The Bartlett Development Planning Unit
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    Living at risk in Freetown

    By Adriana E Allen, on 4 May 2018

    Authors: Leong, Matilda; Vo, Son Nam; Kim, Hayeon; Korsi Simpson, Paul; Korsi Simpson, Peter and Allen, Adriana (Cockle Bay Group from the ESD MSc practice module)

    In the early hours of Wednesday, 25 April 2018, the residents of Kola Tree in Cockle Bay were awakened to the shouts of fire. The blaze took place in the informal settlement located in the Western coast of Freetown and affected 97 people. Although there were no casualties reported, rampant loss of property, possessions and livelihoods were claimed by the incident.

    When the team from Development Planning Unit (DPU) at University College London (UCL) and Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC) arrived at the site, they were met with chaos. A crowd of residents were still dealing with the aftermath of the fire over the rubbles of their corrugated metal sheet homes. Despite all effort to mitigate damages, the flames had been eventually extinguished by burying them under the collapsing building structures.

    Photo by S.N. Vo

    It was soon established that the Cockle Bay community was left on its own to undertake responsive actions. There were minimal external interventions save for the fire brigade who attempted to extinguish the fire alongside the residents. The DPU/SLURC team quickly came to the support of the residents by conducting an enumeration process to determine who was affected and what was the impact of the fire.

    This information was subsequently handed to the local leader of the Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP) and of the Community Based Disaster Risk Management Committee to facilitate the provision of relief for victims and temporary shelter for the night. While the source of the fire was yet to be determined, the rapid assessment conducted by partners on the ground speculated the possibility of an electrical fault. The Office of National Security (ONS) responded hours after the event and is reportedly conducting a more detailed assessment to identify the origin of the fire.

    DPU team supporting the enumeration of those affected by fire in Cockle Bay. Photo by A. Allen.

    The absence of external support during small-scale disasters is not unusual for informal settlements. In most circumstances, external actors such as governmental institutions and non-governmental organisations have to conserve their limited resources. Consequently, they can only respond to severe incidents. For example, a prominent local NGO was only able to support 144 of the 2,048 victims during the 2015 fire in Susan’s Bay due to the lack of funding. Minor disasters such as that in Cockle Bay accordingly tend to be overlooked and underreported. Moreover, dismal planning characterised by limited road access and dispersed and insufficient water sources also hinder evacuation and relief efforts and exacerbate the everyday risks facing local communities. Moreover, although preliminary relief is given to the victims of disasters, this is often insufficient to ensure that those affected can recover from such events, let alone to escape risk accumulation and poverty cycles.

    It is estimated that about 547 fires outbreaks affected those living in informal settlements in Freetown between 2011 to 2015 (Di Marino et al, 2018). Fires are only one of the multiple hazards facing poor and impoverished women and men in the city on a regular basis. Other hazards include floods, mudslides, landslides, waterborne diseases, and occupational hazards, amongst others. Each of these disasters, small and large-scale, disproportionately impact the urban poor – destroying their housing, disrupting their education and in some case, even terminating their sources of livelihood.

    Photo by S.N. Vo

    The fire outbreak in Cockle Bay brings to light the broader issue of prolonged systematic oversight of informal settlements and the invisibility of certain segments of the city population, such as tenants. As the fire was confined to a mere 8 compounds within a small area of about 100m2, initial estimates speculated that about 20 people had being affected. However, the enumeration process conducted by the team in collaboration with local residents revealed that it was in fact a total of 97 people, a third of whom were children. About 80% of the victims were tenants. This yields an abrupt indication of how vulnerable groups such as tenants and the youth in households are often inadvertently not accounted for, leaving them virtually invisible by the community themselves in times of disasters.

    Lacking the means to enter the housing and land markets elsewhere in the city, many women in men are forced to reside in informal settlements like Cockle Bay. Therefore, these areas have experienced consistent densification and land reclamation over the years, particularly since the Civil War. Aside from high housing densities, most informal settlements also face scarce provision of basic services. Communities are forced to utilise improvised infrastructures, causing overloading of electrical points. In the area affected by the blaze, all 34 families relied on two metered connections for electricity.

    Everyday life in Cockle Bay. Photo by: A. Allen

    Some might posit that informal settlements are hazards in themselves and ought to be eradicated. However, these settlements house a sizeable proportion of Freetown’s population, with no alternative dwelling options. Moreover, their residents perform jobs that support the daily functioning of Freetown; quietly they run the city. Demolishing their living quarters as a ‘protective measure’ against risk simply displaces the issue – disrupting lives, livelihoods, family ties and social organisations – making poor women and men even more invisible. Events like the fire in Cockle Bay remind us of the need to stop blaming the victims and victimising the poor, the need to acknowledge that they live at risk not as an exception but as a common reality, the need to seek pathways for more inclusive urbanisation beyond risk.

     

    Reference

    Di Marino, Marco; Lacroix, Lea; Nastoulas, Illias; Simpson, Paul; Trintafillides, Georgina; Williams, Cai Anwyl ; and Yang, Deyu. (2018) Urban Risk Trap: Fire Dynamics in Freetown’s Informal Settlements. Policy Brief No. 2. SLURC/DPU Action-Learning Alliance.

     

     

    The Holy City of Makkah: Growth, Informal Areas and Urban Identity

    By Theresa M J Abrassart, on 16 January 2017

    Spatial transformations caused by a coterie of social and economic factors have profoundly altered the urban landscape in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. In a lecture held at the Bartlett’s Department Planning Unit (DPU), urban specialist Dr. Muhammad Khadim discussed informal settlements in Makkah and measures to address the challenges posed by their growth.

    In Makkah, a city of 2.2 million, there have been several factors which have caused this urban transformation. Informal settlement growth has been driven by an ever-increasing number of pilgrims (Hajj, Umrah), the city’s constant desire to invest in upgrading the surrounding built environment, and the profit motive spurring the intervention of public and private interests.

    Construction behind the Kaaba © Creative Commons

    Construction behind the Kaaba
    © Creative Commons

    While Makkah’s inhabitants represent over 80 nationalities, there exists a bifurcation amongst the rights and privileges of the Saudi citizenry and foreigners over the urban landscape. According to Dr. Khadim, informal settlements are primarily inhabited by non Saudi nationals, which are also illegal residents of the Kingdom. There are approximately 65 settlements spread across 16 primary locations, consisting of approximately 40% of Makkah’s total population. Researchers contend that roughly 1.5 million people will be living in informal settlements by 2040.

     

    Makkah is a religious city, with approximately 10 million annual visitors. Pilgrims are projected to top 30 million by 2040. Large numbers of pilgrims have remained in the city over the past several decades and constitute a significant proportion of the migrant labour force. These informal laborers, lacking the means to access the formal real estate market are reliant on renting from Saudi nationals providing a financial opportunity for some legal residents.

     

    To accommodate the surge in visitors, mega developments have sprung up across the city specifically around the Kaaba and other religious sites. These projects are exclusive and cater to a socioeconomic segment that is not accessible to informal residents. Lacking adequate planning and thorough municipal oversight these developments rarely adhere to historic spatial configurations.

     

    There has been a distinct lack of initiatives to address the rapid transformation of the urban landscape of informal settlements in Makkah. While a by-law was promulgated by Makkah’s municipality in May 2008, the legal framework falls short of being a well defined and binding legal document.

     

    According to Dr. Khadim, the sole initiative that has sought to deal with informal settlement redevelopment, Jabal Al Sharashef has a number of limitations. Chiefly, the redevelopment plan remains costly and largely inaccessible for existing informal inhabitants. These modern and glitzy constructions are highly occupied and do not assign sufficient space for low-income residents.

     

    To address these issues Dr. Khadim outlined several key points. He contended that the Saudi government should draft a national policy for guiding the upgrading of informal sites and construct a national legal framework for regulating informal settlements. A standardized spatial database for all informal areas should be established, and an improvement in the current redevelopment bylaw should be instituted to make it more binding.

     

    To conclude, Dr. Khadim argued that the redevelopment of informal areas in Makkah should form part of a larger urban regeneration effort. This overall spatial development plan should refer to best practice cases in other parts of the world and align with the recently released Sustainable Development Goals.

    You can hear the lecture in the audio podcast here: