Home is More Than Four Walls

By Christoph Buhne – Social Connectedness Fellow 2018

A vast majority of people would agree that their house is their most valuable possession. Houses provide a space for rest and leisure, facilities to cook and eat, and storage for possessions. A “home”, however, is much more than four walls supporting a roof. Home is intended to be a space for family interaction though communal meals, a space to recover from the stress of the outside world, and a space to feel secure. Unfortunately, both the material and social benefits of the house and home are unavailable to many- especially those living in “informal” settlements such as slums. For people living in poverty, housing is built out of what they can afford, on land that they do not formally own. People living in slums often lack access to basic government services such as clean water, sanitation, and policing which leads to poor physical and social conditions. This blog post highlights how slum/urban “upgrading” programs work to bring housing to a materially adequate level, and the concurrent social improvements that result.

Slums are informal settlements, but not all informal settlements are slums. A slum is defined as a household that lacks five conditions – access to improved water, access to improved sanitation facilities, sufficient (not overcrowded) living area, structural quality/durability of dwellings, and security of tenure. The effects of these deprivations are severe, with non-existent water and sanitation facilities being linked to malaria and diarrhoea rates (two of the leading causes of child mortality), and overcrowded conditions worsening outbreaks of contagious diseases such as cholera and Ebola. Only 28% of slum structures are classified as “permanent” in a global survey by UN Habitat, but more than half of residents are considered informal tenants, and the remaining majority possess non-official title deeds. Within slums, an average occupancy of 4 people per typical slum room of 9m2 makes privacy near impossible, and beyond their rooms, inhabitants face extensive socio-spatial exclusion from the greater city. This occurs either through physical marginalization to undesirable areas, or a lack of recognition by the government, thereby hindering them from receiving government services. 

While the material benefits of slum upgrading are well documented, there is also strong social component to such programs that drastically improve the quality of life for slum residents. In a case study in Buenos Aires, a slum upgrading project by TECHO involving the construction of pre-fabricated transitional housing resulted in an average quality of life improvement from 2.34 to 3.90 on a scale of 5 (more detail in graph below). Other indicators include: the reduction of study participants reporting frequent stress from 39.3% to 3.3% 6 months after the intervention, an improvement of 28.4% in the number of participants sharing their bed with additional people besides their partner, and drastic improvement in sleep quality with 70.1% of participants registering “good” sleep quality post-intervention (see graph) with women’s sleep quality equalizing with men’s. Participants also reported psychological impacts, with an increased sense of security/safety at home thanks to the improved housing, as well as increased willingness to invest in their (new) home.

Graphical breakdown of QoL improvements broken down by domain, from “Sleep, Slums, and Shelter: Impact of a Slum Upgrading Program.”


Graph showing improvement in quality of life and sleep quality due to housing improvement, from “Sleep, Slums, and Shelter: Impact of a Slum Upgrading Program.”


Beyond the household level, slum-upgrading programs can improve social wellbeing as a whole beyond the normal capacity of residents, but this requires a participatory process that involves the input of the residents themselves rather than a centralized decision-making. This is key, as not only does it take advantage of resident’s expertise and energy but also gives marginalized communities a voice in the planning process. By organizing the community, it is easier to tackle issues in the public sphere. For example, the installation of streetlights and road improvement in Cite de la Paix in Douala has helped residents feel more secure in public places. Another improvement resulting from participatory slum upgrading is creating public spaces that are often absent from unplanned communities, such as in Brazil’s Paraisopolis favela where a particularly flood-prone area was re-planned as a space for plazas, playing fields, and an amphitheater for the benefit of the community.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that informal settlements are a community like any other, and a key aspect of improving them involves bettering the social wellbeing of its inhabitants, both inside and beyond their own homes. Slum upgrading, through a participatory framework, offers the opportunity for members of neglected and marginalized communities to improve their own conditions on their own terms and facilitate the building of a better social fabric. If you would like to learn more, UN Habitat’s Slum Almanac is a great starting point, and the work of TECHO as featured in this post can be found here.