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Moving on up: Rethinking the future of informal settlements in Africa

In cities around the world, building upwards is the pinnacle of urban development. Densification in many cities is a powerful force for vitality, creativity, increased productivity and prosperity but can also lead to congestion and overcrowding if mismanaged. What could be achieved if we view dense informal settlements in Africa through a fundamentally different lens?

Most major cities of the world are characterized by upward reach and density. If you arrive as a tourist in a country’s capital, more often than not you head for the city centre and are accommodated in tall buildings. The aspirational movement of people is, in broad terms, inwards (towards the centre) and upwards (towards the sky). This represents an economic logic: intense human interaction promotes creativity and innovation, which attracts talent and investment, which in turn drives up land and property prices. A virtuous cycle of private and public investment is set in motion which sees average costs fall, productivity rise, and choices expand. In short, higher population densities unlock the power of intense human interaction and ‘scale economies’, which is why so many people reach for a better life in the hustle and bustle of the city rather than in the solitude and serenity of the countryside.

Unfortunately, market forces seldom reconcile with social objectives such as affordability or social inclusion. Many cities in Africa are made up of an uneven patchwork of modern luxury and gross neglect. Discomforting spatial inequalities visibly separate out the affluence of contemporary high-rises from the poverty in neighbouring slums. Ironically, the same population densities that undergird the prosperity of prime real estate in the inner city are the demise of Africa’s overcrowded informal settlements. The key question is how to harness the potential of urban forces to begin to transform Africa’s slums. Dr Justin Visagie is an urban economist at the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa, and principal investigator of a LIRA-funded project called “Realising the potential of urban density to create more prosperous and liveable informal settlements in Africa”. He and an interdisciplinary team of researchers are looking at the potential of building upwards in dense informal settlements using a range of alternative building technologies. The core idea is that vertical expansion could free up much needed space to start to rebuild these settlements through coordinated private and public investments. “Density, if effectively managed, can provide a public good that enhances economic productivity and reduces the cost of service provision,” says Dr Visagie.

Glass half full

“Informal settlements are a response to the urban housing crisis,” he continues. “Too often the conversation starts with the idea that informal settlements are themselves the problem when they are people’s spontaneous response to not being able to access cheap housing close to opportunities.” According to estimates from the United Nations, 867 million people are expected to be added to Africa’s urban population over the next 35 years. The scale and pace of urbanization in Africa has placed enormous pressure on governments who commonly lack the financial resources or human expertise to invest and manage in modern cities. “We need to find ways of making African cities more inclusive and this starts with improving informal settlements as a critical entry point for poorer residents” says Dr Visagie.

Standard approaches to the housing challenge can be roughly divided between formalism and incrementalism.

Formal housing programmes promise a full package of housing services but come at huge expense to the state, can take decades to deliver and can be highly disruptive to social relationships or individual livelihoods. For instance, in South Africa, the massive state programme of free public housing provision has unintentionally reinforced urban sprawl and entrenched the separation of predominantly black and poorer communities to the urban periphery. At the same time, governments simply can’t keep pace with the ever-expanding demand for additional urban housing.

The alternative is for governments to concentrate on informal settlement upgrading through in-situ improvements. Incremental upgrades do well to quickly and cheaply improve access to basic services but often ignore the bigger structural issues of crowding and congestion that are at the heart of poor living conditions in these settlements. More public space is vital for the circulation of people, goods and services, for social interaction, and to accommodate schools, clinics and other social and physical infrastructure.

“The team are hoping to uncover a third alternative” explains Dr Visagie. “Building incrementally upwards could support higher densities and free up space to begin to tackle some of the deeper structural problems in the built-environment in many informal settlements”.

Contextual consideration and support

The LIRA team are currently working in two cities in Africa – in Luanda, the capital city of Angola and in Durban, South Africa’s busiest port city – to develop their ideas with communities and hopefully pilot their ideas. At this stage of the project, the team is working hard to engage communities and local government stakeholders alike. For instance, the NPO Shack Dwellers International already embark on strategies such as reblocking that sees the physical layout of settlements upgraded a block at a time. After reblocking, some of the homes have been extended to a double story – effectively doubling the accommodation space of a single stand. Visagie sees huge potential in this relatively simple and cost-effective strategy: build upwards, not outwards.

To be sure, this strategy is no panacea for urban development. Uncoordinated vertical densification could compound many of the existing challenges and lead to overcrowding and failed service provision. The key lies in getting the community, local government and other stakeholders around the table together to agree on a plan and coordinate their response.

There is an exciting opportunity in Durban where the municipality is accessing earmarked European Union funding to revamp the City’s incremental upgrading programme. “We are hoping that our ideas will gain traction here and we can see this as a test or pilot project,” Visagie explains. It’s one of the reasons that maintaining excellent stakeholder relationships is so critical.

“It’s no good us having a wonderful research project with the community that gains no traction in local government. The research has to translate into local policy for it to be money well spent. I see the target community being as much the people living in these settlements as representatives from government looking for non-conventional and innovative ideas for urban housing.”

Even with the potential pilot site coming on board, the team remains firm on their transdisciplinary makeup and are careful of their responsibility to co-produce solutions with affected communities. “We are looking at options including house frames filled with sandbags or modular homes, but it is critical that we don’t try and impose our assumptions or methods on a community.” The project is still evaluating a range of designs, but critical factors include balancing affordability with the extent of service provision, standards with the need for flexibility.  A one size fits all approach is unlikely to work; the community needs to define what matters most and what is feasible in the local context.

“You build houses not just for people, but with people. It’s aligned with the notion of not just science for the community, but with the community. And the first step is that we need to see informal settlements as a legitimate part of the city, and to start to put them on a trajectory that will give people a better future.”

This project is being supported by the LIRA 2030 Africa programme.

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