Planning for informality dominates World Cities Day

At annual observance, former Venezuela official warns that conventional urban planning isn’t equipped to deal with the doubling of population in informal settlements projected for next 20 years.

The area around Caracas, Venezuela, is made up largely of hillside shantytowns. (Testing/Shutterstock)

QUITO, Ecuador — The world’s 1 billion people living in informal housing may double in the next 20 years — a future that conventional planning isn’t equipped to deal with, a Venezuelan planner and landscape architect warned those participating at the global observance of the United Nations’ World Cities Day.

With the adoption here less than two weeks ago of the New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s new 20-year strategy on sustainable urbanization, the Ecuadorian capital was the obvious choice for the annual celebration of cities, which began in 2014. Activities also were held Monday at U. N. Headquarters in New York City and in Shanghai, whose municipal government sponsors World Cities Day festivities.

Speaking at Quito’s Museo de la Ciudad, a former civilian hospital built in the 16th century, University of Pennsylvania professor David Gouverneur argued that a measured response to informal urbanism is necessary to achieve the lofty vision of sustainable cities set out by the New Urban Agenda and other major new agreements on climate change, fighting poverty and more.

“Conventional planning and urban design works against informality,” he said Monday. “We were pushing the poor out of the map.”

[See: Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity]

Quito is not a Latin American capital known for its hillside shantytowns, but Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, definitely is. Gouverneur became acquainted with the city’s barrios in the early 1990s when he served as Venezuela’s adjunct secretary of city planning.

Not that a government planning position is typically friendly to the urban poor who are building their own communities rather than living in the “social housing” schemes so popular among housing ministries. But Gouverneur’s Venezuelan perspective provided him with a less hostile attitude and made him receptive to the role that informal housing plays in shaping a city. In Caracas, progressive urban legislation passed in 1987 recognized barrios as part of the city at a time when they were still officially neglected or outright targeted for demolition in other countries.

Gouverneur’s perspective also has been shaped by his academic background. This put him in touch with the social research of Venezuela’s “barriólogos”, who were bucking trends at the country’s architecture schools by investigating poor neighborhoods rather than designing modernist masterpieces.

[See: Habitat III prompts hope for more inclusive view toward informal settlements]

Today, the concept of informal settlements may conjure visions of self-built housing à la Latin American favelas or slums in African and Asian mega-cities. But Gouverneur insisted that the trend is present in the industrialized world, as well, pointing as evidence to the refugee camps now proliferating in Europe. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said, noting that some 2 billion informal dwellers are expected by 2035.

‘Informal armatures’

There is nothing new about urban residents building their own housing in cities. It’s a phenomenon “as old as the city”, Gouverneur said — a pattern that can be traced back to ancient Egypt.

As a result, the trend has pros and cons. On the one hand, Gouverneur said, “People make their own habitats quicker than any public housing agency.” On the other hand, self-built housing typically springs up in less-than-desirable locations — a two-hour commute from downtown jobs, for instance, or adjacent to a landfill.

[See: World Cities Day highlights design’s role in promoting sustainability, inclusivity]

But Gouverneur believes that his quarter-century career yielded a methodology that can work across the globe. He calls this strategy “informal armatures”, an approach to city-making that enlists the public sector to offer the services that communities can’t build on their own, while permitting them to do what they do best.

Under this approach, for example, a city should provide infrastructure — roads, public transit, water and sewer hookups. But it should not overregulate the public realm with zoning tools that prevent incremental housing construction.

Gouverneur acknowledged similarities with the “half a good house” approach of Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena. But he says he sees his own work as operating at a larger scale that can integrate whole informal neighbourhoods into the rest of the city.

[See: At Habitat III, architect Aravena lobbies for ‘bamboo and mud’]

To that end, he lauds the “social urbanism” efforts in Medellín, Colombia, where for example a school serves as the steward of open space on a steep hillside. The school’s community ownership of the land keeps it from becoming occupied with illegal housing that would be susceptible to landslides, Gouverneur said.

Such positive examples notwithstanding, Gouverneur struck an urgent tone, given current demographic trends. “We need a complete switch of paradigm,” he said. “We can’t turn the other way — if not, we have a time bomb.”

Still, he recognized that the politics are not easy. “Twenty-five years ago we never spoke about improving existing settlements,” he said. “It’s difficult to tell governments, ‘Let’s plan for informality.’”

Quito example

Coming just weeks after the Habitat III summit, where representatives of 167 countries adopted the New Urban Agenda, World Cities Day offered an early opportunity for both local and international figures to look forward with the non-binding agreement now finalized.

“Momentum is building” for the host of U. N. agreements reached in the past 18 months, U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement Monday, referring to the New Urban Agenda as well as to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the landmark anti-poverty accord that came into effect at the beginning of this year.

But, he continued, “Local action is essential to realizing the potential of these global agreements.”

[See all of Citiscope’s Habitat III coverage from Quito]

Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas indicated that his city is up to the challenge. “As the Habitat III host city, we have a great responsibility to be the model for implementation of the SDGs and the New Urban Agenda,” he said. With a focus on mobility and natural resources, Rodas outlined a series of initiatives that his administration is pursuing in line with the U. N.’s new urban guidelines.

Rodas, who was elected in 2014, has basked in the global spotlight shined on his city in the run-up to Habitat III, even though hosting the summit was his predecessor’s idea. Monday’s celebration marked the last official event in Quito related to the four-day conference, which drew an estimated 30,000 participants.

The city, which received something of a makeover ahead of Habitat III, is in the process of developing a long-range plan through 2040. To reduce traffic and improve circulation, for instance, Rodas cited multiple initiatives: a planned QuitoCable aerial cable car; the city’s first subway line, currently under construction; Latin America’s first bike-share system to include electric bicycles; and a street redesign aimed at prioritizing pedestrian access.

[See: Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas wants to show off a city of urban innovation and solidarity]

As mayor of the Quito Metropolitan District, Rodas is responsible for volcanic peaks, cloud forests and fertile valleys covering over 4,000 square kilometres — twice the area of the Greater Tokyo Area, the world’s largest city by population. He also took credit for a reforestation effort that planted 400,000 trees following recent forest fires and insisted that he held the line against mining in a sensitive ecosystem known as the Chocó Andino.

Speaking here Monday, Rodas said that the 2040 plan will engage everyday Quiteños with the goal of meeting the “very solid conceptual frameworks” of the U. N.’s agreements.

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