities of well-intentioned people, whether settlement-house workers in 19th-century American cities or American aid workers in Nigeria today. The policy choices they think are open to them are constrained, reduced, and narrowed because of the unchallenged influence of that deceitful slum concept.

Are there any governments that have adopted policies toward low-income neighborhood that avoided these pitfalls?

There are a lot of scholars working in Latin America and Africa and they pretty much all say that, although there are some good outcomes, they could have been a lot better if that old slum thinking was removed from project planning. I really struggle to be able to identify unambiguously good and fair examples of urban policies that have consistently worked to enhance livelihoods and neighborhood dynamics. I just don't think it's happening sufficiently, because of the way that slum concepts remain embedded in the framework used by policymakers.If U.N. Habitat were to take heed of a book like this and radically rethink their approach that would be brilliant, but I'm not holding my breath.

You've convinced Mike Davis—author of Planet of Slums—to change his ways and forswear "the s-word." How did that come about?

Planet of Slums is a massively influential book and has influenced U.N. thinking. I love the book, but I'm simultaneously frustrated by it, because in arguing the same things that I'm arguing, he nonetheless perpetuates the slum stereotype. He emphasizes urban disadvantage and the harmful effects of policy on those communities, but he doesn't challenge the slum stereotype.

He argues that the word has been transformed, that its Victorian-era stereotypes had lost credibility, so he was able to use the word and strip out the historic baggage. My argument is no, that baggage defines the essence of the word. The moment you start using it you are caught in constructs that can't be stripped away.

So I was thrilled when Mike read the book and endorsed it. I think that comment of his—"no more s-word for me"—is typical Mike Davis. It's pungent, it's memorable, and I was thrilled by his reaction to the book. But I'm not expecting a call from the U.N. secretary general.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.