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Opinion: Improving slums, one step at a time

The UN Habitat's World Urban Forum debates the most effective approach to places "where the pavement ends."

Incremental improvements such as water and sewer systems and concrete stairs have improved conditions at the favela Tijuacu, in the hills west of Rio de Janeiro. (Anthony Flint/GlobalPost)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — High on a hillside west of Rio, workers in the Tijuacu favela smooth mortar on bricks near shiny sewage treatment tanks, and carry bags of concrete on their shoulders to a new gravity-fed water system at the edge of the forest. Soccer fields punctuate the base of the steep slope, cluttered with makeshift homes.

A couple hundred miles away, at an undeveloped subdivision in Sao Paulo occupied by 56,000 people, residents have been relocated from the muddy banks of a stream to make way for proper drainage and a ribbon park; the area, called Paraisopolis, also got a music school and outdoor cinema.

And then there are the slums in Medellin, Colombia's second largest city, that now have access to cable trams, playgrounds and libraries so well-designed the young people living there had to be assured that the facilities were indeed for them.

In the face of a dizzying global crisis — an estimated 1 billion people living in informal settlements, shantytowns, slums and favelas make up about 30 percent of the global urban population — planners and politicians have found success with more incremental steps toward improving conditions for the urban poor.

Instead of mass evictions and bulldozing, local governments are working with vast, illegally occupied settlements where they are trying to make life a little better with basic services such as electricity, water, sewer and sanitation systems, as well as what some are calling “socio-ecologic” infrastructure.

The problem of slums has been worsening in recent years, as millions from rural areas flood into burgeoning mega-cities that lack the economic, housing and infrastructural capacity to accommodate them.

The place “where the pavement ends,” as many of these areas are known, have been besieged by high child mortality, disease and, of course, crime. The subject was central at the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum 5, held last week in Rio de Janeiro, where organizers wrestled with how to provide basic services for the most urban poor.

A form of urban renewal — bulldozing shantytowns and in the best cases, relocating residents in public housing — was a popular solution dating at least back to the 1970s. But then slum removal became politically untenable, and a new way of thinking about informal settlement emerged, shared by Jane Jacobs and others: That the places “where the pavement ends,” as many slums are known, were organic, ingenious and resourceful urban systems that should somehow be respected and built upon.