Learning from the world’s worst slums to help solve the housing crisis

Paul Eyers
By Paul Eyers
5 Min Read

Australia’s housing industry is locked in a war of two fronts, fighting challenges in both affordability and sustainability.

The housing crisis has continued to dominate headlines into 2024, with skyrocketing home prices and rents making it increasingly difficult for regular Aussies to find somewhere to live.

Meanwhile, the industry remains under pressure to increase sustainability and find more environmentally friendly building methods for the nation to reach its net zero by 2050 carbon targets.

But while the government and the construction industry search for solutions, experts say there might be surprising lessons to be learned from the world’s worst slums.

Often characterised by poverty, violence, and unsanitary living conditions, these unsanctioned housing areas are also examples of unrecognised ingenuity, creativity, and resourcefulness that could inspire those looking to make homes more affordable and sustainable.

A report in the Nature Sustainability journal, led by Charles Darwin University researchers Dr Matthew Abunyewah and Dr Michael Odei Erdiaw-Kwasie, looked at habits in slums across the world’s southern hemisphere.

The findings demonstrated a synergy between the livelihoods, housing and spaces within slums and sort-after circular economy principles, which could inspire new sustainable practices in more economically developed regions.

Dr Odei Erdiaw-Kwasie said everyday practices in slums reflect the ten elements underpinning the circular economy, such as a recycling culture and repurposing materials due to a lack of waste disposal services.

“Evidence shows that slum dwellers in a range of areas, including Durban in South Africa and Lima in Peru, make a living from waste picking and sorting and scrutinise waste to help identify recyclable materials that could be sold for income,” he said.

“In India’s largest slum in Dharavi, waste sorting and recycling accounts for 60 to 80 per cent of waste recycling in Mumbai, and waste pickers contribute to closing the loop through the recycling and reuse chain, which are integral to a circular economy and the building of circular cities.”

From using old tyres as planters to turning shipping containers into living spaces, slum-dwellers have perfected the art of making the most out of what they have.

We can find new ways to reduce waste and create more sustainable building practices by looking at how slum-dwellers have embraced recycling and repurposing.

Slums often lack access to resources and energy and often have to find innovative solutions through sustainable methods, such as using small solar panels, rainwater catchment techniques, and even recycling flammable waste materials as fuels.

Meanwhile, the cramped nature of slums has forced occupants to become space efficiency gurus, with shared community spaces an essential aspect of everyday life.

Communal water pumps, kitchens and bathrooms are needed when space is limited and could inspire apartment complex construction by building smaller apartments with more communal shared spaces.

Perhaps the most important lesson that can be learned from slums is the importance of affordable housing.

In the Australian construction industry, there is a lot of talk about luxury apartments and high-end developments but little focus on creating affordable housing for those in need.

By looking at how slum dwellers have utilised unique materials in their construction process, we can inspire the development of more affordable construction methodologies that use unconventional and prefabricated materials.

Dr Matthew Abunyewah and Dr Michael Odei Erdiaw-Kwasie’s research showed slum residents’ awareness of circular economy practices exhibited a more substantial commitment to circular waste interventions.

“We can argue that slum dwellers with knowledge and experience in the circular economy will be active rather than passive stakeholders, which will help engagement levels,” Dr Abunyewah said.

Dr Abunyewah believes this active involvement will help stimulate activities accelerating the realisation of the circular cities agenda in developing countries.

So, while slums may seem the opposite of what the Australian construction industry should aspire to, valuable lessons can be learned from these communities. The Australian housing crisis requires innovation, creativity, and sustainability, all of which have been achieved in some of the poorest places in the world.

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Paul Eyers has worked as a journalist for a range of media publishers including News Corp and Network Ten. He has also worked outside of Australia, including time spent with ABS-CBN in the Philippines. Stepping away from the media, Paul spent five years sharpening his tools in construction - building his skill set and expertise within the trade industry. His diverse experiences and unique journey have equipped him with an insider view of Australia’s construction game to dig deep into the big stories.

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