Squatter Settlements

The year 2007 marked a foundational and transformative shift in the Earth's population. For the first time in human history, more people were living in urban areas than in rural areas.1

Squatter Settlements Squatter Settlements

Create learning materials about Squatter Settlements with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    Population growth and urbanization have fueled the expansion of urban cities across the world. Cities can offer the promise of employment, education, increased opportunities, and so much more. However, without ample time to reorganize spatially and institutionally, urban cities are faced with the challenges of housing and caring for a growing population.

    Squatter settlements form as a means of coping with a lack of affordable housing in growing cities. Read on to learn about the causes and effects of squatter settlements and how improvements in urban planning are being employed to address this phenomenon.

    Definition of Squatter Settlements

    The United Nations estimates that over 10% of the world's population (that's over 1 billion people) lives in slums or squatter settlements.2 Squatter settlements form in response to limitations in affordable housing and employment in cities. While these informal settlements provide housing to those in need, they often do not offer optimal living conditions.

    Squatter settlements are areas of housing, usually located on the peripheries of megacities, where residents do not have the legal right to occupy the land they live on.

    Squatter settlements are one broad consequence of rural-to-urban migration and population growth, and they have come with many social, political, economic, and environmental effects within cities.

    Squatter Settlements hillside settlement in Caracas StudySmarterFig. 1 - A densely populated squatter settlement located on a hillside in Caracas, Venezuela.

    Squatter Settlements Location

    Squatter settlements are generally located on the peripheries of megacities in developing countries. With a lack of affordable housing in the city center, squatters are often forced to settle on the edges of cities where zoning laws and building codes are not enforced.

    Depending on the physical geography and spatial organization of a city, squatter settlements can be found in areas of undesirable land or areas where there is unclear land ownership. Common settlement locations include lands that are prone to natural disasters like steep hillsides and floodplains, as well as zones of abandonment and industrial centers.

    Squatter Settlements map of squatter settlement locations StudySmarterFig. 2 - This map reveals the percent of urban populations living in squatter settlements. Notice how countries with higher proportions are concentrated within developing countries of the Global South.

    Characteristics of Squatter Settlements

    Squatter settlements are marked by poor living conditions that arise from their undesirable locations, lack of legal protections, and lack of access to basic infrastructure and services.


    Infrastructure is characteristically insufficient within squatter settlements. Housing tends to be constructed with materials that are not fit for long-term use, making homes more prone to destruction during bad weather or natural disaster events. Because squatter settlements are often not located within city limits, access to essential city infrastructures like electricity, plumbing, and public transportation can be limited.

    Without a formal address, paved streets, lighting, and other basic amenities, squatter residents must adapt to unsafe living conditions. Services like police and fire protection are also lacking, and groups living within these settlements are tasked with organizing these services themselves.

    Squatter settlements can have varying degrees of organization and infrastructure development. For example, some informal settlements outside the city of Rio de Janero have electricity, plumbing, police forces, and even art galleries. These services have been established by residents and outside groups such as NGOs, but they still lack land rights and access to some basic government services.


    Squatter settlements are occupied by residents who often work as cheap laborers in unsafe working conditions or who are unemployed. Impoverished residents also have minimal political influence or representation, making improvements in basic living conditions difficult to achieve.

    Population density is high in these settlements, as available land is often limited. The lack of plumbing or sewage infrastructure within homes means that there is little access to clean drinking water, and waste from sewage can quickly become a threat to human health.

    High population density paired with a lack of sanitization infrastructure threaten human health by increased exposure to and spread of pathogens. This threat is exacerbated by a lack of available healthcare, as well as the increased distance to healthcare infrastructure like hospitals and clinics within the city.

    Causes of Squatter Settlements

    The primary causes of squatter settlements are population growth in urban cities and lack of affordable housing.

    City populations have been growing largely due to rural-to-urban migration. Rural farmers, workers, and their families move to cities searching for better employment and educational opportunities. Rural-to-urban migration is a world-wide phenomenon, and this mass migration into urban cities often occurs too quickly for housing demands to be met.

    Ineffective governance can contribute to a high unemployment rate in urban cities, especially when population growth outpaces the growth of industries in the city. Limited employment opportunities and a lack of affordable housing contribute to perpetuating poverty and pushing people out to settle at the periphery of the city.

    There on the outskirts and in areas of undesirable land, city laws are often not enforced, and this opens the door for squatter settlements to take root. Out of necessity, residents construct homes and build communities outside the view of law enforcement. While a lack of law enforcement means that settlers can remain on the land temporarily, it also means that there are few resources they can rely on when in need of legal protection.

    Effects of Squatter Settlements

    Exposure to human and animal waste, unclean water, and high crime rates all directly contribute to high mortality rates in squatter settlements. Women are particularly at risk, as sexual violence is often prevalent in settlements with high unemployment and where drug and alcohol abuse are issues. Lack of access to education can further exacerbate these issues.

    Squatter settlements also increase the availability of cheap labor, and nearby industries often take advantage of this labor supply. Moreover, many unemployed residents choose to take on roles within the settlement. To compensate for the lack of services provided by governments, gangs can form to control and police the population, which can further increase crime rates. Other essential services like washing clothes, preparing food, and childcare are often provided by women in the community.

    Squatter settlements also bring about many environmental effects like deforestation and loss of soil on steep slopes. Not only does this degrade the environment, but it also puts residents at risk of dangerous landslides. In addition, solid and liquid wastes become water pollutants, and a lack of clean burning fuels contributes to reduced air quality.

    Squatter Settlements Examples

    Squatter settlements underline the necessity for governments, international institutes, and NGOs to adapt urban planning to the demands of growing cities. Improvements in squatter settlements are often focused on developing water and sanitation infrastructure. Other common goals are improving building conditions, access to education, political representation, and the addition of streetlights for safety.


    Kibera, located in Nairobi, Kenya, is Africa's largest squatter settlement. Some estimates of the neighborhood's population are over one million inhabitants. While you won't find fresh running water from the tap here, recent water infrastructure projects have increased residents' access to clean drinking water.

    Squatter Settlements Kibera settlement in Nairobi StudySmarterFig. 3 - Kibera, like many squatter settlements has unpaved streets without street lighting for safety.

    The nearby Nairobi Dam, polluted with waste from the settlement, was once the primary source of water for Kibera's community3. Cholera and typhoid from contaminated drinking water were a constant issue. Above-ground water pipes have since been installed, with several water collection sites stationed around the settlement.

    Most investment in Kibera's infrastructure, including the pipelines, comes from outside agencies. This squatter settlement example highlights the role of NGOs and international organizations in compensating for inadequate government services.


    Dharavi is a squatter settlement on the northern edge of Mumbai in India, and it's thought to have the highest population density in the world. Over one million people call this area of less than one square mile home. The high concentration of residents in such a limited space results in constant issues of sanitation, human health, and crime.

    Squatter Settlements Dharavi polluted waterway with rubbish in water StudySmarterFig. 4 - A polluted waterway in Dharavi.

    The Slum Rehabilitation Act (SRA) was implemented in Mumbai in 1995 to address these concerns4. It aimed to rehouse Dharavi residents in newly built apartments, funded by repurposing a portion of the settlement's land to be sold as high-end housing. Nearly 30 years later, little has come from the project. This attempt at humanitarian urban planning was largely overshadowed by the misuse of funds by those with political power.

    Many of the residents voiced opposition to the SRA's original plans, and critics point out the necessity of residents' participation in decision-making4. Progress has been made in improving the quality of life in Dharavi, and much of this urban development can be attributed to residents as well as agencies that work more closely with the community.

    Squatter Settlements - Key takeaways

    • Squatter settlements form in response to limited supplies of affordable housing and employment opportunities in cities.
    • Squatter settlements are usually located on the peripheries of megacities in developing countries.
    • Population growth from rural-to-urban migration is a common underlying cause in the formation of squatter settlements.
    • The effects of squatter settlements include high mortality rates, high crime rates, unsafe living conditions, and pollution.
    • Improvements in infrastructure and government services are necessary to address deficient development in squatter settlements.


    1. North Carolina State University. "Mayday 23: World Population Becomes More Urban Than Rural." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 May 2007. (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/05/070525000642.htm)
    2. United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD). "Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities". 2018. (https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2019/goal-11/)
    3. WeAreWater. "Kibera, the slum as a symptom". 25 May 2021. (https://www.wearewater.org/en/kibera-the-slum-as-a-symptom_340571)
    4. Hepzi Anthony. "27 years on, Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) has failed to deliver". Citizen Matters. 31 August 2022 (https://mumbai.citizenmatters.in/mumbai-sra-slum-rehabilitation-authority-schemes-36432)
    5. Figure 2: Global Map of Squatter Settlements (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Urban_population_in_slums.png) by Ly.n0m (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Ly.n0m) licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
    6. Figure 3: Kibera Settlement (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kibera_slum,_Nairobi_(17666373749).jpg) by Ninara (https://www.flickr.com/people/37583176@N00) licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
    7. Figure 4: Dharavi Waterway (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mumbai_03-2016_52_Dharavi_near_Mahim_Junction.jpg) by Alexander Savin (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:A.Savin) licensed by Free Art License 1.3 (http://artlibre.org/licence/lal/en/)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Squatter Settlements

    What is a squatter settlement?

    Squatter settlements are areas of housing, usually located on the peripheries of megacities, where residents do not have the legal right to occupy the land.

    What are the main characteristics of a squatter settlement?

    Squatter settlements are located on the edges of megacities or within areas of undesirable land, and they are marked by their poor infrastructure and lack of government services.

    Where are squatter settlements located?

    Squatter settlements are usually located on the peripheries of megacities in developing countries. They are often built on undesirable land with unclear ownership, such as on steep hillsides, areas of flooding, industrial centers, or zones of abandonment. 

    Why do squatter settlements form?

    Squatter settlements form due to population growth in megacities, often caused by rural-to-urban migration. When affordable housing demands and unemployment rates are high in cities, squatter settlements may form in response.

    How can squatter settlements be improved?

    Squatter settlements can be improved with increased access to government services like education, police, and public transportation. Improvements in infrastructure are key and include establishing access to clean drinking water and waste disposal. 

    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Squatter Settlements Teachers

    • 10 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App