Slums: The History of a Global Injustice, by Alan Mayne

Book of the week: Is poor housing here to stay? Hopefully not, but one word associated with it has a grip on our culture, says Danny Dorling

September 21, 2017
Old man on an estate
Source: Getty

The word “slum” is a relatively recent addition to the English language. Alan Mayne would like to see it die out. It is an insult, he claims, although he does not draw analogies with other perhaps more obvious insults. “Urban poverty is real,” he writes, “and so are disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but slums are not.”

He has a point, but I suspect the word “slum” is too useful to lose. It is not simply derogatory; not just a deceit. I suspect we’ll see the clumsy phrase “disadvantaged neighbourhood” disappear from our lexicon much earlier than we lose the word “slum”.

“Slum” is entrenched: slum area, slum clearance, slum housing, slum landlord, slum tourism, slum youth (slumdog). It has sunk itself in too deep for the word to be quickly lost or banished; it will have to be reclaimed, like “queer” and “folk”.

“Slum” arrived in English in the 1860s or 1870s and is of mysterious origin – a word spoken long before it was written down. Shortly afterwards, or so Mayne claims, “Reformers and enter-tainers had together created the slum deceits” that make up the stereotypes associated with the word. Slums, he says, have connotations of deficiency: they evoke illusions of separation from the city, and of being the home of the “other”; a place that’s a breeding ground for crime.

In truth, slums differ greatly from one another. The people within them are not deficient in anything but money and luck. The city relies on the people of the slum; they are not of a separate kind, apart from the fact that they are made to appear different through stereotyping. As for crime, crime happens everywhere, but today most often and most dangerously by the people who drive cars too fast. The most common crime in the world is speeding. Slum dwellers mostly don’t own cars.

Mayne’s argument is enticing. It could be used to link contemporary campaigns against gentrification and social cleansing in London with activism against crude slum clearing in the poorest of the world’s cities today. However, he ignores the success of reformers and the reality that some journalists and writers portrayed. (A good example is Friedrich Engels’ description of the short-lived Little Ireland slum in Manchester in The Condition of the Working Class in England.)

For a few years as a student in the 1980s I lived in the part of the Benwell area of Newcastle upon Tyne that was later slum-cleared. It was not just the cheapest part of the city, it was also the most rundown. Property was worth little.

My mum visited one day and happened to say to the woman on the step next door: “It’s nice here, isn’t it?”

“You don’t have to live here,” replied the neighbour. Within a few years, no one did. Today the area is green fields.

My mum was not being facetious. She thought that the Benwell flats we lived in were nice and large. As a child she had seen the damp insides of the back-to-back flats near her home in Leeds. They too were almost all slum-cleared. There was no way of properly ventilating them, let alone putting in fire escapes – the flats only had a front door so there was no other way out, and the back room had no windows. Mayne suggests that adding a bath to such housing would have made it habitable. Not by today’s standards.

The Tyneside flats of Benwell had not been renovated for decades. Damp had risen to the second storeys and the roofs were getting near to being beyond repair. They could have been saved, but they had become a slum because they had been left to decay for too long. The rich of the city had neglected Benwell. The rich of England had neglected Newcastle.

Slums are not made by the poor but by the rich, or at least by some becoming richer. They are areas where many (if not most) properties are unfit for human habitation, but what is seen as being unfit – like the material goods you must lack to be seen as poor – changes over time.

As living standards improve, what was once seen as decent housing becomes slum housing. And if housing across an area is neglected, it will deteriorate into a slum. This is just one way in which the word could be reclaimed rather than abandoned and discredited.

“Unfit for human habitation” means damaging to health. Slum housing, along with sewerage and rubbish disposal, has been a public health issue for as long as we have understood the importance of public health. Mayne disparagingly points out that the term “unfit for human occupation” was still used by a British MP in 2015. He may not be aware that an annual survey of English housing is carried out to assess its fitness.

Mayne also points out that slum clearing is often an excuse for land grabbing by the rich; but it has not always been that way, and need not always be so. In the past in Britain, private-sector slums were replaced with decent public-sector housing. People could not believe they were being so well housed. In Japan, higher-quality multi-level apartments which house more people better than before replaced two-storey slums in very recent memory. But contemporary Japan is as equitable today as the UK was at the height of public home building.

Slum clearance tends to be a land grab by the rich mostly in times and places of high economic inequality. Mayne collects example after example of slum dwellers being stereotyped and disparaged, as “incapable” or “inadequate and unable to cope”. This is useful, and the quantity of such examples is shocking. But the identification of slums has not always been about shaming a group singled out as living below a line of supposed decency.

The global injustice this book seeks to address is the injustice of labelling people as slum dwellers. However, having to live in slums is at least as great an injustice. Identifying groups of people without work has not always been an exercise in shaming the workless, or in suggesting that they do not have work because they are somehow lacking. Similarly, identifying groups of people as being inadequately housed, as living in slums, is not always an exercise in shaming the slum dwellers.

The same can be said for those who are illiterate. Identifying a group as not being able to read is not always about focusing on their being deficient but sometimes about accepting that today it is necessary to be able to read. That was not the case a century ago when many people could not read. And it may not be the case in a century’s time if machines read for us.

The word “slum” and what it describes might eventually end up being temporary, as the author would wish. After all, slums are about mass urbanisation, a process that is drawing towards an end as the world’s population moves to stabilise at between 9 and 11 billion, and cities no longer grow ever larger.

Slums need not always be with us. But all housing has a shelf life. Eventually it all needs to be replaced. Working out how to replace housing in future without the emergence of new slums will be part of working out how we live as an urban species. Only then will we no longer need the word “slum”.

Danny Dorling is the Halford Mackinder professor of geography at the University of Oxford. His latest book, The Equality Effect, is published by New Internationalist.


Slums: The History of a Global Injustice
By Alan Mayne
Reaktion Books 320pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781780238098
Published 28 August 2017


Alan Mayne

The author

Alan Mayne, professor of social history and public policy at the University of South Australia, was born in Australia in 1955. He spent 18 months in England when he was 10 and 11 – an experience that, he says, “made [him] a historian of a particular type: not interested only in the big-picture events of history, but in their palpable, material expressions – whether touching the stones of Hadrian’s Wall or the blade of the axe in the Tower of London that ended the life of a distant ancestor of mine”.

After undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at the Australian National University, Mayne did a year’s research at Cambridge and became a lecturer in history at the University of Melbourne, where he worked for 23 years. A number of factors spurred his interest in slums. One was “stumbling upon eyewitness reports about living conditions in parts of [19th-century] Sydney – a supposedly prosperous city – that enraged me”. A paper on “slum stereotypes” eventually led to a book titled The Imagined Slum (1993). Even more important, however, were his experiences of visiting Cape Town and New Delhi, where Mayne “confronted the disjunction between the long-standing assumptions about slums and the realities of life in disadvantaged city neighbourhoods”.

Asked about the role of academic research in meeting housing needs, Mayne responds that we have seen “some 200 years of policy development in the wrong direction…I am thinking here not only of failed United Nations programmes in the developing world but of ongoing ‘renewal’ projects in the developed world. ‘Academic insight’ has often reinforced this trend rather than warning against its consequences.”

What academics ought to be doing instead, adds Mayne, is to “encourage [people] to heed the advice from the grass roots if we want to get things right”.

Matthew Reisz

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Print headline: Is poor housing here to stay?

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