Gates Foundation Backs Scientific Study of Urban Slums

The word slum conjures images of the poorest quality housing, most unsanitary conditions, and dangerous–usually illegal–activities. But in developing countries, the word is free of its original, pejorative connatation and simply refers to lower quality or informal housing. Meanwhile, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) has developed a kind of slum-defining checklist that includes: inadequate access to safe water, sanitation, and other infrastrucure; poor structural quality of housing; overcrowding; and insecure residential status. Researchers at the Santa Fe Institute have secured funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to undertake a scientific study of a urban slums worldwide. The goal of the project, a collaboration with the nonprofit Slum Dwellers International (SDI), is to uncover some of the underlying principles common to rapid urbanization and the emergence of informal settlements.

“Part of what we will do is analyze data from 7,000 slum settlements around the world,” says Santa Fe Institute professor Luis Bettencourt, a physicist whose research includes studying urban organization and dynamics, in a statement issued recently. SDI has accumulated census-like data on many of the world’s slums, and researchers will combine and compare it across cultures, levels of socioeconomic development, geography, and time to identify common features of slums and test the data for accuracy. Subsequent stages of the project will examine how the SDI data was collected and find ways to make it most useful to scientists, policymakers, and others interested in urban development. Ultimately, the project will help to shape ongoing data-collection practices and generate new datasets. Added Bettencourt, “In this way, the project will help create standards through which informal communities can collect and use data about themselves and develop economic models to sustain these efforts.“