A slum, as defined by the United Nations agency UN-HABITAT, is a run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security. According to the United Nations, the percentage of urban dwellers living in slums decreased from a massive 47 percent to 37 percent in the developing world between 1990 and 2005. However, due to rising population, and the rise especially in urban populations, the number of slum dwellers is rising. One billion people worldwide live in slums and the figure is projected to grow to 2 billion by 2030.

The term has traditionally referred to housing areas that were once relatively affluent but which deteriorated as the original dwellers moved on to newer and better parts of the city, but has come to include the vast informal settlements found in cities in the developing world.

Many shanty town dwellers vigorously oppose the description of their communities as 'slums' arguing that this results in them being pathologised and then, often, subject to threats of evictions. Many academics have vigorously criticized UN-Habitat and the World Bank arguing that their 'Cities Without Slums' Campaign has led directly to a massive increase in forced evictions.

Although their characteristics vary between geographic regions, they are usually inhabited by the very poor or socially disadvantaged. Slum buildings vary from simple shacks to permanent and well-maintained structures. Most slums lack clean water, electricity, sanitation and other basic services.

The rising phenomenon of slum tourism has western tourists paying to take guided tours of slums. This tourism niche is operating in almost all major slums around the world, including in Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Kibera, and Jakarta.


The origin of the word slum is thought to be the Irish phrase 'S lom é (pron. s'lum ae) meaning "it is a bleak or destitute place." An 1812 English dictionary defined slum to mean "a room". By the 1920s it had become a common slang expression in England, meaning either various taverns and eating houses, "loose talk" or gypsy language, or a room with "low going-ons". In Life in London Pierce Egan used the word in the context of the "back slums" of Holy Lane or St Giles. A footnote defined slum to mean "low, unfrequent parts of the town". Charles Dickens used the word slum in a similar way in 1840, writing "I mean to take a great, London, back-slum kind walk tonight". Slum began to be used to describe bad housing soon after and was used as alternative expression for rookeries. In 1850 Cardinal Wiseman described the area known as Devil's Acre in Westminster, London as follows:
"Close under the Abbey of Westminster there lie concealed labyrinths of lanes and potty and alleys and slums, nests of ignorance, vice, depravity, and crime, as well as of squalor, wretchedness, and disease; whose atmosphere is typhus, whose ventilation is cholera; in which swarms of huge and almost countless population, nominally at least, Catholic; haunts of filth, which no sewage committee can reach - dark corners, which no lighting board can brighten."

This passage was widely quoted in the national press, leading to the popularisation of the word slum to describe bad housing.

Other terms that are often used interchangeably with "slum" include shanty town, favela, skid row, barrio, and ghetto although each of these may have a somewhat different meaning. Slums are distinguished from shanty towns and favelas in that the latter initially are low-class settlements, whereas slums are generally constructed early on as relatively affluent or possibly a prestigious communities. The term "shanty town" also suggests that the dwellings are improvised shacks, made from scrap materials, and usually without proper sanitation, electricity, or telephone services. Skid row refers to an urban area with a high homeless population and a term is most commonly used in the United States. Barrio may refer to an upper-class area in some Spanish-speaking countries and is used to describe only a low-class community in the United States. Ghetto refers to a neighbourhood based on shared ethnicity. By contrast, identification of an area as a slum is based solely on socio-economic criteria, not on racial, ethnic, or religious criteria.

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