Mike Davis (2006) Planet of Slums. Slums as Neoliberal Spaces and the Overurbanization of the Poor

April 23rd, 2021 by Alva Blomkvist

Slum, semi-slum, and super slum…
to this has come the evolution of cities.1
– Patrick Geddes (cited in Davis, 2006)


Mike Davis (2006) Planet of Slums begins his book with this quote from Patrick Geddes. Davis expands on this and writes that perhaps the future of cities is not as what past generations of urbanists had envisioned as ‘cities of light soaring toward heaven’ and ‘made out of glass and steel’ but instead what awaits is an overcrowded, highly polluted urban world of ‘squats in squalor’ surrounded by ‘excrement and decay’. A city constructed out of scraps, ‘crude brick, straw and recycled plastic’.2 It is thus a very distressing and pessimistic vision of the urban future, but it is important to note that in many poorer nations, this is already an ongoing and grim reality for many of its growing cities. Although written 15 years ago, Planet of Slums is still as compelling and as relevant today. In this book, Davis excavates various details regarding the proliferation of slums. Taking into account historic (colonial) roots as wells as its development upto the present and how it became deeply linked with the formation of the third world. As Davis explains, the neoliberal restructuring of the political economy that arose from the late 1970s, led by financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank has to a considerable extent reconfigured the economic trajectory of many developing countries through policies of downsizing and redistribution of public spending and the enforcement of Structural Adjustments Programs (provisional loans or debt entrenchment disguise as developmental aid). As David Harvey (2007) also explains, neoliberalism refers to an economic policy through the liberalization of trade and finance i.e., free trade, and privatization through property rights, encouraging individual capital freedom, whilst limiting state intervention through deregulation and withdrawal on many aspects regarding social provisions. Neoliberal processes entail the forceful expulsion of people, often from the peasantry and poorer groups, due to policies of land commodification and through the conversion of common collective rights into private property rights.3 A form of systematic dispossession that remained as the dominant framework of contemporary capitalism. The transfer of common land rights to privatization have thus divested common people out of their homes, not only that it meant the proliferation of poverty, but it also meant loss of secure tenure and livelihood among many marginalized communities.

Estimates directs that more than half of the world’s population now resides in cities. It has been projected that by the year 2050, about 90 percent of population increase will occur in the already exploding cities of poorer nations.4 Rapid urbanization is a recent phenomenon among developing nations and the growth of slum populations has increased during the 1990s and has ever since continuing in an upward trend.5 The major lack of adequate provisions for social infrastructure and accommodations for the poor such as public housing in par with rapid urbanization has been one of the most pressing issue intricately link with the persistence and the proliferation of slums. Due to the rapid pace of urban growth along with the mass exodus of rural populations into cities, it is evident that slums are increasingly becoming the paradigm of spatial formation of major cities in the global south. According to United Nations UNSD report (2019) there are now more than a billion people living in the slums. As indicated further in the UNSD report, 80 percent of urban slum populations or informal settlements can be attributed within the regions of the global south. Slum populations in East and South Asia accounts to about 370 million, sub-Saharan with 238 million and Central and south Asia at about 227 million.6 Slum growth is still increasing at an unprecedented speed and has been projected to escalate further. It has been estimated that by the year 2030, 1 in every 4 people will be living in the slums7. The slums thus mark a key element of contemporary urbanization and is increasingly becoming a central theme within the development global urban transformation.

The term slum (squatters/shantytowns/barrios/favelas) is often synonymous with descriptions such as abject poverty and environmental deterioration. In the general context, slums are defined by a vast urban agglomeration of informal settlements characterized by its dense population and are often located at the periphery of the city. Due to its informal character, the majority of its inhabitants lacks access to basic services such as clean water and sanitation, they also lack secure tenure and are often prone to evictions and dislocation. These spaces are often situated within hazardous, highly polluted, and congested spaces of the city. Although casts at margins of the city, considered ‘unmapped’ and ‘undeveloped’, nestled within them are the lives of those excluded, where the underprivileged majority have been forced to sought refuge in their struggle for the right to the city. The proliferation and persistence of the slums is thus a manifestation of social exclusion in the city, wherein spatial inequality becomes the visible outcome of a deprived population as a result of economic and social injustices waged upon by regimes that prioritizes private interest over the the well-being of communities and the environment. The slums, therefore, is a testimony to the inevitable yet violent frontier process of urbanization when subjected to the dictums of capitalistic forces and the failure of governance. Within the neoliberal logic, privatization and commodification of spaces continues to prevail. Davis explains that ever since the formation of these policies, it has not only proliferated an increase in urban poverty, the growth of slums is already outpacing urbanization. And thus, as Davis writes, overurbanization has simply become a ‘reproduction of poverty’8.


Lauren Solomon


1,2,8 Davis Mike. (2006) Planet of Slums. Verso.

3 David Harvey. (2007). Neoliberalism as Creative Destruction. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 610(1), 22-44.

 4 United Nations 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects (2018). World Urbanization Prospects. The 2018 Revision. https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html

5 United Nations Human Settlements Programme. (2012). The Challenge of Slums Global Report on Human Settlements 2003. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis. https://unhabitat.org/the-challenge-of-slums-global-report-on-human-settlements-2003

6 United Nations Statistics Division. (2019).—SDG Indicators. unstats.un. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2019/goal-11/

7 What is a Slum? Definition of a Global Housing Crisis. (n.d.). Habitat for Humanity GB.https://www.habitatforhumanity.org.uk/what-we-do/slum-rehabilitation/what-is-a-slum/

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