Slums in Cape Town and Beyond

Part 5 of my South Africa series.

To begin this week’s final post on South Africa, let’s consider this satellite image of most of metropolitan Cape Town, population roughly 2.9 million. This map depicts an area some 40 miles across.

Cape Town Metro Area

Next, this map of the economic geography of the city from a city planning document shows the economic patterns of the city. The area shaded light yellow the planners have labeled “market avoidance.” Here, joblessness and drug use are high, and many residents are living in substandard conditions.

FutureCapeTown Economic Map

Like most cities in the developing world, Cape Town has squatter settlements, known in the country as informal settlements, where the poor have erected shacks on vacant land. In Cape Town most of them are along the N2 freeway, adjacent existing poor areas, although some communities have been established in desirable neighborhoods with sea views. I made this map using city data, but I do not know exactly the definitions or accuracy of the data. The small scale of the map and the high density of these communities should be taken into consideration.

Cape Town Metro Area

According to a government report (PDF), about 3.5 million people in the country live in such settlements, or 7% of the total population. As shown in the table, the government considers their government building program a direct response to informal settlements.

South Africa Informal Settlements

Many of the residents of the informal settlements and also poverty area would qualify under the United Nation’s definition of a “slum household,” which they define as “a group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area who lack one or more of the following: durable housing, sufficient living area, secure tenure and access to clean water and sanitation.” South Africa is relatively well-off by African standards, as experts estimate 72 percent of sub-Saharan Africans live in slum conditions. Experts also estimated that for the first time in human history, a majority of the world’s population now lives in cities. One-third of these city dwellers live in a slum.

The 2003 UN report “The Challenge of Slums” for the first time marshaled reliable data on cities from around the world. The report estimated 928 million people living in slum conditions, and world urbanization was occurring at a rapid pace. In his book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis compared the report with those produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: “If the reports of the [IPCC] represents an unprecedented scientific consensus on the dangers of global warming, then The Challenge of Slums sounds an equally authoritative warning about the worldwide catastrophe of urban poverty.” He concludes that “The cities of the future, rather than being made out of glass and steel as envisioned by earlier generations of urbanists, are instead largely constructed out of crude brick, straw, recycled plastic, cement blocks, and scrap wood … surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.”

In June, United Nations experts reported global shanty towns are growing by more than a million people every week, and estimate they will reach two billion people by 2030. Davis and others have long argued this enormous population of the impoverished will be vulnerable to religious fundamentalism and fear their political repercussions. The intellectual world is only beginning to catch up with enormous urbanization, and in English at least there are few books on the topic. The two usually discussed are Davis’ Planet of Slums and Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities. Davis’ book makes clear there exists a tremendous potential for researching and understanding these places, a task that has only just begun. The relevance of urban planning to global slums will remain to be seen: what is the meaning of a regulatory discipline in a context where regulations do not exist or are not enforced? The biggest role for planners, it seems, will be overseeing upgrading of basic infrastructure and also the legal processes of documenting property and tenure necessary if these places are ever to participate in the formal economy.

> Forbes: “Two Billion Slum Dwellers
> The Independent: “Planet of slums: UN warns urban populations set to double
> UN-HABITAT: The Challenge of Slums
> UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs: World Urbanization Prospects
> Robert Neuwirth’s Squattercity blog

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Thanks for this information about south African slums, Rob.

    I talked about the global urbanization in this post: A Global Turning Point — in particular the surprising trend in traffic crashes. Very shortly, the number of human years lost from road-crash death and disability will be greater than years lost from any of the communicable or infectious diseases. Losses from road crashes will be greater than all war-related injuries and casualties.

    Also, there is a difference between slums and squatter cities. The term “slums” refers to the environmental aspects of an area, while “squatter settlements” refers to the legality of the land ownership and other infrastructure provision.

  2. fascinating! as a fellow cape town traveler, it’s really cool to see all this synthesized and analyzed. ahh the memories! =)

    my favorite post was probably the mini-bus one, for obvious reasons. by the way, when austin and i were driving through rural south africa for 12 hours at a time (many stories to tell involving an attempted bribe after being pulled over and a night check point looking for pork meat), we saw a ton of mini-buses out there too! and i’m talking there are no cities or even towns for hundreds of miles…just goats, cows, and hitch-hikers crossing the road. some of them were just as pimped out as the ones in cape town too.

  3. Hi Rob!

    I`m desperatly looking for info and maps showing urban/city planning regarding Capetown. I`m studying the third year in an architecture school in Stockholm. The link to the cityplanning project at the top of the page is only giving an “Error”-message…? Can you help me?

  4. The one under the satellitephoto:
    “Next, this map of the economic geography of the city from a city planning document shows the economic patterns of the city. The area shaded light yellow the planners have labeled “market avoidance.””

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