A commons perspective on urban informal settlements : a study of Kallyanpur slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (2020)
Type of ContentTheses / Dissertations
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
PublisherUniversity of Canterbury
This research aims to reimagine urban informal settlements beyond the existing hegemonic understanding of slums, currently imagined through the tropes of ‘dysfunction’ and ‘disorder’. Contemporary writing about slums mostly highlight the material aspects of slums and the ‘poor’ living conditions of the slum dwellers, which have contributed further to their discursive marginalisation instead of improving the living situations of millions of people living in them worldwide. The conceptualisation of slums in this hegemonic line of thinking is influenced by the colonial legacy of viewing informality as the ‘problem’ of Global South cities. Planning and policy interventions aimed at improving the living conditions of slum dwellers are focused on housing and shelter, as if slums emerge to serve only the sole residential purpose of the slum dwellers. In this context, I adopt the concept of ‘commons’ in this research to bring a new perspective in the conceptualisation of slums. I take a case study slum, known as Kalyanpur slum, in Dhaka, Bangladesh and apply a commons framework. By exploring how the socio-spatial aspects of commoning are expressed by the slum dwellers through the negotiation of access, use, benefit, care and responsibility about the slum, I intend to dismantle some of the presumptions about urban informal settlements.
The results suggest that a purely housing and shelter-based understanding of slums is not adequate to capture the dynamism of such unique settlements. The slum is not just a readily found ‘physical resource’, subject only to the consumption of the slum dwellers, but constructed through the active, careful and strategic actions of the slum dwellers. The slum community is not a homogenous group of ‘poor’ people who lack what it takes to be socio-economically productive but a heterogeneous group of commoners who come together to transform a piece of land into a functional living space. What limits the ability of these commoners to improve their living conditions is not the lack of material resources but an enabling environment in which their commoning practices can thrive. The dilemma around the legality of slums hinders the socio-economic wellbeing of the slum dwellers making the slum space highly contested. However, a commons analysis also sheds light on the legal dilemma around slums arguing that an ownership-based understanding of property is not adequate when it comes to conceptualising a commons such as Kalyanpur slum. Ownership is important, but not necessarily a pre-requisite for a commons to operate. Instead, authorities and urban professionals can contribute to creating the necessary enabling environment for the commoners by recognising commons as a form of property that emerges from the locally-grounded property relations. The socio-spatial analysis offered in this research can help urban professionals in their efforts to understand these locally-evolved property relations and put in place necessary services that would improve the living condition of the slum dwellers instead of intensifying the marginalisation and inequality.
Therefore, this research demonstrates through the case study of Kalyanpur slum that a commons perspective on urban informal settlements can bring new insights about complex urban settings such as slums. These insights not only help us to reimagine slums beyond the narrow and simplistic conceptualisation of informal settlements, but also contribute to evolving theories of urban commons. Kalyanpur slum is a commons that is different from many other natural resource commons or urban commons in how its socio-spatialities are manifested. By combining a social and spatial approach, this research also contributes to the methodological aspects of commons analysis. Therefore, this research actively contributes to the production of knowledge about informal settlements and urban commons.