Addressing the informal city in the New Urban Agenda

Informal settlements look set to receive strong attention in this year’s Habitat III discussions, which this week focus on the issue at a meeting in South Africa.

A child in an informal settlement known as Karial in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, 2010. (Kibae Park/UN Photo)

During last year’s Ebola crisis in West Africa, the slum neighbourhood of West Point in the capital, Monrovia, became a poster child for poor housing conditions in which a communicable disease could run amok. Later this year, the sporting world’s eyes will turn to Rio de Janeiro, where stories of ingenuity, hope and triumph from the city’s favelas will surely form part of this summer’s Olympic narrative — as will ongoing concerns around the emergence of the Zika virus.

From a public health situation that feels plucked from the bubonic-plague epidemic in medieval Europe to self-built communities starring on the world stage, urban informality covers a broad spectrum. It includes some of the worst living situations for humans anywhere, as well as striking examples of adapting to limited resources that may pave the way to a more sustainable urban future. The dichotomy of informal settlements, as such communities are called by most experts today, is the latest topic under consideration on the road to Habitat III, this year’s major U. N. summit on urbanization in Quito, Ecuador.

Delegates to the conference and civil society groups this week met in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, a country that faces its own challenges with racially segregated informality. Integrating townships, a legacy of apartheid, into the formal city has been a major public-policy effort in nearby Johannesburg, and netted the country’s biggest city an award last year from the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

[See: Johannesburg mayor: We must ‘change the way we move around the city’]

Such efforts will probably factor into South Africa’s efforts to meets its obligations under the United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which has a dedicated focus — Goal 11 — on cities and human settlements with a focus on slums. Indeed, such communities are the central legacy for the topic of urbanization in recent U. N. memory — suggesting that they may receive a key place in the the 20-year strategy that will result from Habitat III, what’s being called the New Urban Agenda.

MDG met?

In 2000, the U. N. adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight objectives for the global community to work toward aimed at reducing poverty and improving livelihoods in the developing world.

“As the UN concedes … 200 million more people are living in so-called slums than when the MDGs were adopted — so if the UN in fact improved the lives of 100 million slum-dwellers, its work was clearly insufficient.”

Robert Neuwirth
Author, researcher

At the time, cities were not treated as a standalone player in the development agenda. Indeed, they were often thought of as an impediment — crucibles of poverty and incubators of disease. The only aspect of the MDGs that touched on cities at all came as a subset of the goal on the environment, which aimed “to have achieved by 2020 a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.”

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

At that time, UN-Habitat estimated that 760 million people lived in communities it defined as “slums”. The MDGs’ call to action led to the agency’s landmark 2003 report “The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements”, which sparked a resurgent global interest in the topic. The urban historian Mike Davis critiqued the U. N. approach in his landmark 2006 book “Planet of Slums”, while the following year the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum tackled “Design for the Other 90%” as a major exhibition theme.

In 2012, three years before the MDGs were revised into the more comprehensive SDGs, U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that the target for slums had been met.

Robert Neuwirth observed these conditions firsthand during the MDG era while living for months at a time in four such communities while researching for his book “Shadow Cities: How 600 Million Squatters are Creating the City of Tomorrow”. Writing in City magazine in 2013, he disputes Ban’s victory lap: “as the UN concedes, in a paragraph buried far down in its report on the development goals, 200 million more people are living in so-called slums than when the MDGs were adopted — so if the UN in fact improved the lives of 100 million slum-dwellers, its work was clearly insufficient.”

[See: The New Urban Agenda must prompt planners to recognize informal labour]

In the run-up to Habitat III, UN-Habitat acknowledges this demographic counterbalance in a report released ahead of this week’s Pretoria meeting, calling informal settlements the “unfinished business” of the MDGs. According to the study, current estimates suggest that 881 million people living in developing countries are slum dwellers. That’s more than a quarter of the global urban population, meaning that 1 in 8 people in the world today live in slums.

As a result, the SDGs call for a more ambitious target: “By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums.” In light of this, the UN-Habitat report argues, “[Slums’] continuity as an indicator for the development frameworks pre- and post-2015 confirms the importance that the world assigns to the eradication of urban poverty as one of the crucial steps towards the sustainable development of humankind.”

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

Yet some are warning that the framework that is being set up to guide and monitor progress on the SDGs — what are known as the SDG “targets” and “indicators” — may not be robust enough to deal adequately with informal settlements.

“The current draft targets and indicators within Goal 11 do not cater adequately for substantial informality and its implications for the availability and reliability of official data,” according to a recent study of five cities by Mistra Urban Futures, a foundation that also supports Citiscope. “Almost by definition, this would be very difficult to do but does not gainsay the reality of the problem.”

Informal urban agenda

As a legacy issue that carried over from the MDGs to the SDGs, the New Urban Agenda clearly will need to address slums and informal settlements, particularly sizing up how countries should tackle the issue of urban informality.

For Neuwirth, that guidance needs to be firm. “The most important thing the U. N. and other global multilaterals could do right now, I think, is to emerge from Habitat III with a firm zero-evictions policy,” he said. “This would help prevent communities from being bulldozed for sports stadiums or conference centres or because politicians are trying to help favoured land developers or simply to ‘clean up’ their cities in advance of a visit from the queen or the pope.”

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda]

Indeed, this type of thinking has already found its way into the background of the Pretoria meeting, with the UN-Habitat report encouraging the institutionalizing of no-forced-eviction policies. For many, such thinking constitutes significant progress from the middle of the past century, when the global application of “urban renewal” policies led to massive forced evictions and dislocations of nascent informal communities during Latin America’s period of post-war rural-to-urban migration — a phenomenon repeating itself today in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

As a result, the United Nations’ own thinking has evolved to recognize the inherent value in these communities. “There is renewed need to acknowledge slums, to understand and realize the challenges and potential of the people who live in slums,” the report states.

Such an attitude is embodied in UN-Habitat initiatives such as the Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme, whose name implies that a bottom-up approach has supplanted older, top-down thinking among the technocrats who work on slum upgrading.

[See: African governments offer common vision on urbanization]

Neuwirth endorses this idea. “The so-called New Urban Agenda should be participatory: participatory planning, participatory budgeting, participatory everything,” he said, “with residents of these communities involved front and center, leading the conversation.”

Old assumptions? Wrong

Discussions of the New Urban Agenda often touch on people-centred cities, an idea that should be extended to the informal realm, according to Theresa Williamson, executive director of Catalytic Communities, a Rio-based favela-advocacy NGO. “The New Urban Agenda should recognize the assets of consolidated informal settlements as assets of the city and should strive to strengthen, consolidate and integrate them into the formal city, and not simply the informal city with the formal,” she said.

“The so-called ‘formal city’ has a lot to learn with the informal city as well, and established communities housing residents who value their community must be respected.”

Theresa Williamson
Executive director, Catalytic Communities

Her argument is that old assumptions are wrong — the informal city is not necessarily inferior and should not, by default, have to become like the formal city. Indeed, such communities often exhibit a variety of characteristics — around density, mixed use, energy consumption and mobility preferences such as walking or public transit — that are more sustainable than their formal counterparts. These choices may be because of economic necessity, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also laudable.

[See: Historic cities already embody sustainability principles]

“The so-called ‘formal city’ has a lot to learn with the informal city as well, and established communities housing residents who value their community must be respected,” Williamson said. “All development must begin with asset-mapping and -listing exercises involving residents of all ages, and those assets deemed most valuable by residents must be maintained during whatever development process is ultimately decided on for that community.”

“So a community whose affordability is valued must be maintained as affordable,” she said.

If such ideas become centrepieces of the New Urban Agenda, then Habitat III may end up being a return to form from 40 years ago. At the first Habitat conference, held in Vancouver in 1976, the outcomes of recent rapid urbanization were the subject of significant discussion. British architect John Turner was one of the celebrity urban thinkers who came to Vancouver to espouse his ideas about self-built housing.

Four decades later, Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena won a Pritzker Prize this month in part for his “half a good house” design for the poor; he is now curating the Venice Architecture Biennial. In October at Habitat III, Quito — a city with a significant informal sector — will prove just the setting to debate these ideas firsthand.

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