Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme

A UN-HABITAT programme in cooperation with the European Commission and the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Secretariat. Read more

Urban inequality

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Despite the enormous potential of cities to bring about prosperity, the wealth generated by cities does not automatically lead to poverty reduction for all. Urban growth has been strongly associated with poverty and slum growth. One billion people, or one out of every three urbanites, now lives in a slum. In these cases, urban expansion is characterized by informality, illegality and unplanned settlements that lack even the most basic services.


In every country in the world, access to the ‘urban advantage’ and distribution of the related benefits is largely determined by various organizations and institutions – including, crucially, the formal land and labour markets as well as public utilities such as water and electricity companies. In some cities, necessary public institutions are lacking altogether, in which case private interests that don’t prioritize the society at large fill the void. In both situations, the markets for land, basic services and labour are skewed in favour of private interests, such that they accrue more of the benefits of the ‘urban advantage’. In this process, uneducated people and young slum dwellers, particularly women, are deprived of the formal, secure livelihoods that could lift them up and out of the dire socioeconomic outcomes associated with the informal, insecure conditions in which they live.


The result is a low or nonexistent basic services and economic opportunities for many members of the urban population. These disparities are often not reflected in national statistics, which mask the deprivation experienced in poor urban neighbourhoods. Inequality in access to services, housing, land, education, health care and employment opportunities within cities have socio-economic, environmental and political repercussions, including rising violence, urban unrest, environmental degradation and underemployment, which threaten to diminish any gains in income and poverty reduction. The incidence of disease and mortality is also much higher in slums than in non-slum urban areas, and in some cases, such as HIV prevalence and other health indicators, is equal to or even higher than in rural areas.


Children in the poorest urban income bracket experiencing malnutrition at more than twice the rate of those in the richest income category. Incidence of diarrhoea contributes to rates of child mortality 10 to 20 times higher in areas lacking adequate water supply and sanitation than those with proper provision of services. The crisis is most acute in the cities of Africa and Asia. As many as 150 million urban residents in Africa lack adequate water supplies and an estimated 180 million people lack adequate sanitation.


Cities, particularly in the South, are far from offering equal conditions and opportunities to their resident communities. The majority of the urban population is prevented from, or restricted in, the fulfilment of their basic needs because of their economic, social or cultural status, ethnic origins, gender or age.


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