About Slum Upgrading

  • What is slum upgrading?
  • Is slum upgrading different from urban upgrading?
  • Why is slum upgrading important?
  • Why not tear down the slums and start over?
  • What factors are needed for slum upgrading to be successful?
  • What are some of the challenges in slum upgrading?
  • How long does it take for a slum to be upgraded?
  • What is the role of gender in slum upgrading?
  • What are some examples of successful slum upgrading projects?
  • What is the role of the Cities Alliance in slum upgrading?
Slum upgrading is an integrated approach that aims to turn around downward trends in an area. These downward trends can be legal (land tenure), physical (infrastructure), social (crime or education, for example) or economic.
Slum upgrading is not simply about water or drainage or housing. It is about putting into motion the economic, social, institutional and community activities that are needed to turn an area around. These activities should be undertaken cooperatively among all parties involved—residents, community groups, businesses as well as local and national authorities if applicable.
The activities tend to include the provision of basic services such as housing, streets, footpaths, drainage, clean water, sanitation, and sewage disposal. Often, access to education and health care are also part of upgrading.
In addition to basic services, one of the key elements of slum upgrading is legalising or regularising properties and bringing secure land tenure to residents.
Ultimately, upgrading efforts aim to create a dynamic in the community where there is a sense of ownership, entitlement and inward investment in the area.


MYTH: Relocating slum residents to housing projects on the outskirts of the city solves the slum “problem.”
REALITY: Resettling slum residents far from their original homes and job opportunities is not usually viable. The economic and social disruption costs are too high. 

Is slum upgrading different from urban upgrading?

Urban upgrading is broadly defined as physical, social, economic, organisational, and environmental improvements undertaken cooperatively among citizens, community groups, businesses, and local authorities to ensure sustained improvements in the quality of life for residents.
Generally, urban upgrading is about striking a balance between investing in areas that attract investment to the city on a global level and in programmes that invest in the citizens of the city so they can reap the benefits as well. The interconnectivity of the two is crucial to a successful development strategy of any city.
Slum upgrading is an integrated component of investing in citizens. Residents of a city have a fundamental right to environmental health and basic living conditions. As such, cities must ensure the citizenship rights of the urban poor.
The main reason for slum upgrading is that people have a fundamental right to live with basic dignity and in decent conditions.
On another level, it is in a city’s best interest to upgrade slums and prevent the formation of new slums. If slums are allowed to deteriorate, governments can lose control of the populace and slums become areas of crime and disease that impact the whole city.
Slum upgrading benefits a city by:
  • Fostering inclusion. Slum upgrading addresses serious problems affecting slum residents, including illegality, exclusion, precariousness and barriers to services, credit, land, and social protection for vulnerable populations such as women and children. 
  • Promoting economic development. Upgrading releases the vast untapped resources of slum dwellers that have skills and a huge desire to be a more productive part of the economy, but are held back by their status and marginality.
  • Addressing overall city issues. It deals with city issues by containing environmental degradation, improving sanitation, lowering violence and attracting investment.
  • Improving quality of life. It elevates the quality of life of the upgraded communities and the city as a whole, providing more citizenship, political voice, representation, improved living conditions, increased safety and security.
  • Providing shelter for the poor. It is the most effective way to provide shelter to the urban poor at a very large scale and at the lowest cost.

In addition, slum upgrading is:

  • Affordable. Slum upgrading costs less and is more effective than relocation to public housing. Developing land with basic services costs even less.
  • Flexible. It can be done incrementally by the city and by the residents at a pace that is technically and financially possible for both.
  • Viable. The poor can and are willing to pay for improved services and homes.
Sometimes it is necessary to tear down a slum. In some cases, slums are built on land that is unsafe or fundamentally unstable. For example, a slum may develop on an infill site where there is methane gas that can cause serious health problems. Or, slums could be located on areas that are prone to land or mudslides.  In such cases, relocation may be the best option.
Generally, though, slums are built on land that is well-located and provides easy access to the city and its opportunities. Most slum evictions occur when local authorities want to remove slums located on prime real estate and turn the land over to developers or other vested interests.
Location is critically important for the urban poor. They need to be near the city where job opportunities are accessible.
There are many factors that are needed for a slum upgrading programme to be successful. The two most important ones are strong political will on behalf of government and strong buy-in on the part of communities. There must also be a sense of partnership among all parties.
Moreover, the slum upgrading initiative must meet a real need; people must want it and understand why it is important.
It is also beneficial if upgrading activities are city-wide and involve partners beyond the slums themselves, which is especially important in implementation. There must be incentives for agencies to work with the poor; good communication and coordination among stakeholders; and clearly defined roles for the various agencies involved.
To keep slum upgrading going, it should be a priority in financing, institutions and regulations.


Slum upgrading is most effective when linked with other initiatives or goals, such as:
  • Poverty alleviation
  • Health and education
  • Preservation of historic city centers
  • Environmental and sanitation improvement
  • City-wide infrastructure and transportation expansion

 What are some of the challenges in slum upgrading?

 The primary challenges in slum upgrading are achieving some kind of coherence in the community and finding solutions to a wide range of needs.
Slums are not homogeneous, and there many diverse vested interests that exist in slums. In addition to the poor who are simply looking for a decent place to live, there can be criminal elements who take advantage of the informal space, or landlords who make small fortunes renting out shacks to people over time.
All of these interests must be properly understood and brought into the planning process. The best way to do this is through negotiated development, in which people participate in negotiating their rights and understand that all the different interests have rights that need to be brought into the equation.
In some cases, for example, slum upgrading projects have failed because there are people in the community who believe they won’t qualify for an upgrading programme because they are not citizens or residents of the country.
Generally, as adequate policies are implemented and the local economy grows, slums gradually disappear as residents invest in their homes and upgrade them over time. The shack slowly becomes a house, and the slum becomes a decent suburb. How quickly this process happens depends largely on how fast a city’s economy grows and how effective the urban policies are.
It is important to note that there are different phases of slum upgrading projects. Some phases are accomplished relatively quickly; it doesn’t take long to install urban services such as a water supply system or drainpipes, for example.
Other phases take more time. Turning a poor, informal settlement into an integrated city and establishing the necessary linkages into the economy can take years.
In most societies, women and men tend to have different roles, responsibilities, needs and perceptions. As a result, slum upgrading generally affects women and men differently. Experience has shown that making a conscious effort to incorporate the gender dimensions of slum upgrading results in a more successful initiative.
Women play a vital role in slum upgrading. Increasingly, more and more slum households are headed by women. Many are women with children whose husbands have left them behind to look for work elsewhere. In other cases, women have fled to the slums to escape domestic violence, discrimination in rural areas, or difficult situations created by divorce or marital disputes.
A key aspect of slum upgrading is community participation, and women are at the heart of the community—they are most frequently the ones who save money, look after the children, and care for the sick or elderly. The skills they have used to run households can be applied on a community-wide scale to run a savings scheme, for example, or manage a community construction project.
The broader issue of gender, and the resulting vulnerability, is also a factor. While both men and women living in slums face hardships, women—especially widows—are particularly vulnerable. They are more likely to be victims of violence or subject to cultural norms that do not give them the same legal rights or status as a man.
In addition, women are more vulnerable to poverty because they often have limited access to land control and assets outside of marriage or within family ties. These issues must be taken into consideration when planning or implementing a slum upgrading programme.
Determining whether a slum upgrading initiative has been successful depends on expectation and what the goals of the initiative are.
In some cases, the goal is the provision of urban services. In South Africa, for example, there have been some very successful initiatives in which people who had no urban services were supplied with water, sanitation, and access to housing.
Sometimes, access to land has been a fundamental issue in slum upgrading programmes, as in Brazil. There have been numerous cases where slum dwellers were given a right to the land and had a real sense that they would not be evicted.
In other areas, such as Latin America, crime is a major problem in slums, and there have been concerted efforts to reduce crime and increase public safety. 
The bottom line is that with a growing economy, government commitment to slum upgrading, and community dedication, the slum will gradually transform into a suburb.

See also Case Studies