Beautiful and Devastating Rooftop Slums

Rooftop slums in Hong KongPhoto:
Image: Stefan Canham via daily tonic

When seeing pictures of rooftop slums for the first time, viewers’ reactions are split: Some are appalled that slums even exist in “their” city; others have a eureka-moment and see structured rooftop dwellings as an answer to the pressing housing crisis. The following pictures show that rooftop settlements are not a new phenomenon but rather a well kept secret in many cities; maybe yours?

The United Nation’s agency “for a better urban future,” UN-Habitat, estimates that currently, 50% of the world population lives in cities and that within two decades, urban growth will push this number up to 60%. In fact, in the developing world, cities gain an average of five million residents every month!

Razed rooftop slum in Hong KongPhoto:
Image: Stefan Canham

Cities like Hong Kong and Phnom Penh, constantly scrounging for space, have had them for decades: Rooftop slums, illegal settlements on top of regular residential or abandoned buildings. The former buildings tend to be safer than the latter, where drug use and criminal activity make them unsafe for the rooftop inhabitants.

According to UN-Habitat, a slum is defined as “run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing and squalor and lacking in tenure security.” Unlike a ghetto, a slum is not segregated along racial or ethnic lines but in contrast, is a melting pot of different cultures and religions united by poverty.

A “traditional” slum – Dharavi in Mumbai:
Dharavi in MumbaiPhoto:
Image: Jonas Bendiksen

Rooftop slums, though lofty and therefore privy to better air and maybe a cool breeze, share one thing with the settlements on the ground: a general lack of sanitation, clean water, electricity and other basic services. In appearance, these makeshift settlements with plastic and metal sheets as roofs and walls look like regular surface slums, yet they are tucked away from the public’s eye. Well, at least until recently when a Canadian architect and a German photographer – Rufina Wu and Stefan Canham – spent three months in Hong Kong to document five of these rooftop communities exhaustively.

One of Hong Kong’s now famous rooftop slums:
Hong KongPhoto:
Image: Stefan Canham

Wu’s architectural drawings and Canham’s photographs were published in their 280-page book, “Portraits from Above: Hong Kong’s Informal Rooftop Communities” (Peperoni Press, 2008). Rufina Wu’s background helped when talking to local rooftop inhabitants in Cantonese – her family emigrated from Hong Kong to Canada – so that despite not having any contacts, the authors gained access to some of these rooftop families. The results are published in the book in the form of short interviews with the inhabitants. From the authors’ foreword about “going up” for the first time:

“There’s no elevator. We climb up eight flights of stairs, hesitating the last few steps, looking at each other, out of breath: what’s our right to be here? The roof is a labyrinth of corridors, narrow alleys between steel huts, wood, bricks and plastic. Steps and ladders lead up to a second floor full of huts. We get lost. Armed with our leaflets, Rufina knocks on a door. A brief conversation in Cantonese. Stefan is in the background, the foreigner who smiles and doesn’t understand a single word. They listen to us, smiling as well, and then ask us to come into their house.”

These informal rooftop settlements have been an integral part of Hong Kong for more than 50 years. China’s political turmoil and the Cultural Revolution sent millions of refugees into a city where up is the only way to go if one wants to build anything, especially living space.

Inside one of Hong Kong’s rooftop dwellings:
Inside rooftop slumPhoto:
Image via Lisa Soup

The situation in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is similar. The majority of the rooftop dwellers came as Cambodian refugees from Thailand in the early 90’s and have been in their lofty dwellings ever since. In 2003, the biggest of the rooftop settlements caught fire and caused an investigation into the settlements’ safety.

The municipal government finally decided that the rooftop slums could stay if they took fire safety precautions and built only light structures. Says Sar Bamnang, deputy director of the Municipal Department of Land Management: “Of course, we are very concerned about the health and safety of this group…. But our obstacle to resolving these issues is funds. We just don’t have enough funds to find another place for them to build houses.”

Abandoned, yet lived in – an urban dwelling in Phnom Penh:
Slum in Phnom PenhPhoto:
Image via tumnei

This might explain why the rooftop dwellers got permission to remain where they are in the first place. Nobody wants thousands of people descending on already crowded city streets. At least this way, they are out of everyone’s way (and sight).

For those worried about this out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach, the Kibera slum, one of Nairobi’s largest, has an answer: huge, weather resistant posters of the slum’s residents pasted on top of the shanty roofs that can be seen even from Space. Is that giving poverty enough visibility?

French artist JR covered 2,000 sq m of rooftops with the eyes and faces of the women of Kibera:
Kibera slum in Nairobi by artist JRPhoto:
Image via Wooster Collective

In an ideal world, rooftop housing could be a great solution: If all the maids, drivers, cleaners and other domestic help lived right where they were needed, on top of their employers’ houses, millions wouldn’t need to commute to their places of work anymore either, therefore decongesting public transport. In addition, if a housing society could not provide adequate housing for the staff employed, the society members would have to find a solution together with the people they were planning to employ. If this can be done in congested cities for cars and parking spaces – no new car if you can’t park it somewhere off the street – then why not for human life?

If we put our mind to it, slums can be improved a lot – here artist JR’s suggestion:
kibera slumPhoto:
Image via Alexis Okeowo

After all, this idea is by no means new. Just think of a city like Paris, for example, where all the big apartment buildings have servants’ quarters tucked away under the roof. Tiny as the rooms may be, at least they are safe, provide protection from the elements and have running water. And the look of the city is not spoiled either – something to think about.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6