Shanty Town
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Basic Information

A shanty town is a subclass of slum consisting of semi-permanent, improvised housing built of whatever comes to hand (and therefore assumes that it is attached to a culture with standards of permanent housing and at least customary materials and methods of construction). Shanty towns are usually illicit, if not actually illegal, built on land to which the occupants have no title and often no licence either, and thrive by corruption, negligence or connivance of civil authorities and/or landowners. In many ways a shanty may be seen as an evolution of the jungle yard in which enough "limpets" have accumulated that the place runs year-round - often occurring when the hobos have, or develop, families who cannot be easily moved on.

Shanties tend to develop where the supply of housing grossly fails to meet the demand, but land is available on which the homeless can improvise homes - as above, this requires at least a permissive attitude from the local authorities and may occur either in places outside their jurisdiction, or simply where the presence of such a settlement is tolerable … often because it supplies cheap labour to the town or city proper. A Shanty is rarely built inside town or city limits, unless it occurs on well hidden waste ground in such a manner that it does not trouble the legitimate residents - this can mean building in areas that are not especially safe to live in, perhaps because they were originally left empty due to being prone to flooding or in an industrial danger zone. A common cause of shanty accumulation is mass movements of people to the cities whether due to agricultural reform (as, for example, in the slums of modern India and the barrios and favelas of South America) or collapse (such as the Hoovervilles of depression era America, first built by dispossessed industrial workers then massively swelled when the dustbowl drove thousands off the land). A lack of residency rights can also have an effect - the townships of South Africa being an interesting case where the residents worked in the cities but were forbidden to live there under apartheid laws.

As might be expected life in a shanty, as in any slum, is, in a Hobbesian fashion at least, often very natural (that is to say, nasty, brutish and short). Due to the nature of their construction, amenities are likely to be non-existent: in the modern era that means no piped water, electricity supplied though illegitimate conduits (if at all) and, as in any era, no sanitation at all. A combination of poor cleanliness, poor construction and bad layout will mean that vermin run rampant through the place … as, when it rains, will the lack of sanitation. Also, given a distinct lack of foundations, much in the way of bad weather tends to make the shacks collapse … and if the weather remains dry for too long fire becomes a real hazard. Add overpopulation and, unsurprisingly, disease flourishes as well. Other afflictions of poverty such as malnutrition and drug abuse should also be expected. Then there are the people themselves - most of whom are various kinds of extremely poor and desperate which, coupled with the lack of policing (because if the police were doing their jobs to the letter the shanty probably wouldn't be there) means that street gangs and the low rent end of organized-crime thrives as well, often providing a limited sort of local government in the absence of the genuine article. As illegals - or at least people with some other reason to avoid law enforcement - shanty dwellers will be at least as likely to be victims as perpetrators, being especially vulnerable to such things as people trafficking.

Despite the apparent etymological similarity, the name seems to have nothing to do with the sea (although fictional locations named "Shanty Town" often occur, usually as dockside slums), with the actual origin of the name being either the Irish-gaelic sean ti (old or dilapidated house) or the Canadian French chantier (overwintering camp, as used by lumberjacks and other frontiersmen).

In the modern era, shanty towns can also assemble out of mobile homes, trailers and RVs - these may initially appear overnight, but can generally be told from a traveller camp by their worse state of repair, varying ages (even if this may take a while to become obvious) and (eventual) immobility. A planned trailer park generally escapes being rated as a shanty on the grounds of being, in most cases at least, an officially recognised housing development.

Unlike most forms of slum, a rural shanty town is a reasonable project, but is likely to be less permanent (or less permanently occupied) as such things are often the result of bringing in additional labour from outside the local community - either for a prolonged project such as a temporary mine or forestry work (where the place will be permanently occupied but for a limited duration) - or for labour that is only brought in a specific times of year (for example a harvest).


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • The dockside "Shanty town" composed of an assortment of floating, non-floating and semi-floating structures is a fictional favourite … and occurs in real life from time to time as well as for example in the Makoko slum of Lagos, Nigeria.
  • Very hard to map - usually a mess of twisty paths and ragged buildings.
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