The Bartlett Development Planning Unit
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    Harnessing ideas, partnerships and resources to transform urban Sierra Leone

    By Andrea Rigon, on 21 October 2016

    Dr Andrea Rigon and Dr Alexandre Apsan Frediani  from the DPU coordinated and supported a delegation from Freetown (Sierra Leone) at the UN Habitat III conference. The delegation included Sam Gibson, Mayor of Freetown, Sulaiman Parker, the Environment and Social Officer of Freetown City Council and the two co-directors of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC), Dr Joseph Macarthy and Braima Koroma. SLURC is a research centre created through a partnership between the Bartlett Development Planning Unit and Njala University with the aim of generating knowledge that could bring together city actors to achieve just urban development.

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    Sierra Leone is one of the countries with the lowest Human Development Index and is facing a process of urbanisation which has the potential to improve the well-being of its citizens. On Sunday, the delegation participated to the World Mayors Assembly. Mayors of the world strongly asked to be recognised as the central actors in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda and asked for more powers, particularly in terms of direct access to finance mechanisms.  There was also a mayor call for more women in local government leadership. The Mayor of Freetown had the opportunity to informally meet with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and put the needs of cities in least developed countries on the political agenda. The delegation had the opportunity to meet with IIHS, an indian-based research institution which had similar purposes and learn form their history.

     

    The Mayor of Freetown met with UN-Habitat to discuss the challenges of the city in terms of appropriate legal frameworks to implement city planning. These reflections were later presented at the special session on urban rules and regulations. The discussion also highlighted the need to clarify responsibilities between the city and central government and the need for the city to improve their own revenues. The delegation was also approached by the UN programme Capital Development Fund, which helps cities getting access to capital markets and bridging relationships with donors, in order to discuss municipal finance

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    The following day the delegation met with the Secretary for Territory and Housing of the Quito Municipality and their civil society partners to learn from the experience of Quito. A number of areas were identified in which Quito has very interesting and successful policies that could benefit Freetown. These are the effective system of property tax, betterment tax and land value capture which are used to invest in the city infrastructure. Moreover, the land regularisation process for Quito informal settlements can be a useful model for Freetown. The delegation was also introduced to the cooperative housing model which enabled low income groups to access high quality housing and regenerate important ecological areas next to the creeks. We discussed the potential for south-south city-to-city cooperation and the Quito Municipality was open to organising a trip to Sierra Leone. In the afternoon, we had a meeting at the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing where we furthered the discussion around south-south cooperation and the possibility of a delegation from Ecuador including both municipal and central government staff in order to share with Sierra Leone  on division of labour and cooperation between these levels of government could work for the city.

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    On Wednesday, the delegation met with Cities Alliance to discuss the possibility to expand their programme to Sierra Leone and focus on upgrading through an alliances of government, civil society and research institutions. Later, we met with the Government of Kenya to discuss slum upgrading approaches and learn from their experience with the Minimum Intervention Approach based on community building, land titling and infrastructure. They invited us to the session of the Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme (PSUP), a UN programme in multiple countries. The Mayor asked for Sierra Leone to join the programme and the European Commission which fund it welcomed Sierra Leone as long as central and local government are jointly willing to implement slum-upgrading policies.

     

    On Thursday, SLURC was launched internationally through a press conference to explain how it operates as an urban learning alliance introducing a new mode of urban knowledge production through partnerships with central and local government, universities, civil society organizations, and local communities. The following people explained the importance of an organization such as SLURC: Mr. Sam Gibson, Mayor of Freetown, Mr. Francis Reffell, YMCA Sierra Leone, Dr. Joseph Macarthy, SLURC co-director of SLURC, Prof. Julio Davila, Director of Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London, Dr. Irene Vance, Comic Relief.

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    Following this international launch, a networking invited brought together six urban alliances between universities and city actors, from four continents to share their insights and recommendations for SLURC and how urban learning alliances can play a key role in the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

    Friday morning was dedicated to visit two communities and projects dealing with housing. In the morning, the delegation visited Los Pinos a community in the outskirts of Quito, while the afternoon was dedicated to getting to know the  housing project of the cooperative Solidaridad.IMG_5353

    Citywide upgrading strategies in Phnom Penh, Cambodia: three years of engagement

    By Giovanna Astolfo, on 23 May 2016

    In a famous picture of Phnom Penh in 1979, two children stand in the foreground looking steadily at the camera, while behind them the city, once the ‘pearl of Asia’, is nothing but a desolated and spectral bunch of abandoned buildings. The urban history of the capital of Cambodia is demarcated by iterative evacuations and expulsions of its population. Although there is no agreement on numbers and scale of the phenomenon, the first evacuation took place in Phnom Penh during the Pol Pot regime. The vast majority of the urban population was forcibly deported to the countryside, in order to fulfil the utopia of a rural Kampuchea and a classless agrarian society; while public buildings, cultural and institutional symbols, were emptied, abandoned and eventually destroyed in what can be referred to as urbicide, an act of extreme violence towards the city and what it represents for its people.

    At the end of the war, people returned to Phnom Penh. As refugees in their own city, they occupied abandoned buildings or settled in unregulated land. When, two decades later, Cambodia opened to the global market, and new foreign investments flew into the city, that land became attractive to the appetite of new developers. As a consequence, entire communities were brutally evicted and forcibly moved to peripheral areas. Relocations took place from the 90s to ‐ officially ‐ the early 2010s. Over this period, with more than 50 relocation sites around Phnom Penh, the relocation process has become the main way to produce the city.

    Today, urban planning is still not high in the national agenda (there is a city strategy plan which level of implementation is hard to grasp and local investment plans which consider private development only), while the housing policy (released in 2014) is poorly articulated and not yet implemented. Although a social housing policy (programme) for low income people is under study, the housing needs of the poor are not addressed. In general terms, local government is not much interfering in the land market; such a laissez faire approach is favouring private-sector development, with no alternative for the poor. As the land on the market is not accessible to them, poor communities keep occupying public or private interstitial land along canals and unused infrastructure, mostly vulnerable and prone to flooding, while gated communities and satellite cities are growing in number. Given that 50% of the urban population are below the poverty line, who can afford these houses? Gated communities are probably aimed at a middle class that still does not exists or better to foreigners and officials that are part of a highly corrupted political system.

    Looking inward: challenges at site level. Smor San community, Chbar Ampov district, Phnom Penh, settled since the 1970s on a graveyard. Pictures by Catalina Ortiz.

    Looking inward: challenges at site level. Smor San community, Chbar Ampov district, Phnom Penh, settled since the 1970s on a graveyard. Pictures by Catalina Ortiz.

    Most of the sites selected for the MSc BUDD fieldtrip – taking place in Phnom Penh for the third consecutive year – reveal aspects and nuances of these urban processes. Particularly, Pong Ro Senchey and Steung Kombot communities are informal settlements on narrow strips of public land stretched between private properties waiting for redevelopment; while Smor San settlement is located on a graveyard. By learning from the unique approach of our partners, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), Community Architects Cambodia (CAN-CAM), and Community Development Foundation (CDF), and from the people in each community, BUDD students, divided into three groups and joined by local students of architecture and urbanism, by UN intern and representative of the housing department, worked for five days in the three sites. Five days of emotionally intense engagement with the people and the context, trying to identify needs and aspirations, while unpacking the complex power relations within the government, digging into the legal and normative frameworks to understand how to ‘break the vertical’ and to disclose the potential for change.

    After working with the communities to develop site upgrading strategies, the students were asked to produce an ulterior effort, that of looking across the different sites (and for this purpose the original groups have been reshuffled into new groups each one including at least two members from each site group) to address what we call ‘citywide upgrading’. This is a difficult and ambitious task, as it encompasses the multidimensionality of urban issues at the political, social, spatial and economic levels. Particularly, it calls for a multi-scalar reasoning and strategising that takes into consideration the community singularity and agency as well as the national policy framework in which community action needs to be framed. The scaling up of site upgrading strategies does not happen in a merely quantitative manner (i.e. iteration of a similar strategy), but rather considering the city as a wider community, where spatial proximity is replaced by shared practices and interests. Citywide upgrading is at the core of the BUDD pedagogy, and although this is not a new theory, BUDD students are currently contributing to its redefinition as a development theory for the poor, deeply embedded into the practice of ACHR and CAN.

    Engaging the community to identify priorities for upgrading in Steung Kombot, Russey Keo district. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci

    Engaging the community to identify priorities for upgrading in Steung Kombot, Russey Keo district. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci

    Amongst the principles for citywide upgrading, three seem to be crucial.

    First, to include the urban poor in the ongoing development. While Phnom Penh is witnessing fast urbanisation and growth, poor people are still uninscribed in such growth. How to capture and redistribute the profits and benefits? How to dismantle the hierarchical system that is at the basis of unequal development?

    Secondly, to question the regulatory role of state authority. Although the government is merely indulging in highly corrupted laissez faire, legal and policy frameworks exist (for instance, art. 5 of the housing policy includes onsite upgrading). The question is how to implement them? How to monitor the implementation through accountable mechanisms?

    Third, to address the aid dependency and foster self determination of the communities. This stems from the acknowledgement of existing potential: the people knowledge, skills, technology and capital. How to achieve political recognition? How to increase the visibility of people processes?

     

    BUDD and Khmer students @work learning from each other. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci/Giovanna Astolfo

    BUDD and Khmer students @work learning from each other. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci/Giovanna Astolfo

    The above questions have been addressed through small, short or long term, concrete actions such as: environmental upgrading particularly related to flooding risk (households repeatedly affected by seasonal flooding or flooding related to climate change and land development, can access to new grants for upgrading); online knowledge platforms (as people are increasingly connected, online platforms can ensure easy and fast access to knowledge, and data collection and sharing; such platforms can be accessible also to NGOs and local authority); network upgrading fund (as private development is happening, social responsibility can be strengthen, for instance through new funding schemes sourced from the private sector and led by people); social ombudsman (in order to ensure the inclusion of the community as well as the transparency of the decision making process, the implementation of policy and scrutiny of the process).

    As in the previous two years, strategies have been publicly presented by students and representatives of the communities, serving as a platform to advocate ‘the cause’ with national and local authorities. As political recognition remains one of the main challenges that the communities in Phnom Penh face, after three years of engagement, the ‘cumulative impacts’ of the work developed by BUDD with local partners has inspired a young and strong generation of architects equipped to take up the challenge of a more just future for our cities

    Presentations to the local authorities in Khan (district of) Por Senchey and Russey Keo. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci/Giovanna Astolfo

    Presentations to the local authorities in Khan (district of) Por Senchey and Russey Keo. Pictures by Giorgio Talocci/Giovanna Astolfo

     


    Giovanna Astolfo is a teaching fellow at the MSc Building and Urban Design for Development, she recently joined students on overseas fieldwork in Cambodia. This is the third year that the MSc BUDD has visited Cambodia, continuing a collaboration with the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and Community Architects Network Cambodia

    If Habitat III wants to uphold the right to housing, it needs to address financialization

    By Rafaella Simas Lima, on 11 May 2016

    At the start of April, a number of civil society groups, members of NGOs and activists from across Europe met in Barcelona for the European meeting of the Global Platform for the Right to the City. This was in part to complement the Habitat III meeting on Public Space that was to take place later that week. Habitat III will be the third installment of the UN conference on human settlements, held every 20 years. At this Global Platform meeting in Barcelona, priorities relating to the ‘Right to the City’ in Europe and strategic aims for Habitat III, to take place in Quito this October, were discussed.

    Global Platform for the Right to the City meeting in Barcelona

    Global Platform of the Right to the City meeting in Barcelona

    One of the main issues that emerged in the Global Platform meeting was the financialization of real estate. Financialization can be defined as a “pattern of accumulation in which profit-making occurs increasingly through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production” (Aalbers 2009, p. 284). The financialization of housing refers specifically to the linking of housing markets with finance markets, where housing is viewed primarily as a financial good. This is what allows banks to speculate on land and housing, which causes house prices to rise far beyond what most people can afford. The linking of mortgages with financial products, especially in the United States, was a central factor in the 2008 economic crisis that had catastrophic effects across the globe.

    In a working group on the topic, participants exchanged experiences of how financialization has manifested in their respective countries. A member of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for people affected by mortgages) in Barcelona summarized the particularly dire situation in Spain, where over 400,000 evictions have taken place since 2008. While each European country has its own unique context, many common themes emerged, such as speculation, inflated housing prices, empty homes, the selling off of social housing, and an increase in evictions and displacement. These phenomena were linked to a systematic eroding of regulations that have allowed the financial sector to exploit housing for profit.

    An open letter to the Habitat III Secretariat signed by members of the Global Platform points to the connection between the 2008 financial crisis and its context of housing financialization, a topic which it says is strikingly absent from Habitat III documents thus far. The letter asserts that land and housing must be treated as goods for people and not for profit. In this vein, the signatories call for a new Habitat III policy unit to be set up that focuses on the global financialization of real estate, to provide recommendations for the social and political regulation of real estate markets and actors.

    But at the moment, as the letter states, Habitat III documents do not seem to be dealing with the issue. The Policy Paper on Housing Policies, an official input into Habitat III, states that “Housing stands at the center of the New Urban Agenda”. It re-affirms UN Member states’ commitment to the right to housing, which it says must be adequate and affordable, with security of tenure. Yet in the 74 pages of the document, financialization is not once mentioned. In a section on affordable housing, there is reference to the financial crisis, and to the increase in mortgage debt and repossession of homes, especially in Europe (p.10). The global estimate that 330 million households are currently financially stretched by housing costs is also provided. But this section concludes with “Nearly half of the housing deficit in urban areas is attributable to the high cost of homes, and to the lack of access to financing” (p. 10).

    In this sense, rising house prices are presented as a natural and uncontestable process, with the core problem simply being that many people do not have access to housing finance. There is no questioning of why house prices are allowed to rise at such a rate in the first place, nor is there acknowledgement of the role of the financial sector in inflating real estate values. The report mentions how vulnerable groups are traditionally excluded from home ownership and rental markets, implying that the solution to the housing deficit is to get more people in on this market. (The paper seems to ignore the phenomenon of sub-prime or predatory lending integral to the 2008 crisis, where vulnerable groups were not excluded, but explicitly targeted for mortgage loans.) Overall, the focus is on the individual requirements needed to access housing, and not on structural factors and the institutions responsible for shaping access to housing.

    Given the very limited diagnosis analysis of the situation, the paper’s proposed policy solutions largely miss the point. The report states that to “To provide affordable housing, the private sector requires incentives (adequate capital and financial returns) and an enabling environment (development process and public policy)” (pp. 22-23). In other words, the financial institutions and private developers who are largely responsible for the massive housing crisis do not need to re-examine any of their practices; rather, the public needs to provide incentives for them to build “affordable” housing because the relentless profit motive of private developers and financial institutions cannot be challenged. In addition, the public sector must provide an “enabling environment” for the private sector to do its work, as if it has not already been doing so by implementing neoliberal policies to slash regulation of lending and speculation.

    To address the assumed core problem of people with limited or no access to credit for housing, the policy paper states “housing finance and microfinance should be integrated into the broader financial system in order to mobilize more resources, both domestically and internationally”(p. 21). This statement ignores the extent to which housing finance has already been integrated into the financial system, and what disastrous effects this has had. If anything, the paper seems to be suggesting an increase in financialization, rather than a re-thinking of this phenomenon that has been a major factor in the housing deficit.

    The housing paper does mention that policies are needed to reduce property speculation and even mentions the “social regulation of real estate”, and that these can be strengthened if “municipalities adopt inclusive housing ordinances and appropriate property taxation policies” (p. 17). This is a start, but it is not enough for a global urban agenda. The details of these policy proposals are not explored in any meaningful way in the current policy paper, nor are they linked to address the current embedding of real estate within the financial sector. Furthermore, this is not just a local problem for municipalities to deal with; both national and international institutions hold responsibility for our current situation, and need to be targeted as entry points for intervention.

    There are many forms of regulation that would at the very least be a step in the right direction in terms of housing affordability. But we need to address the now assumed linkage between real estate and the financial sector if we want to get to the root of the problem. For a conference aiming to come up with a “new urban agenda”, and that has previously agreed on such rights such as the right to adequate housing, the issue of financialization, which has put housing that much more out of reach for millions of people, needs to be addressed at Habitat III.

    References:

    Aalbers, M. B. (2009) “The sociology and geography of mortgage markets: Reflections on the financial crisis”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 33(2), 281–290.

    Habitat III Policy Paper 10 – Housing Policies, 29 February 2016, available at: https://www.habitat3.org/bitcache/3fa49d554e10b9ea6391b6e3980d2a32ce979ce9?vid=572979&disposition=inline&op=view

    Possible tags: Habitat III, Financialization, Housing policy, Right to the City, Right to Adequate Housing, Barcelona, Europe


     

    Rafaella Lima is an alumna of the the DPU and currently works as a graduate teaching assistant for the MSc Urban Development Planning. She has been involved in research looking at civil society engagement with Habitat III processes in various countries.