(Im)mobility at the margins: low-income households’ experiences of peripheral resettlement in India and South Africa


Drawing on a mixed-method comparative study of experiences of families moving to five peripheral settlements in Ahmedabad, Chennai and Johannesburg, the paper indicates two linked challenges to the social and economic mobility of the peripheralised urban poor: first, their immediate and individual ability to be mobile within the city and second, the longer-term social mobility of their households.

Many cities in middle-income countries are witnessing significant expansions in the production of state-subsidised housing, at a scale that is relocating millions of people. Their promise is to deliver housing, infrastructure and services that meet universal standards of decency and sustainable human settlements and, at the same time, to replace informal tenure arrangements, services, and governance with legible and governable urban environments. The danger is that delayed or partial implementation of this promise can itself contribute to the marginalisation of low-income city dwellers. The move to formal housing, much of which is being developed on the edges of cities, can also differentially expose residents to new financial risks, spatial dislocation, and the disruption of jobs and livelihoods. We argue here that (im)mobility is central to how this risk is experienced, with relocation potentially locking them into places that are peripheral to and marginalised from the rest of the city.

This paper builds on previous work highlighting the tensions low-income groups experience as they transition into formal settlements. Our central question is How does the relocation of low-income households to urban peripheries reshape the links between their physical and socio-economic mobility, and how does this impact on their ability to build secure urban futures? The linkages between physical and socio-economic mobility are particularly important for low-income urban households. Physical access to work and key services that are tied to particular locations is crucial to sustaining livelihoods, for example by allowing households to stitch together marginal jobs that require their physical presence. This access is underpinned by physical mobility, spanning from small-scale movement to much larger forms of travel. Relocation to peripheral housing significantly alters the physical mobility demands on low income households, and can increase travel costs and times to critical everyday locations such as workplaces and schools, and potentially fracture existing socio-spatial networks. As a result, physical mobility is centrally and intimately constitutive of people’s experience of place, and where relocation disrupts this, it risks significantly constraining their longer-term socio-economic mobility. By evidencing low-income households’ experiences of relocation through a three-city study (Ahmedabad, Chennai, Johannesburg), the wider contribution of this paper is to use residents’ (im)mobility to raise critical questions about the long-term socio-economic impacts of their rehousing.

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About the Author(s):

Glyn Williams

Glyn Williams is with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

Sarah Charlton

Sarah Charlton is with the School of Architecture and Planning, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Karen Coelho

Dr Karen Coelho is an urban anthropologist and Assistant Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

Darshini Mahadevia

Darshini Mahadevia is a Visiting Professor in the Social Sciences division of the School of Arts and Sciences, Ahemabad University. She has over 25 years of experience in teaching and researching in urban studies, human and gender development, poverty and inequality, and climate change. She has a PhD from the Centre for Studies in Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and was the Dean, Faculty of Planning, at CEPT University from 2012-2016. She also headed the Centre for Urban Equity (CUE), a Centre she had set up at CEPT.

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