Characteristics of Low Income Areas in Urban Settings

It is important to emphasise that low income areas, including urban slums, differ markedly from each other. Whereas some areas are characterised by their high population mobility, high crime levels and a lack of social cohesion, others can be described as relatively harmonious, safe and stable. The (long) list of characteristics of urban low income areas, therefore, should be regarded as an attempt to present the main features that set these urban areas apart from rural settings and from the middle and high income urban areas:


1. Population, Layout and Infrastructure

  • Often high population densities.

  • Many low income areas have not been constructed according to a proper layout plan.

  • Plots usually accommodate more than one household (in some informal urban areas a single plot can accommodate up to 35 households).

  • Most low income areas are located on marginalised land (areas with a high water table or situated on top of hills, etc.).

  • Most low income areas have poor infrastructure (e.g. roads, drainage) and services (e.g. solid waste collection).

  • Large urban slums are made up of several “villages”.

  • Most urban slums are ethnically mixed.

  • Villages within urban slums often have a more ethically uniform population.


2. Land Ownership

  • Many residents lack security of tenure.

  • The areas are either planned or unplanned. Planned (formal) low income areas are mostly found on Government or Council Land.

  • Many residents are renting their accommodation.

  • Many tenants live in flats which they share with other tenants. Quite often the landlord also resides on the plot.

  • Landowners often lack the financial resources to construct proper houses and to invest in proper water supply and sanitation.

  • Land is object of speculation of power-brokers, who are, in many cases, not really interested in developing it.

  • Obtaining land for the construction of WSS infrastructure (such as water kiosks and public sanitation facilities) is usually a challenge.

  • Most of these settlements are on marginalized land (flood prone, steep hills, etc.)

  • Land tenure patterns in urban low income areas differ from region to region:

    • Communal land in North Eastern Kenya.
    • Private land in Western Kenya (e.g. Kisumu).
    • Council and Government land in Nairobi.


3. Type of Housing

  • Housing in informal settlements can either be permanent or temporal.  
  • The quality of housing often depends on the land tenure. Residents who own the land they occupy tend to put up permanent structures whilst residents who do not own the land tend to put up temporal structures. In Kisumu, for example, a large proportion of residents living in low income areas have title deeds which explains why these areas tend to have a mixture of permanent and temporary houses. Low income areas in Kisumu are either found on privately owned land, Trust Land, or on land owned by the Council. In rural towns some settlements are located on Trust Land but further investigations often reveal that titles to the land (Trust Land) have been issued to other people without the knowledge of the current occupants. (Source: MajiData).


4. Water Supply and Sanitation

  • Areas lack or have limited access to basic services such as safe water and sanitation.

  • The existing infrastructure is usually in poor technical condition, not user-friendly and poorly managed.

  • Where water supply and sanitation (WSS) services are available they are usually shared. Residents use public stand pipes and shared ablution blocks.

  • In areas with very high population densities using flying toilets is a common practice.

  • Residents rely on informal water and sanitation service providers (water resellers).

  • The price residents have to pay for water is not regulated.

  • The quality of water fetched from sources within the area (boreholes, protected open wells (etc.)) is poor.

  • Lack of space (due to poor planning and high population densities) needed for the provision of basic infrastructure/services such as roads, safe water, adequate sanitation, drainage and solid waste management. (Source: MajiData).


5. Socio-economic Situation

  • Most residents (but not all residents) have low income levels.

  • Unemployment levels and youth unemployment levels in particular, are high.

  • Many residents are active in the informal sector of the local economy and derive an income from small-scale businesses, trade and casual labour (piece work).

  • Residents in formal employment are mainly Government or Council employees, shop attendants, security guards, drivers, (etc.) with low incomes.

  • Many urban slums are characterised by a marked pattern of economic differentiation. Although many residents can only be described as being poor or very poor, the area also may have a class of more well-to-do local entrepreneurs, landlords, etc.

  • High teenage pregnancy levels.

  • High levels of alcohol and drug abuse.

  • High levels of domestic violence (some areas).

  • Crime levels (robberies, theft, vandalism, etc.) are high (some areas).

  • Residents lack information on many relevant issues and as a result many do not know their rights. (Source: MajiData).


6. Community Characteristics

  • Low income areas often lack social cohesion. This can often be attributed to the mobility of their residents. In informal settlements social cohesion tends to be higher than in planned low income settlements.

  • Community participation in low income areas is often lacking.

  • Strong presence, in some urban low income areas of civil society organizations and registered groups. (Source: MajiData).