Participatory approach key to informal settlements, Habitat III sessions urge

The New Urban Agenda must also bolster research and data-collection in slums, said delegates at formal talks in South Africa.

Children in Kallayanpur, an informal settlement in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Kibae Park/UN Photo)

PRETORIA, South Africa — If local and national governments are to improve the lives of the estimated 1 billion people living precarious lives in slums and informal settlements worldwide, there has to be greater recognition and inclusion of slum dwellers in upgrading and planning processes, according to an official meeting in advance of this year’s Habitat III conference on cities.

“The New Urban Agenda provides a unique opportunity to address the challenges of informal settlements by ensuring greater engagement with communities,” Tamzin Hudson, an advocacy specialist with Habitat for Humanity, said during the sessions held last week in Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital. “The extensive planning that will be a hallmark of the phenomenon of urbanization will be far more effective and efficient with community involvement and participation.”

The New Urban Agenda is the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of the Habitat III conference, which will bring together world leaders in October in Quito, Ecuador. The agenda is currently being drafted, and an initial version is to be publicly released in early May. The Pretoria meetings, which focused on informal settlements, was the last of several official thematic sessions that have taken place over the past half-year aimed at offering formal input to the New Urban Agenda.

[See: Addressing the informal city in the New Urban Agenda]

Many slum dwellers lack access to clean water, sanitation and other services. Without security of tenure — legal protection against eviction — they are vulnerable to being kicked out of their homes by governments that demolish informal settlements. With such communities often situated on the outskirts of urban centres — as is the case in South Africa, where major cities are ringed by sprawling clusters of shacks extending far beyond the periphery — they are further marginalized spatially, by being forced to travel long distances to work.   

Addressing the development challenge of informal settlements requires participatory processes to upgrade those areas, said Alioune Badiane of UN-Habitat, and each of those initiatives will need to be adapted to local conditions. There are multiple ways to involve communities from slums and informal settlements in the upgrading process, after all, and governments have been experimenting with several.

Putting community members at the core of an actual planning process has proved particularly fruitful. For instance, Thailand’s Baan Mankong programme — the name translates to “secure housing” — has since 2003 aimed to upgrade housing for the urban poor. It provides people in poor communities with infrastructure subsidies, low-interest housing loans and administrative support, allowing slum dwellers to develop their own community regeneration, explained Oscar Carracedo, an assistant professor of urban planning and design at the National University of Singapore.  

[See: Achieving inclusiveness: The challenge and potential of informal settlements]

As Carracedo details in a research paper, “The Form Behind the Informal”, a community in an informal settlement in Bangkok worked with an architect to design a new spatial plan for land they had acquired through a loan as part of the Baan Mankong programme. Splitting the land into more plots made space for families who had been squatting nearby as well as the addition of a community centre. The community also decided which houses to demolish to make way for the area’s new road.

Data desert

The mechanics and dynamics of slum upgrading are just one piece of the process. Properly informing decision-making around informal settlements requires accurate data about population numbers, access to services and settlement boundaries, among other things.

“The extensive planning that will be a hallmark of the phenomenon of urbanization will be far more effective and efficient with community involvement and participation.”

Tamzin Hudson
Habitat for Humanity

In many cases, however, this data is still lacking. This is a notable problem in African cities, where over 60 percent of the urban population lives in informal settlements. That issue is even more acute in the continent’s secondary cities, which are anticipated to double or triple in population within the next 15 to 25 years, according to figures cited by Cities Alliance, a global network.  

[See: Cities respond: Testing the urban SDG indicators]

“It’s a data desert, quite frankly,” said Julian Baskin, the head of Cities Alliance’s programme unit. “You go to some cities and they can’t tell you how many people live in the city. They can’t tell you … what the nature of the informal economy is — they just have no idea.”

Working with slum dwellers who understand their communities and have a real sense of what needs to be done on the ground can result in a situation in which multiple planners are working on an informal-settlement-upgrading process, Baskin said during a presentation.

The United Nations, meanwhile, has called for a “data revolution” around implementing and monitoring the new Sustainable Development Goals as well as the New Urban Agenda. And slum dwellers aim to play a critical role in enabling that revolution and curtailing the spread of the prevailing “data desert”.

They’re already doing it. Members of informal settlements in over 30 countries that are part of the Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) network have been collecting data that is analysed and used for advocacy and settlement upgrading through the Know Your City initiative.     

[See: Are we ready to implement the SDGs?]

This type of community-led data collection should form the basis of collaboration in policymaking and development planning around informal settlements, said Rose Molokoane of SDI. “This is our agenda,” she said in reference to the New Urban Agenda, “and no one else’s.”

The final list of recommendations that delegates produced at the thematic meeting, known as the Pretoria Declaration, takes into account both participatory upgrading and data collection (a draft version of the declaration is available here). It recommends that “incremental upgrading and participatory approaches that institutionalize platforms and partnerships between national and local institutions and slum dwellers should be promoted.”

It also stresses that “credible and timely data and research are necessary to recognise and understand the drivers and dynamics of urbanisation and the situation in informal settlements.”

These recommendations are now formally on the table and will go toward the drafting of the New Urban Agenda. It will then be up to policymakers to decide whether and how they will incorporate this approach into their plans for the development challenges of informal settlements — and how to work more closely with those most affected by their decisions. There are 1 billion people waiting to see how they make this decision.

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Brendon Bosworth

Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town.