How to Make Urbanization More Effective at Reducing Poverty


SEATTLE — Urbanization is rapidly occurring across the globe. If managed properly, these urbanization projects can be a successful strategy for reducing poverty. However, oftentimes this is not the case. The eradication of Turkish slums is a particularly apt example of these shortcomings. That being said, there are several ways to make urbanization more effective at reducing poverty.

A Brief Background of Turkish Slums

Turkish slums, or gecekondus, originated as a solution to the state’s inability to accommodate the large numbers of rural laborers that migrated to urban centers in the 1950s. This mass migration was a result of post-WWII industrialization in Turkey. As technology advanced, the demand for rural labor decreased and the demand for urban labor increased. However, there was not enough housing to accommodate this influx of much-needed workers. Therefore, rural migrants occupied vacant lots and built housing accommodations for themselves.

As a result of urban expansion, by the late 1980s the gecekondus that used to be located on the outskirts found themselves incorporated into the city core. As the value of the property became apparent, Turkish municipalities adjusted their stance towards gecekondus in order to promote urbanization projects.

Urbanization’s Effects on the Poor

In its urbanizing mission, the state began demolishing entire gecekondu communities in order to make way for apartment housing. In exchange for forgoing their claim to the land, developers offered some gecekondu dwellers accommodations in these new apartment buildings. As such, the urbanization projects were presented as an opportunity for socioeconomic mobility among the impoverished.

Dr. Alex Papadopoulos, a professor of sustainable urban development at DePaul University,  argues that the notion of seamlessly transitioning from slum dwellings to high rise apartments is impractical. Dr. Papadopulos told The Borgen Project, “You are taking a population that lived in the extended family setting and in a historic neighborhood setting [of]very high density without full integration into the formal economy — most without education and really high levels of illiteracy. You are going to move these people into high rise rental apartments and you think that they will be integrated into the formal economy by magic? You know, I don’t think so.” The solution? “It requires substantial investment in social capital. In educating and training.”

What would make urbanization more effective at reducing poverty? According to policymakers at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the focus should be on administration, accessibility and accommodation.

Better Administration Can Make Urbanization More Effective at Reducing Poverty

In order to properly account for the interests of the poor, local governments need to work transparently with actors from the private sector and NGOs, as well as representatives of the impoverished. At the moment, the impoverished are attributed aid based on documented proof of poverty. This welfare includes much-needed quarterly food packages and annual rations of coal. The necessary documentation is distributed based solely on the discretion of local officials. If a gecekondu dweller decided to move into a new apartment, local officials could revoke the resident’s impoverished status without considering the resident’s continued reliance on this welfare.

It must be understood that an improvement in housing does not constitute an instantaneous change in socioeconomic status. Integrating the poor into the middle class is a gradual process. Therefore, local governments need to maintain an open dialogue with gecekondu dwellers during the urbanization process.

Accessibility of Utilities Integral to the Urbanization Process

Accessing basic utilities such as water, electricity, transportation and waste management is critical for the world’s poor. Even in cases in which gecekondu communities had access to physical infrastructure, the cost was a major barrier to utility access. This cost only increases in an apartment setting. Many residents fear that although they may have physical access to these utilities in their apartment, they would still be economically barred from these resources.

Providing utility infrastructure to impoverished communities is only a first step in poverty reduction through urbanization. The next step is to remove the economic barriers that prevent access to these utilities. Be it through state welfare or privatized aid, it is imperative that the world’s poor be granted access to these utilities if they are to have a chance at being integrated into the middle class.

Social Integration into New Accommodations Important for Success

Viable and affordable housing alternatives to urban apartments are an important part of helping the impoverished transition to urban living. Gecekondu living is noticeably different from middle-class living. In the gecekondu community, neighbors are familiar friends, often referred to with familial titles such as sister and brother. Neighbors helped each other construct their houses. They stood in solidarity against demolition teams and shared in a collective economy based on trust. As such, gecekondu dwellers have been socialized for communal living, not the individualism of apartment living.

Rather than displacing impoverished populations that are not accustomed to middle-class lifestyles, urbanization projects should invest in the social integration of these populations. This entails providing affordable housing in familiar environments while ensuring access to educational and vocational training. These alternatives need both security founded on improved property rights as well as access to a community.

By addressing these oversights in current urbanization projects, the poor have a better chance at successful integration. These are only three suggestions as to how to make urbanization more effective at reducing poverty. It is important that urban planners keep looking for more.

– Joanna Dooley

Photo: Flickr


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