Ed note:  We want to welcome our newest contributor to these pages.  Penelope is a Franco-American national living in Toronto.  She has a BA from Tufts University (go Jumbos!) and an MA in International Affairs from Sciences-Po.  Her interests lie primarily at the intersection of international affairs, economic development and foreign policy, with a particular focus on African issues and post-conflict reconstruction. She has worked for the Clinton Foundation and is co-founder of The Niapele Project, an NGO focused on improving the livelihoods of vulnerable children through grassroots initiatives in West Africa.  Without further ado…

A striking BBC news headline piqued my interest the other day: “UN says 227m people escaped slums in past decade”. I clicked through the potential “good news” story, hoping to brighten up my day with some statistics about the shrinking size of the global slum-dwelling population. However, the headline was misleading. While UN Habitat’s newest report, State of the World Cities 2010/11: Bridging the Urban Divide, notes that “a total 227 million people in the world have moved out of slum conditions since 2000”, its authors also quickly add that the total number of slum dwellers has actually increased by 55 million, “from 776.7 million in 2000 to some 827.6 million in 2010.”

What’s particularly interesting is that the UN is touting this number as an achievement of one of the Millennium Development Goals, MDG 7d: “Achieve significant improvement in lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers, by 2020”. Yes, the 227 million figure suggests that governments and organizations working on this issue have collectively surpassed the target. However, the fact that the slum population continues to grow – in spite of these advances – means that while progress has been made, a lot still needs to be done. It’s estimated that, “short of drastic action”, the global slum-dwelling population will continue to grow by six million a year, hitting 889 million in 2020.

Across the world, a number of initiatives are being developed to improve quality of life in slums and shanty towns. China and India’s efforts in reducing hardship in urban areas have been particularly critical: “Together”, the UN Habitat report notes, “they have lifted at least 125 million out of slum conditions between 1990 and 2010.” In addition to the initiatives undertaken by governments, private entrepreneurs are also seeking to reinvent slum life – if you can’t take the slum dweller out of the slum, or eliminate migration from rural areas, then you can redefine slum life and improve it.

That’s what a group called Urban Think Tank is working on. The group wanted to create a public transportation system in the barrios of Caracas that would serve the community without destroying thousands of homes to build roads – they also offer design services to the community for next to nothing, and are attempting to shift urban planners and politicians’ paradigm about slums and their potential. The public transportation they are currently building – Metro Cable – is a 2.1 km cable car system (integrated with the Metro System of Caracas) which employs gondolas holding 8 passengers each. Metro Cable’s capacity allows for the movement of 1,200 people an hour in each direction.

This is the type of visionary undertaking that will really address the issue of slums in the 21st century. Rural migration, population growth and the expansion of cities are inexorable trends that are – and will continue to be – very difficult to thwart. One way of looking at the issue is searching for possibilities to improve infrastructure, service delivery and availability in scalable, realistic ways. Urban Think Tank is among the first to seize the opportunity (and risk) of envisioning and implementing a vision for more humane, more livable slums.

Image: Flickr user rooshv caracas barrios

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