Myths about Africa: Slums are unique to poor countries

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Many news outlets when introducing Africa’s cities often explain the population size, the significance of the city and for context will often explain what proportion of Africa’s cities live in slums to give an idea to readers or viewers of wealth and income inequality.

The time slot over which people take in information is so short there is never really time to also report the role slums play in the transition from a city or town to a megacity. It is true that Africa has a lot of poor people and that many of them live in slums, but what is not often considered is that the development of slums is a previously observed by-product of urbanization.

Slums are informal settlements that lack many basic municipal services and are usually overcrowded. It’s built on land on which the occupant usually has no right over. They develop due to rapid population growth in areas where people migrate from rural to urban areas. As such, they also provide a large bulk of the low paid workers that are responsible for the growth of a city. Poor governance usually also leads to the development of slums, as not enough housing is available for the lower paid workers to live in, forcing them to create slums.

The lesson from Paris, Manchester and London is that out of slums will rise even more prosperous cities. In this article we look at how Georges-Eugène Haussmann transformed Paris under instructions from Napoleon.

Georges-Eugène Haussmann

Georges- Eugène Haussmann was a Parisian who is credited with transforming Paris. In 1848, he was a civil servant rising up the ranks when Bonaparte became president of the French Second Republic. Bonaparte felt the French capital was overcrowded and wanted it to be more like London, clean and with great beauty.

Haussmann was known as a brilliant student, with an excellent work ethic. The French Interior Minister at the time believed him perfect for the job. His previous achievements meant that he was seen as a great candidate for the job, and so he set about transforming the city.

Haussmann’s Transformation

After Haussmann got the job, he was summoned to the Emperor’s official residence, and shown the plans for the city’s transformation. It was a bold plan, with three avenues passing over some of the most densely population parts of Paris, and some of the most historic neighbourhoods as well. It was what the Emperor wanted, and so Haussmann begun to transform the city, in a 17 year time span that turned Paris into a construction site.

Haussmann knocked down around 12000 buildings in the slums that occupied the city centre, clearing space for the Opéra National de Paris, and Les Halles marketplace. The avenues linked the train stations with these places as well.

Other than this, Haussmann would also acquire one of the best collections of lampposts, benches and other items to beautify the city.

He would also have plans for work underground, installing reservoirs and aqueducts, which ensured the city would have access to clean drinking water, and thus helping to end the many outbreaks of Cholera that had plagued the city.

The streets were widened, and gas lamps and trees were installed along the avenues, making the streets safe to travel for everyone, even late at night. All new streets would come with beautiful trees and wide pavements, thus completely transforming the city’s road network.

Haussmann was extremely devoted to his task, and in his time in-charge, managed to completely transform the city, into the Paris we know today.

Reaction at the time

Haussmann may have completely transformed the city, but he faced harsh criticism at the time. The wide streets were seen as a method of oppression, as they allowed rapid deployment of the armed forces to quell any unrest or potential uprising. He was also accused of social engineering, as his plans went through many mixed areas where the poor and the rich had lived together. His works completely ripped apart the social fabric of the city, with the poor and the rich now living in very different, distant areas.

Many also felt that he had destroyed the old rustic charm of Paris, with it’s narrow streets seen by many as medieval treasures. There was also great outrage on the money spent, with many alleging that Haussmann had pocketed some of the money for himself. By 1869, the outrage was so high that the Napoleon III asked for Haussmann to resign. He refused, for he felt that resignation would mean that people would assume that he had done something wrong.

Public outrage refused to die down, however, with Victor Hugo leading the backlash against Haussmann for completely destroying the charm of the city that he loved. In the end, he was forced out of his post, and went to Italy to lift his spirits, before returning to live on a partly pension.

He felt that he was wrongly persecuted and that his great crime was to bring change to a city where people do not like change.

Lasting Impact

Many of Haussmann’s greatest critics would change their mind, and today he is remembered as the man who truly transformed Paris. Before him, ordinary Parisians were miserable, living in a city with regular outbreaks of disease, in overcrowded conditions with no real beauty. One of his harshest critics, Jules Simon would observe that he made Paris a magnificent city, introducing flowers and beautiful statues and making Paris one of the greatest capitals in the world

People from other countries were astonished at the time by the transformation of Paris, with Queen Victoria particularly surprised at the changes that had happened in such a short amount of time. He was hailed as a genius, and the first urban developer that the modern world would see.


Paris was once filled with slums, with many of its workers living within them. It took Haussmann a large amount of money to develop the city and to turn it into one of the great modern cities, with his wide avenues and iron balconies still seen as the iconic model of the French Capital. It shows that slums are not just unique to poor countries, and that out of these slums, the great megacities came into being.

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Myths about Africa: Slums are unique to poor countries

by Editorial Team time to read: 4 min