When planning falls short: the challenges of informal settlements

The Habitat III conference in Quito in October recognised informal settlements as a critical issue for sustainable urban development. But how did informal settlements come to make up such a large part of the world’s cities?

Resorting to informal housing

Rates of urbanisation can fluctuate rapidly and be hard to predict. This makes planning for urban growth a challenge, especially in developing countries, where more than 90% of urban growth is occurring. When data or government capacity is limited, housing shortages often result.

With formal housing too expensive or unavailable, urban migrants must improvise. Many resort to informal housing.

Informal settlements are generally undocumented or hidden on official maps. This is because the state usually sees them as temporary or illegal.

Over the past 50 years, governments have tried to deal with these areas in a number of ways. Strategies have included denial, tolerance, formalisation, demolition and displacement.

While efforts to improve settlements and anticipate future ones are becoming more common, the desire for eradication persists in many cities. Forced evictions in various parts of the world are putting the rights of informal settlement dwellers at risk.

Over time, however, it has been recognised that poverty and inequality cannot be simply eradicated through demolition or eviction. In the developing world, one-third of the urban population now lives in slums. In Africa, the proportion is 62%.

Many cities are looking for alternatives that formalise these areas through incremental, on-site upgrading. In addition to offering effective protection against forced evictions, it is critical to provide access to basic services, public facilities and inclusive public spaces.

We need to adopt integrated approaches that cut across urban scales and disciplines. These need to involve stakeholders from government, citizens and other organisations. Design thinking is essential in this process to meet the challenges of urbanisation.

The role of the New Urban Agenda

The Habitat III conference adopted a New Urban Agenda for the United Nations. This document presents a road map for sustainable urban development until Habitat IV in 2036.

While the quality of life for some informal settlement dwellers has improved over recent decades, growing inequality pushes more people into informal housing. As a result, the growth rate of informal settlements often outstrips upgrading processes.

The UN Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) was one of the key agencies involved in Habitat III. Since Habitat II, UN-Habitat has worked extensively on housing and slum upgrading. The New Urban Agenda incorporates lessons from this process.

An example is the need for innovative small investment models for informal housing and their inhabitants’ transport needs. The agenda also acknowledges the informal settlements located in hazard-prone areas. Their inhabitants often need more help with reducing the risks and building resilience.

The way forward

Dealing with informal settlements is an issue of inequality. This inequality is both social and spatial in nature, across cities worldwide.

It is problematic that spatial thinking does not have a high profile in the New Urban Agenda. While urban design by itself cannot reduce social inequality and urban poverty, much can be learned from cutting-edge practices that integrate design thinking into upgrading informal settlements.

One key lesson is that incremental housing (a step-by-step process of upgrading) can be a critical part of the solution. Incrementalism allows informal housing to be adapted over time. It also means community engagement is central to governments’ handling of informal settlements.

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