Books about Slums [book reviews]

The architecture library holds only a few books on slum-style dwellings, eventhough one billion people live in slums. In case you are interested in reading more about it than only this blog, here is a literature review to help you.

Informal on Top of Formal

Portraits from Above – Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities by Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham (2009) is one of the very few books that give a detailed description of the architecture of slums. Wu and Canham made an inventory of communities on five rooftops in Kowloon. They give a short history of every household and then depict the home in an isometric sketch and some photos. These three elements form a puzzle and it will take some time for the reader to fit the pieces together. This process of assembling imagery and text is very powerful and gives a deep insight in ultimately personal architecture.

Living on a Garbage Dump

Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo (2012) is a breathtaking account of life in a slum on a garbage dump. Boo did years of participatory research in these communities. Besides the moving stories about informal life and how it clashes with the little present authorities, the book is unique in the way it turns the hutments themselves into characters. And yes, the enigmatic title has to do with architecture.


Architecture of Slums

The Perfect Slum (2016) by Sytse de Maat, the author of this blog. Centerpiece of the book is a study on slums where vernacular architecture and tradition meet the planned city. Through thorough analysis of slums it becomes clear that traditional ways of building lead to a specific architecture when transferred to today’s very dense city. It thus gives insight in how cities can exist and how sustainability issues emerge.

Inside Megacity Slums 

Shadow Cities a Billion Squatters, a New Urban World by Robert Neuwirth (2005) can be seen as an essay opposing the depiction of slums as no-go areas by mainstream media. Like Katherine Boo (above), Neuwirth did many months of participatory research by actually living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai and Istanbul. His analysis is thoroughly anchored in what happens on the ground and from there allows one to see the bigger picture. Prejudices and misconceptions go out of the window on every page. Instead, Neuwirth unveils an urban world that earns more credits than it receives.



Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum by Kalpana Sharma (2000) is a classic when it comes to reading about Dharavi. Like Robert Neuwirth (above), Sharma gives a detailed and well-founded account of life in Dharavi and thus challenges the common notion of slums. Written as a coherent collection of stories the book is comprehensive and consequently allows seeing the bigger picture.

Pavement Dwelling

Apna Street by Julian Crandall Hollick (2011) is an account of both pavement dwelling and women empowerment. Besides stories about pavement dwellers and how they suffer under the destructive policies of the authorities, this book contains the history of SPARC, Mahila Malan and the National Slum Dwellers’ Federation. It is the story of a small group of migrants to the city who first had no say at all and then found ways of organizing themselves into a coalition that even today transforms the lives of millions of people across the world.

Nonformal as the Dominant Mode of Urbanization

Metropolis Nonformal by Christian Werthmann and Jessica Bridger (2015) looks at the potentials of slums. It recognizes the scale of the phenomenon by stating that the nonformal will be the dominant mode of urban growth in the coming decades. The book consists of short texts explaining a range of initiatives and presenting the diversity of responses to the nonformal metropolis. The genesis of the book comes from the diverse group of people gathered at the Metropolis Nonformal symposia 2011 and 2013 at the Technical University in Munich, curated by Werthmann. Twentyfive leading thinkers contributed to the symposia. Bridger then translated the spoken word into a cohesive book. The book therefore is not the odd collection of papers but a clear and highly readable account of the state of the art.

Slum as Global Phenomenon

Planet of Slums by Mike Davis (2006) is an enquiry into the global phenomenon of slum. Besides being comprehensive in the sense that it covers all aspects and causes of slum forming, the author seems rather opinionated as not a single slum improvement project in the world receives positive recognition. Moreover, there is no end to the list of who are to blame. Simply said, Planet of Slums considers urban informal settlement a victim of capitalism and a phenomenon we should get rid of as soon as possible. Surprisingly, Mike Davis does not give  a hint on how to do that.


Boo, Katherine. 2012. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum. London: Portobello.

Davis, Mike. 2006. Planet of Slums. London: Verso.

Hollick, Julian Crandall. 2011. Apna Street. Pune: Ameya Prakashan.

De Maat, Sytse. 2016. The Perfect Slum - On the Symbiosis of People and Building. Saarbr├╝cken: Lambert Academic Publishing.

Neuwirth, Robert. 2005. Shadow Cities a Billion Squatters, a New Urban World. New York: Routledge.

Sharma, Kalpana. 2000. Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s Largest Slum. New Delhi; New York: Penguin Books.

Werthmann, Christian, and Jessica Bridger. 2015. Metropolis Nonformal. First edition. Novato, CA: Applied Research + Design Publishing c/o Oro Editions.

Wu, Rufina, and Stefan Canham, eds. 2009. Portraits from above: Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities. Hong Kong: MCCM Creations.

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