Commentary

Achieving inclusiveness: The challenge and potential of informal settlements

A comprehensive approach to upgrading slums needs to be seen as a way to foster equitable development. Habitat III can help bring about this recognition.

A girl prepares food in Raxaul, in India's Bihar state, one of the poorest in the country, 2013. An upcoming Habitat III meeting will focus on informal settlements. (Palenque/Shutterstock)

The United Nations estimates that more than 860 million people are currently living in urban slums! It defines a slum as a place where people live and lack any one of these: access to clean water, access to improved sanitation, sufficient living area, durable housing or secure tenure. This means that almost a quarter of those who live in urban areas today lack at least one of these basic necessities — and that hundreds of millions lack all five.

The terms “slums” and “informal settlements” are often used interchangeably, although they are not always synonymous. Slums are found both in the centre as well as on the periphery of cities, while some informal settlements may provide adequate living conditions. Available data does not allow for consistent differentiation between the two, but it is clear that most of the informal settlements that are home to hundreds of millions today — encircling both large and intermediate cities across the globe — are indeed slums.

In these settlements, people live in truly woeful conditions. They are physically, economically and socially separate from the city, even when the city depends on them for goods and services. And they are places where urban poverty is increasingly concentrated.

[See: In informal settlements of Nairobi, women look to Habitat III on inclusive planning]

Millions of people live in garbage-strewn conditions because there is no municipal trash collection. They are surrounded by environmental pollution because there are no or too few toilets. And too many people are crowded into cramped quarters, facilitating the spread of disease, among other things — simply because there are no other options.

In many places, people construct as best they can with cardboard and scrounged material, providing flimsy shelter from the weather and little physical safety. The physical precariousness of this existence is often exceeded only by its psychological impact. People living in slums know they do not have a recognized “right” to live there, and most recognize that they can be removed at someone’s will or whim or something else quite beyond their control.

On the one hand, the proportion of people in slums today is lower than it was a decade ago. Yet the absolute number continues to climb. The proliferation of informal settlements demonstrates vividly the failure of cities to keep pace with urban growth.

Global momentum

So when, in September, the 193 member states of the United Nations established 17 goals that together are intended to eradicate global poverty, it was an important milestone that one of these, Goal 11, was explicitly focused on cities. These Sustainable Development Goals went into operation at the beginning of this month.

“Informal settlements can be both catalyst and vehicle for the achievement of greater inclusiveness while fostering innovation, creating jobs and developing social capital.”

Crucially for cities and the 864 million slum dwellers, Goal 11 recognizes the interconnected elements necessary for cities to function and serve all their citizens — including those who are currently excluded. It calls for cities and human settlements to become inclusive, resilient, safe and sustainable. With cities and their slum communities growing at an unprecedented rate, this focus is of critical global importance.

[See here for all of Citiscope’s coverage on Goal 11, the urban SDG]

With Goal 11, some 193 countries have agreed to address the challenge of slums and informal settlements and to embrace important opportunities that also lie within their grasp. It is an obvious but nonetheless important truth that people living in urban slums are marginalized economically and socially, and often spatially, because of the physical divide between where they live and the city itself. The proliferation of informal settlements will not cease by itself, and cities will not be able to achieve Goal 11 if they do not address this broader context.

Now, a unique opportunity is coming up to continue the momentum created by Goal 11. On 7-8 April, stakeholders will gather at a high-level meeting in Johannesburg focused on informal settlements in anticipation of Habitat III, the major urbanization conference being held later this year. As with other such “thematic meetings”, the outcome of this session will be a written declaration with recommended policies to be incorporated in the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

Among these policy recommendations, there should be one for a new financing facility for the comprehensive upgrading of informal settlements. The aim of such a facility will need to be enabling better social, physical and economic inclusion of residents through a process that meaningfully incorporates their priorities and basic needs. Such a facility, calling on both public and private resources, would enable aspiration to be translated into reality.

Key of comprehensiveness

What are the implications for cities, indeed for the world, if informal settlements continue to grow in number and population? Thus far, this question has been a largely ignored at the policy level.

But given that already a quarter of the world’s urban population lives in a slum, it makes good policy sense for cities to determine to address these root conditions — and to do so in such a way that will contribute to economic growth and social cohesion. It also makes for good policy for national governments and the global community to endorse and facilitate such initiatives.

[See: Sustainable cities: Key to future development and governance]

A comprehensive programme to eliminate slums does not need to be seen as a drain on resources but rather as a way of fostering equitable development. This is so even in light of what the McKinsey Global Institute estimates is a USD 650 billion annual gap in affordable housing finance and the additional estimated USD 1-3 trillion that may need to be met through public expenditure. (McKinsey also estimates that USD 16 trillion will be necessary from other investment sources.)

In fact, if formulated well, such a priority programme in any city can stimulate local economies, foster innovation, create new investment opportunities and develop social capital. One obvious and important approach that cities can take is to recognize the opportunity presented by undertaking a comprehensive programme for upgrading informal settlements so that they are no longer slums. (For want of space, this commentary does not address the issue of informal settlements on environmentally sensitive land, but suffice it to say that all sites do not lend themselves to upgrading.)

[See: Egypt Urban Forum targets slum real estate at critical time for the capital]

In order to be effective, however, such an upgrading strategy must be conceived of at a city level as a programmatic initiative. It must be shaped by policy aims and informed by meaningful community engagement and data-supported understanding of the demographics and challenges of informal communities. This is distinct from the “big data” understanding of the formal city.

A systematic, comprehensive, policy-led programme, contextualized to each city’s physical space and economic reality, can guide more equitable development. Yet such an approach can also develop innovative financing and technological solutions, and re-configure nearly all aspects of infrastructure and service delivery. And in the process, it can create jobs, provide investment opportunities and enhance productivity, as well as offer the possibility for the full realization of individual potential.

Comprehensiveness is key, however. Such an upgrading programme must be conceived as an integral part of an overall urban plan, with supporting policies addressing land issues, delivery efficiencies and financing. As a 2002 World Bank review of upgrading initiatives in Africa observes, one-off upgrading projects have “done little to address the needs of the populace as a whole,” even if they do positively serve the immediate population.

A bolder vision is required! If both the physical and social integration of slums in the outlying, underserviced informal settlements are taken as the starting point for a city’s comprehensive and integrated plan for inclusiveness, cities may well be able to get ahead of that growth curve.

Medellín model

Taking upgrading to scale requires political will and new types of investments and partnerships. Not only will these need to include local communities and other stakeholders, but it falls to local governments to orchestrate the complex array of inputs and interests to make them mutually reinforcing. In this, local authorities need to be supported by their national governments as well as the international donor community, as specified within the Goal 11 framework.

“The New Urban Agenda should become the blueprint to guide the achievement of Goal 11, providing direction for urban development that will make cities inclusive, resilient, safe and sustainable.”

Inclusive, affordable housing is a central global challenge and a key determinant of inequity. A comprehensive upgrading approach provides an opportunity for cities to meet this challenge and simultaneously stimulate development through incentives for private investment, public-private partnerships and other platforms to bring innovation and new resources.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

The physical vision of inclusiveness that comes to mind is that of Medellín, Colombia. Through its investment in funiculars, escalators and other forms of transportation, that city has enabled formerly marginalized citizens to partake of and contribute to the city’s vitality.

These are the most visible elements of a city, previously deeply divided and unsafe, becoming more inclusive and sustainable. Through investments in housing on the hillsides and other service delivery, these communities became more closely integrated into the city as a whole. Medellín’s vision was also propelled by a sense of what the informal settlements could do for the rest of the city — adding to its cultural life, contributing to its economy, and opening new doors to innovative ideas. It was not a one-way street.

[See Citiscope’s coverage of Medellín’s transformation here]

Only by conceptualizing a city in a way that weaves together different geographic areas through investments — in housing (ensuring adequate structure, tenure rationalization, sanitation, water, density); transportation (providing access to jobs and the amenities of the city); and even-handed, accessible service delivery — will greater equity be created.

Goal 11 + New Urban Agenda

The Habitat III meeting in Johannesburg this spring now will provide a potent opportunity to chart a path toward the inclusiveness of cities offered by Goal 11 and will be valuable input into the New Urban Agenda. Indeed, with Goal 11 and Habitat III, the planets have proverbially aligned.

The New Urban Agenda should become the blueprint to guide the achievement of Goal 11, providing direction for urban development that will make cities inclusive, resilient, safe and sustainable. The New Urban Agenda should provide a framework through which crucial urban activities and investments are seen in relation to each other, with informal settlements as a centrepiece. Informal settlements can be both catalyst and vehicle for the achievement of greater inclusiveness while fostering innovation, creating jobs and developing social capital.

Success under Goal 11 should and can bring transformative change to those living in slums, and so also to hundreds of cities around the world. Habitat III can and should be a driving force towards that end. There is a tremendous opportunity for the New Urban Agenda to focus on fundamental social and economic transformation, simply by intentionally weaving the human and social capital of the slums into the fabric of the city.

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Judith A. Hermanson

Judith A. Hermanson is president and CEO of the International Housing Coalition: The Global Coalition for Inclusive Housing and Sustainable Cities.