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  • Alice Hsieh

The Hidden Favelas of London

Updated: May 1

To impress my friend and his mates, who were visiting the UK for the first time from Brazil, I took them to Soho, central London. But, in truth, I didn't know where to stop for food and drink, and the sightseeing had already become tiring. We soon fell into a tourist trap - I led them to an Irish-themed pub chain.

The music was loud, so we had to shout at each other in an attempt to catch up on all those years since we left university. My friend insisted on saying 'London has favelas* too' as was his very clever finding. He swore he saw some shanty constructions and said that the UK sells the image as a developed country, but it is just a façade.

- But where did you see the favelas?

I was offended. Even as a Brazilian, the more I live in this country, the more I feel I should defend it. But surely, my friend was mistaken. Through my architect's eye, I've never seen any settlement which could be classified as a slum.

- João, maybe you just saw some garden sheds.

He shook his head; he looked sure. I explained that a simple timber favela-like construction wouldn't protect people from the harsh British winter. Nobody would survive here living in enclosures made up of single wooden or metal panels, different from the Brazilian tropical climate where people enjoy mild temperatures all year round. Therefore, favelas do not exist here.

I am still unsure what he saw today that made up his mind. I regret not explaining to him what an allotment is. That could be what he spotted on the train rides – something not unusual in London's suburban landscape. When Brazilians have never been to this country before, they can easily confuse sheds' agglomeration with slums – something common in South American cityscapes.

Despite planning authority** in England being inconsistently stringent, it will never allow illegal shanty constructions to extend to the point that tourists can see. There are unlawful house extensions in London, but they are generally hidden at the rear of the house and never as alone standing. What sprung to my mind was that London is full of people living in 'bad' housing, which is similar to the favelas' intent. Many people occupy such substandard accommodation in overcrowded households that living in a place with, as we called, a 'Living Room' is considered lucky. According to the Guardian (30 Sep 2020 - link), 'Nine out of 10 shared houses don't have a living room'. The slum is out there but inside of the houses and flats.

Considering that poverty is relative and not absolute, poverty in advanced economies can also be highly penalised. Housing is expensive:

  • The average rent in London for new tenancies is £1,665 a month (Homelet 2019).

  • The average London salary is 36K or £2,321.74 per month after tax (

An average person like myself will use up to 70% of the salary towards the accommodation. The reality is that you earn more than most people or live badly. And the solution most Londoners have been adopting is house-sharing.

More people in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s are house-sharers. Flat/house-sharing is good if the purpose is saving money, but not if it isn't a choice—not if you work to pay for your living. The modern favelas are here, hidden in overcrowded housing, sometimes in beautiful Victorian houses or modern apartment flats. The façade, the building shell, does not reveal the relative poverty of London.

Before the pandemic, the overcrowded houses might work just OK. Say not all flatmates were using the same communal room simultaneously. Say most of them are using a so-called home as a dorm. However, house-sharing problems have started to exacerbate since the first lockdown. All architectural failures of our accommodation have begun to affect us:

  1. Deficiency of acoustic insulation.

  2. Lack of daylighting.

  3. Access to garden or balconies.

  4. Absence of adequate natural ventilation.

  5. Lack of views out (viewing natural scenes, external open space)

We might think that the minimal construction requirements should be set by building legislation, but in reality, this is not what we experience with the building we live in. These elements - acoustic, daylight, access to green, and natural ventilation - seem crucial to our mental health, yet the word 'mental health' is rarely part of building design's vocabulary.

There are favelas within the housing system in London. Not only have the buildings (new builds or conversions) failed us with poor construction, but their rents are expensive. It is time to recognise this and officially reveal the precarity of room renters' living standards so that good architectural design will, once in practice, apply to all.

Was my friend right? London has favelas, too.

Residential building façade

Image by coombesy from Pixabay


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