SFI Takes First Steps Toward a Science of Slums

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Dec. 12, 2012. Santafe.edu. Slums in the world’s fast-growing cities are often seen as problems and, in most cases, outside the law. But, from Paris and Tokyo 150 years ago to Mumbai and Johannesburg today, slums consistently emerge as a byproduct of the socioeconomic pressures of rapid urbanization, and they often don’t get the credit they deserve as entry points to the city for poor migrants, or for the economic activity they generate.

With as many as a billion people now living in slums, understanding what might place these communities and their cities on paths of increasing socioeconomic opportunity is a priority.
A new research project now under way at SFI, in collaboration with the nonprofit Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and backed by a generous grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, seeks to expand the scientific study of urban slums worldwide. “We expect this project to be an unprecedented systematic scientific analysis of the general characteristics of urban informal settlements,” says principal investigator and SFI Professor Luis Bettencourt, a physicist whose research includes studying urban organization and dynamics.

For years, the groups that comprise Slum Dwellers International have been collecting census-like data on many of the world’s slums. These data have been aimed primarily at empowering slum residents in their contact with city and national governments. Using SDI’s data together with other information, the SFI researchers hope to uncover some of the general underlying principles common to fast urbanization and the emergence of informal settlements.

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