Books about Slums

The architecture library holds only a few books on slum-style dwellings, eventhough one billion people live in slums. In case you are interested in reading more about it than only this blog, here is a literature review to help you.

Informal on Top of Formal

Portraits from Above – Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham (2009) is one of the very few books that give a detailed description of the architecture of slums. Wu and Canham made an inventory of communities on five rooftops in Kowloon. They give a short history of every household and then depict the home in an isometric sketch and some photos. These three elements form a puzzle and it will take some time for the reader to fit the pieces together. This process of assembling imagery and text is very powerful and gives a deep insight in ultimately personal architecture.

Living on a Garbage Dump

Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo (2012) is a breathtaking account of life in a slum on a garbage dump. Boo did years of participatory research in these communities. Besides the moving stories about informal life and how it clashes with the little present authorities, the book is unique in the way it turns the hutments themselves into characters. And yes, the enigmatic title has to do with architecture.


Architecture of Slums

The Perfect Slum (2016) by Sytse de Maat, the author of this blog. Centerpiece of the book is a study on slums where vernacular architecture and tradition meet the planned city. Through thorough analysis of slums it becomes clear that traditional ways of building lead to a specific architecture when transferred to today’s very dense city. It thus gives insight in how cities can exist and how sustainability issues emerge.

Inside Megacity Slums 

Shadow Cities a Billion Squatters, a New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth (2005) can be seen as an essay opposing the depiction of slums as no-go areas by mainstream media. Like Katherine Boo (above), Neuwirth did many months of participatory research by actually living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul. His analysis is thoroughly anchored in what happens on the ground and from there allows one to see the bigger picture. Prejudices and misconceptions go out of the window on every page. Instead, Neuwirth unveils an urban world that earns more credits than it receives.



Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum by Kalpana Sharma (2000) is a classic when it comes to reading about Dharavi. Like Robert Neuwirth (above), Sharma gives a detailed and well-founded account of life in Dharavi and thus challenges the common notion of slums. Written as a coherent collection of stories the book is comprehensive and consequently allows seeing the bigger picture.

Pavement Dwelling

Apna Street by Julian Crandall Hollick (2011) is an account of both pavement dwelling and women empowerment. Besides stories about pavement dwellers and how they suffer under the destructive policies of the authorities, this book contains the history of SPARC, Mahila Malan and the National Slum Dwellers’ Federation. It is the story of a small group of migrants to the city who first had no say at all and then found ways of organizing themselves into a coalition that even today transforms the lives of millions of people across the world.


Slum as Global Phenomenon

Planet of Slums by Mike Davis (2006) is an enquiry into the global phenomenon of slum. Besides being comprehensive in the sense that it covers all aspects and causes of slum forming, the author seems rather opinionated as not a single slum improvement project in the world receives positive recognition. Moreover, there is no end to the list of who are to blame. Simply said, Planet of Slums considers urban informal settlement a victim of capitalism and a phenomenon we should get rid of as soon as possible. Surprisingly, Mike Davis does not give  a hint on how to do that.


Boo, Katherine. 2012. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum. London: Portobello.

Davis, Mike. 2006. Planet of Slums. London: Verso.

Hollick, Julian Crandall. 2011. Apna Street. Pune: Ameya Prakashan.

De Maat, Sytse. 2016. The Perfect Slum - On the Symbiosis of People and Building. Saarbr├╝cken: Lambert Academic Publishing.

Neuwirth, Robert. 2005. Shadow Cities a Billion Squatters, a New Urban World. New York: Routledge.

Sharma, Kalpana. 2000. Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum. New Delhi; New York: Penguin Books.

Wu, Rufina, and Stefan Canham, eds. 2009. Portraits from above: Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities. Hong Kong: MCCM Creations.

More Shacks on the Beach

Peter Bialobrzeski's book about shacks on the beach in Manila's Baseco.

Of course Mumbai’s Versova Beach is not the only place where one can find shacks. Peter Bialobrzeski for example made an excellent photo book on Baseco, a slum built on white sand in Manila in the Philippines. The 58 images were photographed in February 2008, just before the financial crisis hit. Before long the belief that slums would soon be something of the past was shelved again. Cristina Sevilla, Bialobrzeski’s guide, hit the nail on the head when she said “the photographs are full of dignity; they respect the people and their longing for a home.”

Bialobrzeski, Peter, Case Study Homes, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, 2009.

ISBN 978-3-7757-2469-2   

Shacks on the Beach

During monsoon Mr. Kiran from Pune is a farmer on Mumbai's Versova beach.
Unlike downtown slums, beach shacks are detached houses.

Beach shacks perhaps make the most eye-catching informal architecture. More than the slum dwellings made of brickwork, beach shacks are of truly temporary character. Materials come from the sea and the urban jungle and thus afford a unique architecture. Without exception the structures are light, but given the windy conditions on the beach they are very sturdy. Sand, available in abundance, is perfect for anchoring the shacks. Of course one can use pegs, but sandbags are at least as effective since they are heavy and easy to fill. Moreover, sandbags are a versatile material. When stacked they make a close wall as they can easily be made to fit. Note that cement is absent in this type of building.

Shack with veranda. The architecture is marked by light materials. Sand bags are heavy and afford a higher floor ( and thus dry feet).

Since they are transportable too, such light structures are ideal for a nomadic lifestyle. During monsoon farmers come to the beach to grow crops. On top of the saline water table the heavy rains create a layer of fresh water in the sand. Thus the monsoon affords seasonal farming. Sand however does not hold water very well and irrigation by hand is necessary. Fortunately digging a pit in the sand to reach the fresh water is easy.

On the beach, digging a pit to reach fresh water is easy.

Most of the shacks are built as detached houses, which is quite unusual for slums. The cramped space so typical of slum dwellings is the consequence of a lack of buildable land. To build detached and semi-detached houses on the beach is an unexpected luxury in this category. The secret behind it may be surprising. For obvious reasons monsoon does not coincide with the tourist season and thus makes the beach an empty place. Hence the possibility to farm land, to have houses with verandas and to have plenty of playground. 

The Perfect Playground. Informal settlement on the beach is marked by lots of open space.