In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Squatter Settlements

  • Introduction
  • Squatter Settlements, Urbanization, and Development
  • Social Organization
  • Politics
  • Tenure Security and Housing Markets
  • Autoconstruction and Informal Built Environments
  • Urban Squatting in the West
  • What to Do about Squatter Settlements? Policy Approaches and Debates
  • Online Resources and Data Sources

Urban Studies Squatter Settlements
Shahana Chattaraj
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0007


Squatter settlements, widespread in urban Africa, Latin America, and South and Southeast Asia, are a characteristic feature of contemporary urbanization. Also known as shantytowns, slums, favelas in Brazil, and bustees in South Asia, they involve the extralegal occupation and settlement of public or private land, often by migrants from rural areas. Unplanned and typically located on peripheral or marginal land, squatter settlements have poor infrastructure and inadequate public services, including water, health, and sanitation. Houses tend to be auto-constructed and built incrementally. Residents of squatter settlements generally lack legally recognized rights to the land they occupy, and may lead precarious lives. The majority work in the informal economy, in insecure, low-wage jobs or are self-employed. State policies in many countries, seeking to curb a migrant influx to big cities, criminalize land encroachment but fail to address the housing needs of the urban poor. Squatter settlements may be demolished in slum clearance programs. Nonetheless, many such settlements endure and grow, over time acquiring public services and rights. Well-known slums like Mumbai’s Dharavi, Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro, and Nairobi’s Kibera are populous, established, and diverse cities within cities. They are both celebrated and deplored in popular and academic accounts, as symbols of human resilience and entrepreneurship, or products of uneven development and global and national inequities. Early literature on squatter settlements located their growth in the distorted urbanization of what was known as the Third World, divorced from industrial modernization. Squatters were considered economically marginal, akin to peasants rather than “modern” urban citizens. Ethnographic and empirical research complicated these perspectives, providing insight into the lived experience and social, economic, and political organization of squatter settlements. Slums began to be viewed as solutions to challenges of housing, livelihoods, and economic growth. “Self-build” housing was celebrated, as was small-scale entrepreneurship. In-situ improvement and tenure legalization became preferred policy approaches. Later, critical urban theorists rejected notions of “underdevelopment” and development and argued that informal processes such as squatting were integral to urbanization in the Global South. As the world urbanizes, with population growth concentrated in developing world cities, slums have reemerged as sites for social-scientific inquiry. Debates about their relationship to growth and development, their viability as communities and living environments, and about policy approaches and outcomes continue to animate the literature. These debates reflect the fact that squatter settlements across the world, and even within cities, are heterogeneous and dynamic, within varied histories and trajectories.

Squatter Settlements, Urbanization, and Development

This section includes literature from the mid-20th century, when squatter settlement growth in Latin America attracted the attention of development experts, to contemporary debates on global slums. Davis 1965 argues that urban growth in “underdeveloped” countries diverged from historical urbanization in the industrialized West, with “overpopulation” creating blighted shantytowns. Roberts 1978 and Gilbert and Gugler 1982 explain squatter settlements as an outgrowth of “dependent” patterns of development in peripheral regions. Unequally incorporated into the world capitalist system, their cities were extractive rather than industrial centers. Unlike the industrial working class in Western cities, squatters and informal workers were assumed to be economically and politically marginal. Their settlements, unsanctioned, self-developed, and makeshift, were distinct from industrial-era slums and poor urban neighborhoods in Western cities. Mangin 1967 challenges these perspectives arguing that Latin American squatter settlements were unique sociopolitical formations that contribute to urbanization and development. Gilbert and Crankshaw 1999 suggests that Latin American urbanization offers lessons for South Africa. Hardoy and Satterthwaite 1989 argues that squatters are builders and planners of cities. The pivotal book de Soto 2000 proposes that squatters and small entrepreneurs hold the key to economic development, if given legal property rights that will enable them to “capitalize” land and housing and grow their enterprises. Critiques of de Soto’s arguments are provided in Tenure Security and Housing Markets. His policy influence is discussed in What to Do about Squatter Settlements? Policy Approaches and Debates. Davis 2006 counters optimistic accounts of slums as places of entrepreneurship and mobility, arguing that the global “slum” explosion is a result of increasing inequality and impoverishment under “neoliberal” economic policies. Glaeser 2011, in contrast, proposes that even the “worst” squatter settlements offer more economic opportunity than rural homelands. Montgomery, et al. 2003 reviews literature and data on the global urban transition to present a more sobering account—health outcomes in African squatter settlements, for instance, may be worse than in rural areas.

  • Davis, Kingsley. “The Urbanization of the Human Population.” Scientific American 213.3 (1965): 40–53.

    DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican0965-40

    Essay by social demographer charts global urbanization and contrasts urbanization in “underdeveloped” countries with industrialized West. Davis argues that rapid urban growth in these regions is unhinged from industrial development, driven by natural population increase rather than rural urban migrations. Squatter settlements of “ragged peasants” are viewed as characteristic of Third World urbanization, a product of overpopulation and underdevelopment.

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

    Popular polemic by Marxist social critic explains the growth of slums across the world as a result of “neoliberal” global capitalism, which concentrates wealth and increases inequality. Economic restructuring policies “dispossess” the poor of resources and economic opportunities, leading to an “explosion” of slums and squatter settlements. Countering optimistic accounts of slums as places of entrepreneurship and mobility, Davis highlights the destitution, insecurity, violence, and discrimination slum dwellers face.

  • de Soto, Hernando. The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

    Peruvian economist de Soto argues that inadequate property rights institutions explain failures of capitalist development outside the West, rather than cultural differences or lack of entrepreneurship. Without legally protected property rights, the urban poor are unable to “capitalize” their land and housing assets to access finance, and invest and expand businesses. De Soto calls for formalizing land tenure systems and providing freehold property titles to squatters and slum households.

  • Gilbert, Alan, and Owen Crankshaw. “Comparing South African and Latin American Experience: Migration and Housing Mobility in Soweto.” Urban Studies 36.13 (1999): 2375–2400.

    DOI: 10.1080/0042098992476

    Authors suggest that Latin American experience offers lessons for South Africa, as urban migration becomes permanent rather than circular. Comparing migrant residential patterns in Johannesburg with Latin American cities, they find that apartheid rules and policies shape and constrain housing options and mobility, with less scope for self-developed squatter settlements. Such settlements increased in Johannesburg following policy changes in 1985, but were less likely to be consolidated and improved than in Latin America. As apartheid racial barriers are dismantled, residential segregation and inequity in housing access and quality are likely to endure, hinging on class and income differentials.

  • Gilbert, Alan, and Josef Gugler. Cities, Poverty and Development: Urbanization in the Third World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

    Wide-ranging account of Third World urbanization in the context of a “world” system of uneven capitalist development, with a wealthy First World core and “dependent” peripheries. Squatter settlements emerge in this context, in countries where industrial growth is retarded, and jobs limited. Chapters discuss regional disparities, rural-urban migration, labor markets and informal employment, squatting as a popular housing strategy, planning, and policy solutions.

  • Glaeser, Edward. “What’s Good about Slums?” In The Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. New York: Penguin, 2011.

    US economist Ed Glaeser, in his book championing cities, finds value in slums and squatter settlements. Urban poverty, Glaeser holds, is inherently better than rural poverty for households and countries. Even the “worst” slums in the most impoverished cities, notwithstanding degraded and unsanitary living conditions, offer better job opportunities, access to education and health, and prospects for social mobility than rural areas.

  • Hardoy, Jorge, and David Satterthwaite. Squatter Citizen: Life in the Urban Third World. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Earthscan, 1989.

    The authors, development practitioners and urban poverty experts, foreground the experiences and practices of squatters and argue that the urban poor are builders and planners of cities. They discuss how land invasions are organized and settlements defended and improved, situating these processes within the dynamics of urban change and transition in developing regions.

  • Mangin, William. “Latin American Squatter Settlements: A Problem and a Solution.” Latin American Research Review 2.3 (1967): 65–98.

    Mangin challenges misperceptions about Latin American squatter settlements that reflect both anti-city and anti-rural biases. The essay discusses economic and social conditions, culture, political organization, and mobilization to establish and defend settlements. Mangin argues that squatter settlements constitute a unique community formation that contributes to city development the world over. Policies should rehabilitate existing settlements and provide land and services to incoming migrants.

  • Montgomery, Mark, Richard Stren, Barney Cohen, and Holly Reed. Cities Transformed: Demographic Change and Its Implications in the Developing World. Washington, DC: National Academies, 2003.

    Comprehensive report on urban transition in the developing world by leading demographers who note that global population growth in coming decades will be concentrated in cities and towns in poorer countries. Chapter on Diversity and Inequality discusses slums and squatter settlements, urban poverty, and spatial inequalities, while chapters on urban fertility, health, and work also focus on the urban poor. An updated edition was published in 2013.

  • Roberts, Bryan. Cities of Peasants: The Political Economy of Urbanization in the Third World. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE, 1978.

    Sociological study of Latin American urbanization argues urban squatting and the “dual” economy are caused by “dependent” development trajectories and structural inequalities in Latin American countries, rather than overpopulation. Marginalizing “oppressed” classes in squatter settlements and small-scale informal production is useful for populist authoritarian states, reducing costs for elites or “dominant” classes and stifling working-class mobilization.

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