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The future of informal settlements in the developing world

Roughly one-quarter of the world’s population lives in informal settlements. Are slums, shanties and favelas an inevitable by-product of urbanisation?

Tim Smith, Global Director, World Built Environment Forum, RICS
7 July 2020

Our recent webinar on informal settlements brought together three of the world’s foremost thinkers and practitioners on the topic.

We started out by asking them what policy tools are available to lawmakers seeking to manage the spread of informal settlements. Kerstin Sommer, Programme Manager of UN-Habitat’s Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme reminds listeners of the context in which the discussion takes place.

“We’ve just seen with Covid-19 how vulnerable communities are in informal settlements and slums. Local authorities are at the forefront of this but often lack the policies and tools to actually respond and reach out.”

In addition to the environmental risks that these communities face, there are also myriad daily challenges faced by the residents of informal settlements and slums: lack of water, sanitation, tenure security, overcrowding, quality of housing and the lack of income opportunities and employment.

Ms Sommer is quite clear about how governments and key stakeholders should respond to these challenges. “We require instrumental tools to look at the bigger picture; look at different sector policies and bring them together”.

Dr Laila Iskandar, formerly Minister for Informal Settlements in Egypt stresses that people-centred approaches are essential. In respect to her experience in the Egyptian government, she notes that “the resettlement policy is now to select a location that is close to where people originally live, in order to maintain their livelihoods.”

Furthermore, she adds that there needs to be a further shift in policy, ensuring that governments “do not to view this as a housing issue, but a community issue. People need markets, cafes, pre-schools and playgrounds.”

Professor David Sattherthwaite, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Environment and Development shared his thoughts on slum upgrade programmes. Such schemes tend to fall into one of two broad categories. The first he describes as: “city government led upgrading, where city government have the competence and capacity to manage.” The second as: “upgrades driven by grass roots organisations and federations, formed by those living in informal settlements.”

Our panellists then moved on to explore the social and financial levers available in the management of informal settlements. One of the key issues that residents face is how to formally register their land. As Professor Satterthwaite points out: “You have a very formal legal approach in some Latin American countries, which involves lawyers and quite a difficult process of unpicking who has rights to the land. That can be expensive”. This often results in residents being locked out of the legal process. It is, therefore, key that federations and community groups are supported and empowered to participate. He continues, “If you’re going to work to upgrade an informal settlement, you’ve got to engage the residents: involve them, let them negotiate and let them help you.”

In terms of financing improvements in informal settlements, Ms Sommer says, “it is important to have an integrated approach to finance…and also partnership between local government and the people”. These joined-up approaches can create micro-enterprises, new construction methods and can create more formal standards to holistically improve levels of liveability for communities.

Projections suggest that an additional 1 billion people will live in informal settlements by 2035. The task of safely and sustainably accommodating such growth requires urgent attention.

People who live in slums are the engines of the city. They stayed home during the Covid-19 lockdown and cities almost came to a standstill. They have to go out to work and keep the city moving.

Dr Laila Iskander
Formerly Minister for Informal Settlements, Government of Egypt

“The people who built these homes are willing to pay for the upgrading of their neighbourhoods,” notes Dr Iskandar. The next step is to bring together the community and the government to agree on how best to upgrade existing settlements to allow for better civic and connective infrastructure. “People who live in these slums are the engines of the city. They stayed home during the Covid-19 lockdown and their cities almost came to a standstill. They have to go out to work and keep the city moving.”

We ended the session by asking the panel what the priority actions are to reduce the risks of the vulnerabilities of climate change faced by these communities.

Professor Satterthwaite points out that, “Most of the risks, at least in the medium term, are extreme weather events. Any good upgrading scheme is about building resilience to climate change. Some upgrading schemes need to factor in a higher level of risk”.

Ms Sommer goes on to say that the priority for UN-Habitat “is the right to stay – tenure security. Then understanding community, building up inclusive multi-governance frameworks. And then providing communities with social infrastructure and services for participation and socio-economic transformation in-line with the investment.”

The future of informal settlements in the developing world

Roughly a quarter of the world’s urban population is currently living in informal settlements. Such settlements are often blighted by substandard infrastructure, poor air quality, limited access to basic amenities and a variety of social ailments including crime and drug use. Any vision of a sustainable urbanised future must include measures for ameliorating these conditions. The number of the world’s slum dwellers halved between 1990 and 2016, while UN SDG 11 commits signatories to pursue further reductions; this webinar will look at the achievements of the previous 25 years, strategies for building on the success, and the role of policy makers, businesses and built environment professionals in this.