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Designed to Help: Innovation within Urban Slums

By Taylor Hom

On Halloween, the United Nations Population Division reported the world’s population had reached seven billion. But as global population soars, many governments and communities struggle to accommodate rapid urban growth. People flock to cities as refugees of conflict, victims of natural disasters, or seekers of job opportunities. In 2008, for the first time in world history, more people lived in cities than in rural areas, and today, nearly one billion live in urban slums with that number projected to double by 2030. 

The exhibit “Design with the other 90%: Cities” located at the United Nations and hosted by The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, features designers around the world who act as socially responsible pioneers. The exhibit shows 60 projects that offer a glimpse into the imaginative efforts transforming the homes of the urban poor into healthy, vibrant communities. 

“Designer” is a broad term to encompass the architects, local community members, activists, and non-profit organizations all working to address the demands of these informal settlements, or “slum households.” From the Favela Painting Project that employs local youths to paint murals throughout an impoverished settlement in Brazil to trash-fueled community cookers that stave off disease and pollution in Nairobi, Kenya, these designers work with communities to create inventive solutions to the problems facing the urban poor. These designs are not simply western developments dropped into foreign and underdeveloped cities, rather the projects are products of the environment they seek to change. The projects empower the over-looked residents of urban slums, hopefully sparking a push for progress that can lead to future development. 

“Creativity–of the type so stunningly represented here–is desperately needed to augment and maximize scarce government resources which often fall short of the needs of the world’s urban poor,” says Bill Bohnett member of the Smithsonian Institute national board and adviser to the World Policy Institute. 

One project called “Floating Community Lifeboats” features designer Mohammed Rezwan, an architect who developed floating schools, libraries, and health clinics for the over 90,000 families in Bangladesh. With the country projected to lose 17 percent of its land by 2050 to flooding, nearly six million people could lose their homes in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta alone. Instead of constructing buildings in the lowland areas that could soon be underwater, Rezwan designed floating institutions that could move to communities throughout the country. His finished product is remarkable. Intricately designed to incorporate “a metal truss to allow for column-free open spaces, flexible wooden floors, higher ceilings, and waterproof roofs” the residents can charge computers lights, phones, and medical equipment through a roof outfitted with solar photovoltaic panels. 

“Cynthia Smith, the exhibit curator, is the Smithsonian’s first and only curator of socially responsible design. She has combed the world for the last two years working with local activists designers,” says Bohnett. 


And Smith has discovered leading pioneers around the world that transform the world’s urban poor step by step, settlement by settlement. In the project “28 Millimeters: Women Are Heroes” urban activist JR, a hybrid photographer and graffiti artist or photograffeur,” transformed the slums of Kibera, Kenya into a stunning mosaic of its communities women. JR collaborated with the women of Kibera to cover the roofs, trains, and walls of the community with giant, water-resistant vinyl photos that protect the homes underneath. The images cover 2,000 square meters of metal rooftop and are visible from GoogleEarth, bringing attention to the African women that too often remain the community’s invisible assets. 

The previously downtrodden community that surrounded the polluted Bang Bua Canal in Thailand, now boasts a incredible line of carefully structured and efficient houses that contour the canal shore. Residents of Bang Bau started a community dialogue to address the dangers of the stilt houses along the polluted canals. They met to plan budgets, reconstruct new houses and facilities with architects from a neighboring university, and negotiate a 30-year renewable lease on the publicly owned land. Now, not only is the canal now surrounded by an attractive walkway, the community has unified socially within their freshly planned urban neighborhood. Empowered, they have continued to work together to establish a welfare fund to pay the school fees of children in poor families.

The 60 cutting-edge visions in the fields of transportation, art, sanitation, housing, and technology have already begun to redefine urban slums around the world. Fluorescent cities and floating houseboat metropolises may seem futuristic, but these projects are practical, scalable, and transferable. They are not designs for the one billion people living in slums, but they are designs done with the community. 

Entrance to “Design with the other 90%: Cities” is free and on display at the United Nations located on 46th Street & First Ave. It will be on display until January 9, 2012. 



Taylor Hom is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal

[Photos courtesy of]


Anonymous's picture
community collaborations

Thank you for this article. I find the seamless collaboration between professional developers, and those who live and work in the communities described to be essential in producing work that will create change in communities. I love the ideas presented here and will definitely make the trip over to see the exhibit for myself.
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