What would land security for urban informal settlement residents look like if the state prioritised, and rewarded, food sovereignty and security instead of automatically turning first to questions of land tenure and property rights? This question is a provocation to think land security for marginalised groups anew, and simultaneously address a key dimension of food and nutrition in concerns for social protection.
When the state talks about land and addressing insecurity of residents in informal settlements, the first issues they reach for are always tenure and property rights. This is because the framing of land as a commodity within the interaction of supply and demand is so prevalent. However, there are other ways of considering land and food systems which could also form the basis for a contract between the state and residents in informal settlements so that food security could become a guarantee for land security.
Status quo of land use management
It has already been established that “clear and secure land tenure can improve livelihoods and sustainable management of natural resources, including forests, and promote sustainable development and responsible investment that eradicates poverty and food insecurity (Mennen, 2015).” UN SDGs talk about “access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property” as well as “including secure and equal access to land.” Despite this and the evidence around benefits of secure land tenure, governments dither, but rethinking it from a food security perspective could open new avenues
When flipping the order of things and re-prioritizing, putting food security first could lead to land tenure for those providing the food, taking care of the community gardens and looking after the produce, as well as act as a quantifiable alternative to social protection reducing the burden on the state. As Li puts it, the meaning given to land varies depending on who you are asking and as well as the “materiality” and the “inscription devices define what type of resource land is (Li, 2014).” Also, “land tenure has usually been viewed as a supply-side’ issue, while food security has been considered a `demand-side’ issue (Maxwell and Wiebe, 1999).” Having this distinction in mind and rethinking the relationship between food security and land tenure has the potential to flip the politics of the discourse and the relations of power within the territories, in fact giving other actors who have a stake in the discourse a seat at the table. Empowered and organised communities or coalitions could use a new narrative when referring to the land they take care of and shift the supply and demand logic.
Peru and food insecurity
Drawing on the example of contemporary Peruvian food security: data from the Food and Agriculture Organization states that over 51% of the population is living in moderate food insecurity, meaning that “people have reduced the quality of their diet or are eating less than they need (FAO, 2022).” Exploring the links between land tenure and food security, Maxwell and Wiebe highlight how “access to food derives from opportunities to produce food directly or to exchange other commodities or services for food (Maxwell and Wiebe, 1999).”
Currently, the Peruvian government has a variety of social programmes tackling food insecurity but none of them address the root of the problem. The programmes established now include food handouts, cash transfers or government-sponsored soup kitchens with little to no capacity building. What would other strategies to tackle food insecurity look like? Perhaps involving communities themselves and supporting co-produced solutions to move away from a top-down welfare practice to a bottom-up coalition of government and non-government actors.
Working with informality
Acknowledging and rewarding the existence of established community networks, artisanal risk prevention and natural disaster management from the grassroots as well as community-led soup kitchens should be taken seriously as solid examples of community infrastructures and human and social capital (Moser, 1998). Reframing these assets into food security and governance is just a matter of recognising and working with informality rather than punishing it.
Collaborative bottom-up strategies through their “invented spaces of citizenship” (Miraftab, 2004) fight exclusion and aim to support local collective action for survival whilst ensuring food security for the communities they serve. Seeing that these initiatives at the grassroots are working well, why not add additional government support in the form of land for community gardens specifically for those community soup kitchens that are already mapped and established?
Overall, considering the materiality of land, there could be “an expanded capacity to envision underutilised land as a globally important asset capable of producing food, profits, and a reduction of poverty as well (Li, 2014).”
In conclusion, the question of refocusing on food security and sovereignty as the starting point for land urban security as well as looking at it as an alternative to current social protection policies changes priorities. It gives a strengthened platform to insurgent planners and bottom-up community-led strategies of survival while promoting ownership and a sound alternative to the state’s responsibility to its citizens regarding social protection.
Community-led soup kitchen-Absalon Alarcon in Lima, Peru (Photo: TECHO Peru)
Maria, community leader, holding produce from her urban community garden (photo: TECHO Peru)
Li, T.M. (2014) “What is land? assembling a resource for Global Investment,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39(4), pp. 589–602. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12065.
Miraftab, F. (2004) Invited and Invented Spaces of Participation: Neoliberal Citizenship and Feminists’ Expanded Notion of Politics. Wagadu: Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies. (e journal). http://appweb.cortland.edu/ojs/index.php/Wagadu
In light of the recent forced evictions of squatter settlements in Yangon, this blog serves as a reminder that, beyond the grave human rights violations, significant living heritage is being lost. Informal housing practices are entangled with the city’s development, history, identity, and resistance. A women-led collective housing model is presented as a pathway that enables the preservation of that heritage while also improving people’s access to material, social and political capital, writes Marina Kolovou Kouri
Forced evictions of squatter settlements have a long and multi-layered history in Myanmar, most notably Yangon—its largest city attracting rural migrants and people fleeing conflict or natural disasters. Several months into the February 1st 2021 coup, local administrators across Yangon started distributing eviction notices to dozens of settlements, following orders of the State Administration Council. Within days or weeks utmost, informal dwellers were ordered to demolish their houses and leave the areas they occupied. Fearing violence and arbitrary arrests, thousands of people in different townships started disassembling their homes from roadsides, industrial zones, and along railway tracks. Beyond the evident human rights violations such evictions constitute, another much less discussed dimension of this punitive displacement is the loss of significant living heritage.
Understanding heritage in Yangon continues to be relatively narrow, rarely extending beyond colonial buildings, and usually accompanied with an emphasis that Yangon is the last metropolis in Southeast Asia with such a large stock of colonial architecture. At the same time, informal practices of producing space continue to be misrecognised and deliberately erased. This refers not only to housing but also to informal labour and the progressive displacement of street vendors from certain neighbourhoods. There are many reasons for such erasure, including the dominant view of informality as having no place in a ‘modern’, ‘clean’ and ‘beautiful’ city. To a great extent, such representations are internalised, making it difficult to identify heritage that is not seen as worthy, even by its own carriers.
Informal settlements as living heritage
One of the premises of our research project that began in 2019 has been to frame informal settlements as an integral part of Yangon’s living heritage. The application of the living heritage concept on such types of urbanisation has been relatively rare, yet it allows to unpack important elements. The emphasis of living heritage on continuity—of use, community connections, cultural expressions, and care (Poulios, 2014)—can potentially equip us with an additional argument to contest the displacement of such settlements. This is attempted not only from a ‘strategic’ (ibid.) perspective, i.e., as a compelling entry point to engage with different stakeholders, but also as a way to encourage urban poor communities to re-evaluate their own practices and environments and recognise their value from a heritage point of view. In this short blog, I attempt to present (some) aspects where we can locate living heritage within informal housing practices.
Figure 1: An informal roadside settlement in Yangon (photo by author)
Starting from the affective dimensions, one point Alawadi (2016) raised is that place attachment should justify preservation even if the physical attributes of a place do not comply with conventional understandings of heritage. Reinforcing this idea, Jones (2017) notes that the social value of heritage may not be linked to the physical fabric at all. Various scholars argue that living heritage resides just as much in meanings that people attribute to their environments and practices and in memories tied to places and communities. By all definitions, informal settlements constitute sites of living heritage for enacting a collective identity, bearing different imaginations, aspirations, and untold stories.
Besides that, informal dwellers are integral to Yangon’s complex history of development, shaped by the movement of people in all directions, in many cases by force. Successive waves of evictions from the center outwards, the city’s restructuring around new employment zones, and rural-urban migration flows have played a defining role in the proliferation of informality in peripheral areas. Hence, these communities can be viewed as sites containing the imprint of the dynamics that transformed Yangon and Myanmar more broadly. Informal dwellers are carriers of the history of these defining moments that are critical to document and understand to shape more inclusive visions for the future of Yangon.
These sites also hold the knowledge of people’s coping strategies with adverse circumstances, relying on ‘informal’ arrangements to navigate exclusionary systems. Engagement with poor communities has time and again revealed practices that carry a lot of wisdom that is somewhat lost in the obsession for ‘universal’, one-directional development. This can be construction techniques, unconventional use of materials, or vernacular ways to adapt to climate change. What we find in the peripheries of Yangon resonates strongly with what Shafqat, Marinova, and Khan (2021) document in a settlement in Pakistan, namely that informal urban settlements are “places of rural remnants, reservoirs of regional cultural heritage […] that are brought to the urban realm by rural migrants.”
At the same time, informal settlements have been significant hubs of either subtle or more heads-on resistance against different oppressive regimes of Myanmar. For example, soon after the popular uprising of 1988, hundreds of thousands of so-called squatters were evicted from areas where resistance was organised (Kyed, 2019). This disproportionately harsh treatment is a testament to their role in the pro-democracy movement. This is seen again today, with the urban poor being at the frontlines of the opposition through the organisation of protests, strikes and otherwise support of the revolution, which has revived the regime’s same old strategy to punish them with evictions.
Lastly, informal dwellers have played a vital part in shaping a regional housing movement. Urban poor communities have been organizing in different ways to resist evictions and dispossession. Many have also been active in putting themselves on the map by doing enumerations and using that information to leverage service delivery and resettlement support. In addition, urban poor networks and their allies have been influential advocates for better housing, finance, and land access. Notably, low-income women have been at the forefront of a community-led housing practice that managed to gain recognition from the government after a decade of operation and will be discussed below.
Enabling continuity through a collective housing practice
All these qualities and significance of informal settlements for Yangon’s heritage do not outbalance the precarious living conditions of their dwellers through multiple forms of exclusion. A pathway that allows and encourages the preservation of said living heritage while also improving people’s access to material, social and political capital is encountered in a grassroots-driven housing model supported by a small NGO and a citywide women’s network. This practice is built on the principle of collectivity, from how people pool their funds through savings groups to how they organise, find land, design and construct their houses, and build their infrastructure.
Figure 2: One of the collective housing projects in the outskirts of Yangon (photo by author)
First, this housing approach allows for long-term continuity of use—simply put, people’s dwelling and livelihood strategies. The threat of displacement discouraged people from investing in their homes—not only financially but also in putting the care and time into creating comfortable living environments. Yet, we see a radically different motivation to improve their habitat once they feel a sense of permanence. Securing land and housing gives them both the mental space and the actual means to plan for their future. Starting from basic structures, people incrementally transform their units, and continuously upgrade them as their needs and capacity change.
Another aspect is the continuity of cultural expressions and the valorisation of people’s ways of life. This manifests just as much in their physical environments as in their daily practices. For example, the familiarity of housing typologies—in contrast to high-rise public housing—allows them to forge deeper connections to their communities and use their spaces for more than just shelter. People establish home-based businesses, grow their food in front of their house or communal gardens, pass on the knowledge of their traditional games and customs to the children, share their stories and recipes. Moreover, social and religious events are organised and celebrated together, continuously nurturing their collective identity.
The scheme also cultivates community connections. It brings people together, who, although not necessarily familiar with each other from the start, grow into tightly knit communities. The practice of collective savings is a vehicle through which members establish trust, share accountability, and foster relationships across a citywide network of women’s groups. These connections enable the exchange of knowledge, practices, strategies, and experiences, reinforcing their solidarity and self-recognition.
Fig. 3 An artwork depicting a typical meeting of a women’s savings group (photo by author)
Lastly, this grassroots-driven practice allows people to rebuild mutual support systems, which often suffer either from the actual act of displacement or even from the threat thereof. These systems of care are an infrastructure that, especially the urban poor, are very much reliant on since they are often excluded from social services. Collective action and shared responsibility strengthen people’s bonds over time, leading to descriptions of the community as a big family. Parents help each other with childcare; neighbours dedicate time and labour to assist someone upgrading their house; they support each other in sickness. Such networks are critical to people’s sense of resilience, confidence, and safety.
This housing practice continues to survive during the ongoing crisis, largely thanks to these infrastructures of care and collective organisation. The same cannot be said about thousands of households that faced forcible eviction over the past few months. Many communities have had no choice but to scatter, with some returning to their villages and hometowns, while others have tried finding different corners of the city to set up what was left of their houses, with the promise of “meeting again when this is over.” The extent to which the re-conceptualisation of informal housing practices as living heritage would be a convincing argument against their displacement, at least during the ongoing crisis, is rather faint. Nevertheless, as more and more settlements are being forcibly evicted across many towns and cities, it is important to underline that there is more at stake than a housing and rights crisis. What is at stake are also memories, practices, bits of knowledge, livelihoods, networks, friendships.
Alawadi, K. (2016). Place Attachment as a Motivation for Community Preservation: The Demise of an Old, Bustling, Dubai Community. Urban Studies, 54(13), 2973–2997. doi.org/10.1177/0042098016664690
Jones, S. (2017). Wrestling with the Social Value of Heritage: Problems, Dilemmas and Opportunities. Journal of Community Archaeology & Heritage, 4(1), 21–37. doi.org/10.1080/20518196.2016.1193996
Poulios, I. (2014). Discussing Strategy in Heritage Conservation. Journal of Cultural Heritage Management and Sustainable Development, 4(1), 16–34. doi.org/10.1108/JCHMSD-10-2012-0048
Shafqat, R.; Marinova, D.; Khan, S. (2021). Placemaking in Informal Settlements: The Case of France Colony, Islamabad, Pakistan. Urban Science, 5(2), 49. doi.org/10.3390/urbansci5020049
 This work is part of the research project “Yangon Stories: Living heritage as a tool to prevent spatial violence” led by Dr. Catalina Ortiz, Associate Professor at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, University College London.
This work was presented as part of the Roundtable event: ‘Living Heritage and Urban Informalities: Perspectives from Southeast Asian Cities’ hosted by the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre in collaboration with the Development Planning Unit at UCL and the Urban Salon. A video recording of the event is available to view here.
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the author alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Marina Kolovou Kouri is an urban designer and researcher working on community-led development with a focus on Myanmar. She has collaborated with civil society and grassroots organisations in Yangon on urban safety, housing access, displacement, and participatory design.
A research collaboration between The Bartlett DPU staff, UN-Habitat, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Habitat International Coalition (HIC), Cities Alliance, the Municipality of Medellin and six grassroots organisations part of Movimiento de Pobladores and Sandelion – a local transmedia production organisation- to co-design a digital platform that helps to learn about slum upgrading strategies.
Graphic recording of the workshop ‘Co-designing a transmedia storytelling platform’. Drawn by Melissa Avila (@MelissaDibuja)
Learning across cities is vital to building cities ‘that leave no one behind.’
Global slum dwellers have grown on average six million a year since 2000, and by 2030, about 3 billion people will require proper housing (UN-Habitat 2014). Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, expressed to the UN Assembly that “the living conditions in informal settlements are one of the most pervasive violations of human rights globally and yet this is being ignored by most and exacerbated by many” (2018:1). In this context, slum upgrading “remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums” (United Nations 2014:15). World leaders have committed to ensure ‘access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing, basic services and to upgrade slums’ as well as to ‘strengthen global partnerships to support and achieve the ambitious targets of the 2030 Agenda’ (UN Habitat, 2016). Following this, SDGs 11 and 17 as well as the UN-Habitat New Urban Agenda highlight the need for people-centred approaches and peer learning platforms as crucial preconditions to engage stakeholders across cities to implement international agendas locally, particularly about Slum Upgrading Strategies (SUS).
Even though learning about SUS across cities is imperative for urban governance and planning in contemporary cities, how such learning occurs and the types of knowledge that are valued, documented and circulated have been less scrutinised and understood. The research project “COiNVITE: Activating Urban Learning for Slum Upgrading” financed by the Bartlett ECR-GCRF, led by Dr Catalina Ortiz -@CataOrtizA- and Gynna Millan -@Gynaji- (PDRA) at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU) aims at finding alternative spaces and methodologies to recalibrate the debate on slum upgrading policies and the role of the circulation of urban knowledge across cities through new visual and digital tools. To achieve this, COiNVITE will deliver the prototype of a Transmedia Storytelling Platform co-designed by multiple urban actors.
International workshop in Medellín with the new actors alliance. Photo by Sandra Tabares
Transmedia Storytelling for Learning
Storytelling has been as a powerful tool for planning practitioners to connect with more human-centred approaches to urban development. Storytelling is emerging as a key tool to raise public awareness (Anderson & McLachlan 2015; Cities Alliance 2018), policy advocacy (Davidson 2017, Brown & Tucker 2017) and peer to peer learning (Hara 2008, UCLG 2018) since generating emotional connections is essential for triggering social change. In this light, urban planning in itself has been described as a ‘performed story’ (Sandercock 2003:13) and storytelling in the field has received recent attention as a means for persuasion and empowerment (Sandercock 2003; Throgmorton 2007; van Hulst 2012; Mager & Matthey 2015; Olesen 2017; Devos et al. 2018). In sum, storytelling helps to foster empathy, to understand the meaning of complex experiences and to inspire action.
With the rise of the digital era, new digital technologies at hand have redefined the way we tell, connect and engaged with stories. The world of entertainment and the field of media and communication studies have framed the emerging strategies of communication as Transmedia Storytelling (TS). Transmedia implies using multiple channels to tell a story from different angles in a coordinated and unified way. It also offers as an expansive and immersive experience using multiple platforms where each media provides a unique contribution to the development of stories (i.e. community radio or newspapers, WhatsApp, Instagram, cartoons, etc.). This new way to engage with storytelling is “by nature fluid and fragmented… in transmedia, meaning changes with exploration… this suggests that knowledge is fluid; it changes with time” (Pence 2012:137). In that way, TS offers new avenues to mobilise learning.
In urban learning codified knowledge is more easily expressed since it is written, and tacit knowledge –the one that often communities have- does not travel as well and is more difficult to communicate (McFarlane 2011). Transmedia helps to translate tacit knowledge and make it travel in different formats. Henry Jenkins, who coined the term, argues that TS “is the ideal aesthetic form of collective intelligence”, that is to say, “those new social structures that facilitate the production and circulation of knowledge within a networked society” (2007: 1). That is why, TS, translated into the development and planning field, offers enormous potential for the circulation of diverse urban narratives and alternative tacit knowledges that reside in local urban communities.
Going beyond the ‘best practice’
Urban decision-makers look for best practices to inspire action and speed up effective urban interventions. The research project uses as a pilot case the city of Medellin, Colombia that has been considered a benchmark for urban transformation and social innovation becoming an inspirational case for Global South cities dealing with entrenched violence and informality. Medellin has shown a decisive convergence of extended practices of strategic planning, urban design and architecture, which have focused local state interest and public investments in traditionally excluded peripheral neighbourhoods. These spatial interventions have included expanding the interconnected transit system (i.e. metro, tramway, cable cars, BRT, and so on), the generation of public spaces and the construction of multiple iconic public facilities.
Medellin demonstrates that ‘informal settlements’ of global South cities are sites of urban planning innovation and collective agency, thus challenging orthodox urban planning narratives that argue otherwise. Learning about the conditions under which transformation is possible goes beyond only listening or praising official narratives about success. For this, TS helps to build a more comprehensive picture of the plurality of stories and learnings that have produced the city and the trade-offs of slum upgrading strategies. In this sense, the main objective of the co-designed Transmedia Storytelling Platform is to make visible those alternative –but often ignored– voices, memories, and learning spaces that have disrupted upgrading urban practices. Thus, the project challenges the notion that slum upgrading is an expert-driven and state-led activity by engaging with community-led processes in the epistemology of knowledge co-production.
Working group discussions. Photo by Gynna Millan
COiNVITE: Building a strategic learning alliance
‘Convite’ is a word in Spanish that designates the celebration of collective actions that result from solidarity and empathy networks among urban dwellers. In Medellín, ‘Convite’ has been a social, cultural and technological tool to build urban infrastructure at the neighbourhood level with a city scale impact. During a ‘Convite’, learning and knowledge exchange is essential to achieve common goals. In a ‘Convite’ everyone has knowledge and expertise that can be shared and transferred through storytelling and collective practice, something like “doing while telling”. Medellín is a city that has been transformed significantly by urban ‘Convites’. As a result, we named the -digital and social- platform after this meaningful practice.
A key challenge for effective urban learning is the ability to bring together multiple actors operating at different scales and times and who often have confrontational perspectives. Building on this, COiNVITE’s methodological approach was to first established a learning alliance with multilateral agencies and global coalitions –UN-Habitat, Cities Alliance, UCLG, the Global Platform for the Right to the City and the HIC–, along with the Municipality of Medellin, National University of Colombia, Los Andes University, University of Colorado Boulder and several grassroots organisations linked to the social movement ‘Movimiento de Pobladores’ in Medellín, to shape the content of the Transmedia Storytelling Platform and provide their knowledge and expertise in a collaborative way.
On the other hand, one of the significant challenges of assembling a platform for urban learning is the expertise that it requires. This journey cannot be made without the alliances between usual urban actors but neither without a team that can translate urban knowledge into the technicalities that make possible the new digital environments. This is why we collaborate with a local transmedia production organisation – Sandelion Productions @SandelionPro – an expert on linking co-creation processes, storytelling and transmedia experiences. Creating a transmedia experience is a complicated endeavour, as they involve multiple dimensions such as narrative, cultural and historical contexts (Rampazzo 2013). For Jenkins (2010), this is in part because transmedia represents the intersection between fields that are typically separated. To ‘fast’ prototype a transmedia platform is even more complex as it goes against the long periods that can take generating multimedia material that is this case should be meaningful human centred stories. To overcome this, we partnered with the NGO Mobility / Movilidad that since 2012 has been producing what is now an extensive archive of stories about dwellers’ struggles in Medellin informal settlements. This combination of actors made it possible to assemble a strategic learning alliance to explore the potentials of bringing TS to processes of urban learning.
The exploration of a methodological repertoire and the encounter of the multi-actor alliance took place between the 27th March and 2nd April and was hosted our partners at Exploratorio – Parque Explora and Moravia Cultural Centre in Medellin. The international workshop served as a disruptive action to bring about innovative urban learning strategies for: a) fostering togetherness across partners under the equalising notion of ‘we are urban storytellers’ and bonding through creative thinking activities; b) sensitising about the key learnings on local slum upgrading using character-driven stories; c) experimenting with unconventional methodological tools for creating transmedia storytelling; and d) linking partners’ initiatives working at different scales on slum upgrading to act collectively.
In sum, from The Bartlett, we are leading an effort to co-design a learning TS platform as methodological experimentation to localise critical targets of the Sustainable Development Goals 11 and 17 as well as the UN Habitat New Urban Agenda. COiNVITE will deliver a fast prototype of the platform that will be publicly tested in June 2019. If you are interested in any way about this project, get in touch by email or by following any of our social media channels using @coinvite.
Walkshop around Comuna 13. Photo by @Zootropico films.
Anderson, C. R. and McLachlan, S.M. (2015) Transformative research as knowledge mobilization: transmedia, bridges and layers. Action Research, Volume: 14 issue: 3, page(s): 295-317.
Brown, & Tucker, K. (2017) Unconsented Sterilisation, Participatory Story‐Telling, and Digital Counter‐Memory in Peru. Antipode, Volume 49, Issue 5, 1186-1203.
Davidson, B. (2017). Storytelling and evidence-based policy: lessons from the grey literature. Palgrave Communications, 3:17093, 1-10.
Devos, T. et.al (2018) Valuating narrative accounts in participatory planning processes. A case of co-creative storytelling in Antwerp, Belgium. In: Participatory Design Theory, Routledge, 284 p.
Hara, N. (2008) Communities of Practice, Fostering peer to peer learning and informal knowledge sharing in the work place. Springer 138 p.
Hulst, M. (2012) Storytelling: a model of and a model for planning. Planning Theory, 11(3), 299-318.
Jenkins, H. (2003) “Transmedia Storytelling.” Technology Review.
Jenkins, H. 2010a. ‘Transmedia storytelling and entertainment: An annotated syllabus’. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies (24), 6, 943–58.
McFarlane, C. (2011) Learning the city, Knowledge and Translocal Assemblage. Willey-Blackwell, 218 p.
Olesen, K. (2017) Talk to the hand: strategic spatial planning as persuasive storytelling of the Loop City, European Planning Studies, Volume 25, Issue 6, 978-993.
Pence, H. (2012) Teaching with Transmedia. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, Vol. 40(2) 131-140.
Rampazzo, R. (2013) Transmedia Project Design: Theoretical and Analytical Considerations. Baltic Screen Media Review, Volume 1, 81-100 p.
Sandercock, L. (2003) Out of the closet: The importance of stories and storytelling in planning practice. Planning Theory & Practice, 4(1), 11-28.
Throgmorton, J. (2003). Planning as persuasive storytelling in a global-scale web of relationships. Planning Theory, 2(2), 125-151.
UN-Habitat (2014) A Practical Guide to designing, Planning, and executing citywide slum upgrading Programmes, 165 p.
UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing (2018) Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context, United Nations General Assembly, 24 p.
United Nations (2016) New Urban Agenda, Habitat III Secretariat, 48 p.
If you are interested in DPU’s new MSc in Health in Urban Development, more information can be found on our website.
Over the last few years there have been several initiatives to develop practical and policy-relevant ways to measure environmental risks faced by low-income groups. This has been in response to a severe lack of information about disaster and health risks available for policy makers to draw on in most low- and middle-income nations. There is a need for both detailed settlement-level data, particularly for informal settlements, as well as for aggregated data needed to inform city-level or national interventions[i]. In this blog, I discuss innovative methodologies that are being developed in cities of the Global South to generate much needed data for action.
Innovative methodologies for understanding health and disaster risks at the urban scale
Innovative methods developed for understanding and measuring these risks range from profiling and mapping informal settlements with community-led or co-production approaches, to detailed analysis of hospital, police and newspaper records. Other methods seek to build consensus based on perceptions and experiences of risk with communities and local governments. DesInventar is a collection of national, regional and city-level databases, which use newspaper reports, as well as police, hospital and accident records to create a detailed portrait of both large or intensive disasters and small-scale extensive disaster events. Other methodologies such as Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) settlement profiling and Action at the Frontline use community-generated information about resident’s experiences of health and disaster risks in order to enter into dialogue with municipal governments about their needs. ReMapRisk uses community-generated risk information and offers a spatial analysis with maps to interrogate and visualise the information, there are maps for Lima (Peru), Karonga (Malawi) and Freetown (Sierra Leone). Other approaches, such CityRAP, The City Resilience Index and 10 Essentials for Making Cities Resilient focus on the municipal government’s perspectives of risks and capacities for addressing risk at the city-level, and often in dialogue with communities.
Health and disaster risks faced by the urban poor
These studies have found that women, men and children living in informal settlements are disproportionally exposed to small and large-scale disaster risks such as flooding, landslides and fires, as well as everyday risks, such as water borne illnesses and poor air quality. For example, the AXA-funded research I have been involved in in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, used Action at the Frontline methodology, with household surveys, focus groups and action planning Mtambani settlement in Ilala municipality and Bonde la Mpunga settlement in Kinondoni municipality[ii]. The communities identified crime, poor solid management, lack of storm-water drainage infrastructure, lack of wastewater and toilet infrastructure, lack of basic health services and hospitals, flooding, high living costs and drug abuse as the main issues in their settlements. Many of these are directly related to health problems, such as malaria, diarrheal disease and personal safety. While big disasters, such a major floods, earthquakes, tsunami and windstorms do affect the health and welfare of millions across the globe every year, it is actually the smaller events and everyday risks that impact the greatest number of people’s health and well-being.
These different methods of understanding risks have been employed in close partnerships between researchers, community organisations, municipal authorities and other research users in many cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America. While there are many innovative initiatives for understanding and measuring risks, the data still remains extremely patchy and limited in scope. Furthermore, and its uptake into municipal government operations and planning is not guaranteed.
Principles for the uptake of risk information in urban planning and policy making
Through the Urban Africa Risk Knowledge programme[iii], researchers have identified some principles related to the uptake of local-level risk information into planning and policy making: 1) It is important not just to provide the type of information that are assumed to be useful, but to work closely with partners in identifying data that will be useful for policy and practice[iv]. 2) The community-driven process can be more conducive to driving change in practice and policy in local government than expert-driven data. The use of local knowledge that comes through communities collaborating with local level decision-makers can capture the qualitative experiences of risks and measure the burdens arising from these risks, while enabling communities to engage with local governments/state about their needs[v]. 3) Small steps at collecting local data that are ‘good-enough’ can be valuable in the beginning.[vi] 4) Project-based risk measurement initiatives are rarely enough to make a difference in government practices and policies. What is required is long-term and sustained engagement with information that is regularly updated. 5) Improving official data collection, such as census, vital registration systems and healthcare records will be necessary to systematically address disaster and health risks in informal settlements[vii].
Many cities in low- and middle- income countries, and especially in sub-Saharan Africa, do not have functioning local governments, they lack a metropolitan structure or their resources are too meagre to take on new initiatives. While some progress has been made in developing methodologies that help us to better understand the everyday and small-scale disaster risks that underpin women’s, men’s and children’s health in informal settlement, there is still much more to do to scale up these initiatives and to enable local governments to take actions to address risks.
[ii] Osuteye, E. at al. (2018). Communicating risk from the frontline: projecting community voices into disaster risk management policies across scales. Urban Africa Risk Knowledge Briefing, No. 19. October 2018. Available from:
The global challenge of waste is irrefutable – it is visible, urgent and common to us all. Product-to-landfill life cycles make explicit how the global north and south are relational. Multinational corporations manufacture in regional hubs, for global markets, and transnational waste exports are offshored as recycled waste. Plastic debris floats from shore to shore.
On April 14th 2017, an avoidable tragedy – a man-made disaster – took place, as a mountain of garbage collapsed in North Colombo, Sri Lanka. Over a hundred homes were buried in the debris, displacing over 600 families, and killing 31 persons living at the edge of Meethotamulla land fill. The abandoned paddy field had been receiving tonnes of municipal garbage every day for over 20 years – growing to the height of a six-storey building, with a footprint of almost 20 acres. Reports list several causes for the collapse: (1) The incremental unsettling of the mountain of waste caused by rains; (2) Decomposition releasing methane and toxic gases which combusted into fire; and (3) A lateral landslide triggered when the lowest layer of the wetland soil couldn’t take the weight of the waste any longer. While emergency services were brought in and the dumping of waste has been stalled – a mountain of waste is still visible at the landfill today. More concerning still, several similar land fill sites that exist in Colombo remain fully operational – a shocking sight, yet unsurprising, given the global crisis of waste.
Often, communities living in marginal lands are caught within this crisis Sri Lanka, informal settlements often emerge alongside wetlands, canals and beach fronts. Engaging with these communities, as a part of efforts to improve waste management initiatives is therefore crucial.
In October 2017, Sevanatha Urban Resource Centre started a community-led Municipal Waste Recycling Programme (MWRP) in Dehiwala and Mount Lavinia – a municipality adjacent to Colombo. MWRP is a transnational initiative designed to reduce plastic pollution of the oceans. Funded by USAID, the programme is active in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. As an NGO positioned as an intermediary between the state and communities, Sevanatha’s aim for the programme is to facilitate building a responsive society in partnership with the local municipality to address the challenge of waste. It aims to raise awareness around waste separation, for recycling and reuse, and to build partnerships between the government, private sector and civil society. The project focuses on a few key approaches in parallel – research and analysis, conducting awareness raising programmes in communities and schools, enabling a network of waste collectors and recycling businesses, and prevention of waste disposal into canals and beach fronts. Unifying these approaches, and inspired by successful iterations in Thailand and Indonesia, Sevanatha aims to establish community waste banks to promote a shift towards a circular economy. Across the municipality, Sevanatha has identified priority informal settlements in environmentally sensitive areas to work with – these are typically positioned along stretches of canals, wetlands, and the coastal belt.
Auburn Side, a coastal settlement, and a part of the MWRP area, is one such example. Auburn Side is split into two ‘sides’ by a coastal railway line that runs parallel along Sri Lanka’s South Western Coast. These are the ‘formal’ and the ‘informal’, separated as the ‘beach side’ and ‘land side’. While several residents of the ‘beach side’ qualify for state-built apartments in another part the city, they choose to live along the coast to continue their daily livelihood as a part of generational fishing communities. The informal categorisation of the settlement however affects the level of municipal services that the ‘beach side’ receives. While the municipality waste collection trucks serve the ‘land side’, they do not cross the railway line onto the ‘beach side’. Further, a storm water drain from the city regularly discharges plastic waste from the formal city into the informal settlement, before it spills out further into the ocean.
Given that waste as an issue bridges the formal and the informal – through urban lifestyles, production, consumption and disposal patterns – How can waste management projects that engage with informality, such as Sevanatha’s MWRP, leverage waste as an entry point for ‘scaling up’? I use the term ‘scaling up’ in the context of the search for scale within housing policy, through programmes that strategically engage with informality with ‘multi-dimensional, multisectoral and multi-scalar’ ambitions. This is especially relevant to Sri Lanka, where decades of policy and programmes such as the Million Houses programme that engaged with in-situ upgrading, have been steadily replaced by programmes that liberate land ‘occupied’ by informal settlements through ‘involuntary relocations’.
What would such an approach towards scaling up entail? I reflect on three approaches within waste management projects and three follow up questions, that could, in parallel, leverage waste as an entry point to scaling up –
1) Coproduction by building on existing on ground initiatives
2) Networks to share and platforms to cross-learn
3) Challenging assumptions and analysing parallel economies
1) Coproduction by building on existing on ground initiatives
An approach that uses waste as an entry point for scaling up would involve building on existing informal initiatives, making them visible and connecting them to larger institutional systems.
At Auburn Side, Sevanatha’s project team is familiar with a few supportive community members who are conscious of how closely their lives are dependent on the ocean. An elderly fisherman is an inspiration – recovering almost 25 plastic bottles from the ocean every day. His home – a living museum of our ‘legacy’ of waste – is decorated with his craft of upcycling these bottles as ornamental lampshades. Similarly, a resident who grew up in the settlement is a newly elected member of the municipality and wishes to set up a waste collection centre.
Can projects build on the actions and aspirations of such individuals within the community, to facilitate constructive institutional engagement?
Sevanatha’s strategy of incentivising separation of waste through establishing waste banks in partnership with the municipality, and operated by the community, is one opportunity to do so.
2) Networks to share and platforms to cross-learn
In order to pilot and iteratively develop the waste bank, Sevanatha’s team has, through trial and error, organised to focus on three settlements in the municipality – Badowita, Rathmalana, and Auburn Side.
This organisation provides the project team to iteratively learn from experiences in these three settlements, and to consciously inform approaches in the other. In Badowita, a waste collection centre owned by the municipality is operated by two women from the informal settlement along the polluted canal. While they collect waste from a formal settlement in the municipal area, they have also started to receive waste from their own community – for example, an enterprising woman in the informal settlement has started receiving waste from neighbours at her house, to deposit it at the waste collection centre. Similarly, post a beach cleaning programme in the informal settlement at Rathmalana, a few individual residents started collecting recyclable waste to send to the Badowita Waste Collection Centre, facilitated by Sevanatha. Sevanatha’s project team further hopes to use the experiences in Badowita and Rathmalana, to learn from and to further develop a suitable model of a waste bank at Auburn Side.
The iterative learnings and organisation of the project could further create opportunities for scaling up, when translated into facilitating networks between local champions from these three settlements, as well as municipal stakeholders – to create a network and platform to share cross learnings, that continues in the long term.
Further, how may stakeholders extend such networks of sharing, and platforms of cross learning, in other settlements, once fixed project periods finish?
3) Challenging assumptions and analysing parallel economies of waste
The opportunity within waste management projects that engage with informality, such as Sevanatha’s MWRP, to leverage waste as an entry point for ‘scaling up’ – is to position informality in the context of the city. With such an approach, a ‘community waste bank’ is not just about recycling the waste of the informal settlement but is also about enabling opportunities for the settlement to negotiate with and link with the larger municipal area – as a means of scaling up. The challenges within these approaches are two-fold –
First – to read between the lines of assumptions and regulations. Much of the assumptions linked to illegality and drug use have proven to be a convenient narrative to disengage with informality and small-scale waste collectors. These assumptions have become stereotypes that make it easier to marginalise low-income settlements and their rights, to the extent that the current low income urban housing programmes in Sri Lanka have shifted towards involuntary relocation. Scaling up involves rethinking municipal regulations on land use, while also actively reaching out to minority or vulnerable communities that may be engaged in the informal trade of waste.
Secondly, while project interventions may push for coproduction, there do exist parallel economies of waste. For example, in North Colombo, an agglomeration of settlements exists in Wattala, within an informal economy of land reclamation. In a low-lying area prone to flooding, residents and informal landlords purchase construction waste to increase the level of the land before (and even annually, after) construction, while several houses are visibly sinking due to the settlement of the soil. Understanding and analysing these parallel economies of ‘informal’ land reclamation and markets is relevant – as they potentially compete with processes of coproduction that projects such as MWRP may wish to support, while trapping communities in cyclical poverty – often so, with the influence of individuals with access to institutional power.
Finally, how may interventions build a discourse that moves beyond assumptions or existing formal-informal collaborations of clientelism, to instead recognise the agency of communities?
Fiori, J., 2014. Informal City: Design as Political Engagement. In: T. Verebes, ed. Masterplanning the adaptive city: computational urbanism in the twenty first century. London: Routledge, pp. 40-47.
 Community Waste Banks exchange recyclable waste for incentives in cash or kind, to promote separation of waste and recycling at the household level.
 Scaling up seen “as not a quantitative process but a change in the quality of the city itself and in the nature of its political institutions; and as a political restructuring of urban institutionalities through synergies and contradictions across processes operating at multiple dimensions and scales, including social, economic and political” (Fiori, 2014)
 Urban Regeneration Programme of the Urban Development Authority, Sri Lanka
In April 2018 the Syrian government modified and extended an earlier Damascus-only urban reconstruction decree (Decree 66), to now be applied nationwide in Syria. This new law (Law 10) allows the Syrian government to award contracts for reconstruction to national and international investors, and to compensate citizens in the form of shares in regulatory zones.
The earlier Decree 66 demonstrated the politicization of urban renewal policies. It had named two informal zones in southwest Damascus to be reconstructed following the new 2012 master plan of the city; it also increased the percentage of informal settlements on the list to be demolished from 40% to 60%. However, these were not areas that were devastated by conflict, the conflict was in the redevelopment. Unlike most Syrian cities, Damascus, has not been under urban destruction due to the ongoing armed conflict. Yet, it has experienced different manifestations of urban contestation. This contestation has been clearly manifested by the so called ‘post-conflict reconstruction’ which has started – despite its name – during the conflict in 2012 and caused exclusion and eviction to many residents.
The history of Degree 66 is highly pertinent to the present context of Law 10, as it is the same strategy being manifest, but now on an even larger and more detrimental scale. In 2018 the Syrian government proposes through Law 10 to do what was done in the one Damascus zone five years earlier on a national scale; removing people from their homes, inadequately compensating people, disposing of property rights, advancing the agenda of external ‘developers’ and in many other ways leveraging urban reconstruction as another weapon of conflict.
Figure 1: the new master plan of Damascus 2012
What happened before and what does this tell us about what is going to happen now?
Government positioning of such reconstruction as progress: The government worked tirelessly on circulating decree 66 through media channels, radio, and the national newsletter as the pilot project towards modern post-conflict Syria. As the Damascus Governor noted at the time “Three main principles have been fundamentally taken into account in this project. These are; Social Justice; The high performance of implementation; and financial returns for Damascus governorate which allow sustaining services provision and initiating new projects”.
The areas for redevelopment were largely areas of opposition to the government, hence reconstruction and removal of people can be seen as politicized: The decision of implementation took place only in the first Zone that hosted frequent demonstrations between 2012 and 2013. Moreover, this zone is very close to the most international organizations, embassies, ministries, and one of the presidential palaces. This gives the quarter a strategic standing in Damascus.
Many informal residents did not receive equitable compensation and rehousing: The Decree 66 has dealt with the entire zone as a collective ownership among its residents and despite the many different types of property’s ownership and the specific context of informal unites, people got rehousing in the yet to be built compensation units based on their shares. Therefore, many informal residents who used to live in small informal houses were not able to get the smallest apartment in the compensation units due to the variation of scale.
Many residents were driven from their homes: Some residents had their properties seized due to their political stance they had, and others due to lack of equitable shares. As part of the whole ‘reconstruction’ implementation many residents were forcibly evicted from their homes with their possessions. Sometimes not even with this dignity. As one soldier expresses during one of the demolitions, “They were among the lucky ones. Not everyone is being allowed in to take their possessions”.
Figure 2. The first and the second implementation phases of reconstruction defined by the Decree.NO. 66
In April 2018, while the Degree 66 project is still under construction, the Syrian government modified the Decree 66 to be applied nationwide in Syria, whether formal or informal areas and issued Law 10. So now citizens – whether in the country or outside the country – are faced with a situation of not knowing what is the basis of their property rights. There is an enormous amount of confusion and significant potential problems; these include the challenge of lack of property documentation, lack of access for registration of ownership and many other challenges that do not even begin to touch on the political scenarios.
Problem I – the burden of proof for refugees as well as IDPs: Law 10 has specific procedures to claim ownership of the property which is exclusionary and not feasible to more than 6 million refugees living abroad. Refugees who fled the country either lost their ownership documents or they do not have access to the embassies to certify the needed proofs. Which put them under the threat of losing their rights since the Law 10 seizes properties for those who are unable to prove their rights within specific period of time. Germany as the country with the lion’s share of refugee in Europe recently expressed concern about this context; ‘’Law 10 is designed to expropriate refugees,” a senior German government official
Problem II – the danger to heritage and culture: Law 10 neglects all the social and cultural aspects that are integral to the Syrian cities by stating the targeted area of reconstruction depends only on the economic turnovers of the projects in this area. It might turn Syrian cities into new Solidere, the Beirut downtown project that ended up empty of people during the daytime because people don’t feel it belongs to their city.
Problems III – lack of capacity on Local Administration levels: on a very practical level the new Law places a significant administrative burden on local government at a time of continuing crisis, and there is a strong concern that this will make it even more of a crisis. The Law says citizens are to be compensated in the form of shares in regulatory zones – but only where such regulatory zones are defined following a feasibility study of the area provided by the local administration unit and approved by the Ministry of Local Administration. This law centralises all decisions in the hand of local administration units, which don’t have the capacities, experiences or resources for these large-scale projects.
Bearing all this in mind and learning from the recent past in Syrian urban politics it is clear that Law 10 simply cannot be ignored as just an internal Syrian minor urban issue. It is an international issue. Thus, international organisations, government officials in the EU and elsewhere, Syrian lawyers and urbanists amongst others, have recently expressed their concerns against this legislation and successfully managed to get the issue onto the U.N. Security Council’s agenda to follow up.
Figure 3. The options citizens have according to law 10
As part of this movement ‘Syrbanism’ – which is a Syrian-led platform focuses on investigating the political, social and economic aspects of the urban discourses in Syria – has initiated an awareness-raising campaign about the Law. “Syrbanism aims at simplifying the technical language of urban policies to become understandable for all non-expert citizens”, notes Nour Harastani, Syrbanism co-Founder, “It starts by raising awareness in order to mobilise knowledge-based actions’’. The organisation has created two short informational videos, one in English and one in Arabic, to clearly and simply present the facts about the Law 10 process. The videos explain in detail the procedures and options citizens need to know about their property rights. The videos can be accessed via Youtube and the Syrbanism site. They are designed to provide information and as such are for use by all Syrians; so that everyone understands the situation and therefore can advance better solutions. The videos have been shared not only by refugees and opponents, but also by supporters to the government – because they are about potentially unworkable and damaging legal processes that are not just untenable on many local levels but also detrimental to most ordinary people. It is hoped that by all parties understanding the negative impacts of this law, that it can be reconsidered.
Syrbanism aims to continue its awareness-raising work now in the next steps to reach out to more Syria-related organisations to bolder mobilisation and impact on advocacy within the EU to make an effective pressure on the Syrian government. Syrbanism believes that any reconstruction agenda, besides being negotiable and accountable, should consider the rebuilding ‘lives’ other that just ‘houses’. Otherwise, the Syrian conflict would definitely be shifted to another, more complex and longer-term one.
The international field trip is an integral part of the MSc Development Administration and Planning Programme (DAP) and this year, the students travelled to Kampala, Uganda for their field trip. This is the second year running that the MSc DAP programme has been working with development partners in Kampala, Uganda. This year, the MSc DAP programme partnered with eight NGOs and CBOs which included; Community Integrated Development Initiatives (CIDI), ACTogether, Community Development Resource Network (CDRN), Children’s Rights and Lobby Mission (CALM Africa), Living Earth, Uganda, Kasubi Parish local Community Development Initiative (KALOCODE), Action for Community Development – Uganda (ACODEV- U). The 8th partner, Shelter and Settlement Alternatives (SSA), gave a site visit in which they showed the students one of their current projects – The Decent Living Project.
Development in Practice
The city of Kampala is experiencing rapid urbanisation. A city, which was originally built on seven hills, has now expanded to that on more than twenty hills, with informal settlements sprawling up in different parts of the city. Infrastructure in the city has not expanded on par with the rapid urbanisation and access to amenities is a challenge for the millions that inhabit or the thousands that troop into the city for employment. The city of Kampala is also going through massive regeneration and this is visualised through the many construction works going on in the city. As developers and inhabitants contest for the urban space, those who cannot afford to live in the city are forced to move to peri-urban areas and some are even forcefully evicted. However, some of the community members are establishing cooperatives and also working with non-governmental organisations to have access to land.
The central theme for this years’ field trip was examining how a development intervention is planned and implemented in Kampala, and the MSc students worked with their partners in understanding how Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community-based organisations (CBOs) in Kampala, Uganda, approach the planning and implementation of ‘development’.
One of the projects that the students visited was the Bujjuko Low Cost Housing Demonstration, which is a component of the Decent Living project implemented by Shelter and Settlements Alternatives SSA. The beneficiaries include the Kwefako positive living women’s group, who were previously living in an informal settlement in Kampala city centre and ended up being displaced. The group were living under poor conditions and with the fear of eviction before they were identified as a potential partner. The group were encouraged to form a cooperative because it was the best way to have the community organised. SSA and WaterAid initiated to assist the group. Hence, the Kwefako Housing cooperative was conceived and registered in 2014.
Participatory approaches have been heralded in the development discourse as crucial in achieving sustainable development (Parfitt, 2004, Cleaver, 1999). However, it has also come under criticisms and raised questions about its effectiveness in truly empowering those in the grassroots (Parfitt, 2004).
The visit to the housing project offered an opportunity to understand how the beneficiaries influence the planning and implementation of development project from the start of the project to its completion. According to the SSA project assistant, participatory process was utilised in all phases of the housing project from the planning to the implementation stage. The project assistant stated that there were several consultations with the members of the cooperative on several issues ranging from what they wanted as a group to the location of the housing. On the question of location, a feasibility study was conducted with the input of the members of the cooperative. The members were then brought to the site of the proposed housing to see for themselves. The members agreed in relocating to the area because of its proximity and accessibility to markets, schools and places of worship. There are 34 members in the cooperative. 24 families are presently occupying the houses and 10 houses are going under construction for the remaining 10 members.
The Cooperative members were also given the ‘liberty’ to draw their dream homes and after several consultations, came up with the current design. Not only did they come up with the design, they also constructed the houses themselves using the blocks that they made. Each Unit costs 26 million UGX to build. The residents pay an upfront of 10 million UGX and then 70,000 UGX monthly giving them about 30 years to complete the payment. However, they can pay up before the 30 years period. The amount they pay for these homes were said to be similar to the rent they paid in the informal settlement. On defaulting in payment, the group stated that if a month’s payment is defaulted, members could go to SSA and come up with a payment plan agreement. Although, the residents stated that paying is a challenge, they have several sources of livelihoods such as making and selling crafts. SSA was also said to have carried out some capacity building workshops with the cooperative members and trained them in different income generating activities. And according to the residents, future plans of generating income include acquiring machines to make and sell blocks and also, start giving training workshops.
Transferring ownership. The cooperative members stated that members could not just sell their houses to anyone. There are agreements between all of the members when it comes to the transfer of ownership, especially if it is through selling of the house. To sell a house, a member must go through the following regulation:
The person buying must be a member;
The person selling must consult all the other residents and members of the cooperative;
A member can buy
Appropriate Technology Transfer
Apart from capacity building, SSA also engages in appropriate technology transfer with the group. For instance, the interlocking soil stabilizing blocks that were used to construct the houses were made from the soil in the land. Further, the materials they use in sifting the soil is mostly made from local materials.
It was also mentioned that cultural and social issues were taken into consideration for this project. The use of interlocking soil stabilizing blocks was appropriate technology, which was suitable for the members. The site of the housing was suitable for the members and did not alter their social lives, rather enhanced it as they stated.
Residents now enjoy amenities that they did not previously have. Each house has a water tank and each family pay what they use.
There have also been other benefits from the project such as the national water extending water pipe to the community that the project is located in.
SSA: UHSNET Newsletter 2016.
Demonstrating Decent Living – A Publication of Shelter and Settlements Alternatives and Uganda Human Settlements Network.
Cleaver, F. (1999) Paradoxes of participation. Questioning participatory approaches to Development. Journal of International Development. Vol 11. No 4. Pg. 597
Parfitt, T. (2004) The ambiguity of participation: a qualified defence of participatory development. Third World Quarterly. Vol 25. Issue no 3
Dr Lilian Schofield is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Development Administration and Planning (DAP). She has over five years experience working in Higher Education Institutions in the UK as well as experience in the development field having worked with development consultancies and NGOs in Nigeria. Lilian Schofield has a PhD in Construction and Property Management and investigated the role of stakeholders in housing development projects in poor communities in Nigeria.
Reflections from the ‘Towards an Autonomy of Housing’ event that took place on the 22nd of February 2017 and was presented by the UCL Development Planning Unit (DPU) as part of the series DPU Dialogues in Development.
Industrialisation, a well-known driver for rural to urban migration, creates the increased demand for housing as a by-product of a swelling city. Emerging cities in developing nations, lacking the capacity to respond to a rapidly increasing urban population tend to become inundated with the enormous demand for housing, which poses a problem with no immediate solution. A housing deficit left unaddressed gives rise to the development of informal settlements by people perceived to be left with limited options. In an effort to find their own solutions, settlers “illegally” create unplanned neighbourhoods in areas not fit for development and deficient of infrastructure and services.
In the case of Lima, rural migrants who rushed to the city for employment and enterprise found themselves in overcrowded and shabby ‘tugurios’. In the 1950’s, individuals frustrated with forking out huge portions of their income for high-cost rent in exchange for sub-standard living conditions formed community groups to plan major land invasions in the hills surrounding the centre of Lima. The strong networks formed by the invaders made it difficult for authorities to action any form of evictions against them. The invasions took place around the same time that John F. C. Turner, a British architect who had been closely examining housing policy and programs in Lima, wrote his ﬁrst report in 1959. The government of Peru tried and successfully relocated some squatters to government land. However, the invaders of El Ermitaño stood their ground forcing authorities to develop strategies to take into account their needs through slum-upgrading, rather than to resist the young settlement. Turner, despite this, critiqued the implementation of these processes in his early career, finding them to be insubstantial in addressing the dwelling needs of the communities they were to service. The residents of El Ermitaño, with the help of Turner’s advocacy, were granted legal tenure and were able to avoid evictions and demand municipal services.
Dr. Katherin Golda-Pongratz, a German architect who followed Turner’s work closely while completing her PhD in Architecture in Peru, became interested in and is now referencing Turner’s contribution to El Ermitaño in her own work. She gave an anecdote about how the two have collaborated on the Spanish publication of the book Autoconstrucción which explores Turner’s 1948 writing. The book references Patrick Geddes’ pattern of relationships in the “notation of life” which has influenced much of Turner’s philosophy. The book will feature other articles written by John and translated in to Spanish including an entry for the magazine Architecture and Design that was the precursor to the film A Roof of My Own.
Golda-Pongratz further explained how the research process of completing Autoconstrucción led to the resurfacing of the 30 minute documentary guest-edited by Turner in 1963 and released the following year by the United Nations Centre for Building and Planning. The version originally released to the public aired void of an integral address from then President Fernando Belaúnde.
A Roof of My Own takes the viewer into the arena of the autonomy of housing in the 1960’s. It highlights the political, social and personal discourses of the time in the settlement of El Ermitaño in northern Lima and demonstrates how ordinary people were managers of their own house construction. The case of El Ermitaño underscores Turner’s concept that informal settlements are not to be viewed as a problem but an opportunity to provide solutions to the problem of housing.
In his introduction of the video, Turner touched on the relevance of the film in today’s housing climate where young professionals worldwide find themselves not earning enough to save for a downpayment on a home. They are instead forced to stay at home with their parents or are caught in a vicious cycle of settling in expensive, sub-standard housing which consumes most of their income, hindering their capacity to save. He also stated that housing policies that aim to provide homes that the poor cannot access is not a suitable to rectify a housing deficit.
A Roof of My Own has inspired Golda-Pongratz to continue the legacy of Turner’s work by creating a sequel to the film. She hopes to show her continuation in the same community centre in El Ermitaño where the original film was screened by the invaders. El Ermitaño is now considered an ‘arrival city’ where Golda-Pongratz anticipates that the second chapter will provide a link to the new generation of residents. The narrative will explore the precarious living conditions of families living on the lomas, increasing the pressure and encroaching on the fragile landscapes. The trailer for the new film asked probing questions relating to the ‘limits to growth’, the role of land traffickers in urban expansion as well as the role of the residents in place-making and shaping the future of the El Ermitaño.
You can view the lecture here:
You can hear the lecture in the audio podcast here:
Monique Rose is an Architect and Chevening scholar from Jamaica studying for a MSc in Environment and Sustainable Development. Her research interests are in housing and disaster risk management in the Global South. This year she has joined the UrbanArk Project team and will write her dissertation on the relationship between urban planning and disaster.
In November 2013, super typhoon Yolanda hit the Philippines in full swing. Fragile shelter structures across the archipelago’s coastal areas did not withstand the strong winds and storm surges brought about by Yolanda. In the aftermath of the disaster, the government launched an emergency programme with the mission to ‘build back better’ . The government was supported by the international humanitarian community, whose swift response matched the scale of the disaster in its scope and ambition. Yet serious funding challenges were said to hamper recovery.
Budget shortfalls are one of the most pervasive barriers to the successful implementation of recovery programs and a constant challenge faced by traditional development models. The idea that social enterprises could offer an answer to this issue has gained traction in the past years . Social enterprises are organisations set up as revenue-generating business with social objectives, which allows them to be financially independent. As part of DPUs Junior Professional Programme, I was lucky to work closely with one of them.
Founded in 2014, LinkBuild is a young Housing Development Enterprise (HDE) whose mission is to scale up innovative, low-cost, and sustainable shelter solutions and programs for and with the poor. LinkBuild was set up as the latest addition of the Philippine Alliance, a grouping of 5 organisations that has a long history of successfully mobilising communities around savings groups in order to achieve secured land tenure. Given the current housing context in the Philippines, the need for this kind of program has never been more urgent.
The Housing Context in the Philippines
A new day begins in Quezon City, one of Metropolitan Manila’s 16 cities. The streets have been buzzing since the early morning hours, the traffic slowly pulsating through their aching junctions. As I work my way through the streets, I walk past busy informal settlements. Some are squatter settlements, the result of spontaneous and unplanned occupation of land. Others are informal subdivisions. The residents here live on a surveyed plot and they usually have proof of ownership or land-lease rights.
Flooded downtown Manila during rain season.
In Metro Manila, one out of every four people resides in informal settlements, often within disaster-prone areas. As an alternative, several shelter programs are being implemented by government and non-government actors. Yet the delivery of these programmes has been unable to cope with the rocketing demand for affordable housing. Driven by natural population growth and rural to urban migration, the main urban areas in in the Philippines are growing at a breath-taking pace. The country is projected to be 80% urbanised by 2025  – an increase of 30 points from 2015. Moreover, officials are talking of a housing backlog of 5.7 million houses of which 60% are believed to be economic and social housing .
Most worryingly, some of the latest government’s efforts to deliver shelter programs have been proven to be counterproductive. A recent operation plan that aimed to relocate over 104,000 informal settler families out of danger zones in Metropolitan Manila, relocated 67 per cent to off-city sites . The programme beneficiaries call these off-city sites the ‘death zones’. They feel effectively disconnected from their earlier life as they struggle to deal with the loss of their livelihoods and networks. Reports show that up to 60% of individuals that were relocated out of Metro Manila eventually return to the city . If given the option, many ISF would rather remain in the old site despite the immediate risks they face instead of moving outside of the city.
Informal subdivision in Valenzuela City, Metro Manila.
At the same time, the private sector has recognised affordable housing as a potential growth market, yet it is struggling to set foot in the sector. From a purely financial perspective, affordable housing provision is a cut-throat affair. In Metro Manila, developing affordable housing amounts to ‘financial suicide’, as a local housing developer recently put it. The high land prices, as well as the additional costs of building in a congested city mean that selling houses for less than 7.500£, the maximum unit price at which they are considered to be affordable, can only be achieved at a loss. Even the supply of houses within the ‘economic housing’ brackets, at a unit cost of no more than 19.000£, is a hard trick to pull off.
The fundamental problem with these government and private programmes is that they treat informal settlers as an issue that needs to be dealt with, or an opportunity that ought to be exploited. What they fail to see is that informal settlers can be actors in the housing delivery process.
Imagining a Social Enterprise Model for the Provision of Pro-Poor Housing
As a social enterprise, LinkBuild is set as a revenue-generating business with social objectives. This distinguishes it from traditional NGOs that rely on international aid and funding to run their programmes and operations. Historically, the Philippine Alliance members have operated as traditional NGO’s. However, the donor landscape is shifting as it tries to make its beneficiaries’ programmes more investor-friendly. As a result, donors increasingly treat capital disbursements to partners as an investment, which has important implications for organisations like LinkBuild. This new trend is pushing LinkBuild to imagine a business model that sits comfortably within the highly competitive real-estate sector while staying true to its vision of reaching and mobilising the marginalised communities.
The units pictured above were built on an in-city relocation site identified by the local government. Local government also facilitated negotiations with the landowner and landfilled 6.5 hectares of land.
To achieve financial sustainability, LinkBuild’s latest wave of housing projects is being conceived as mixed-income developments. The idea is to make a part of the 670 units fit for middle-income clients. The units, which will be more spacious, will be sold at a price surplus, effectively subsidising the construction of the more affordable units. While this new approach seems like radical change in direction, it does have a compelling argument in its favour. It offers a possibility for the organisation to become financially independent over time.
In the short run, LinkBuild’s operations would still heavily rely on the access to a starting capital. LinkBuild has therefore partnered with Real Equity For All (ReAll – former Homeless International), one of the few investors who are venturing into the housing market at the bottom of the pyramid. The capital enables LinkBuild to cover the costs of ‘hard investments’ such as purchasing and developing land, as well as the construction of the housing units; and thus, LinkBuild cannot be thought of as a stand-alone organisation, at least not for the time being. However, in the medium run LinkBuild is hoping to achieve financial sustainability sustaining through the profit generated by the sales of surplus houses.
Chart 1: LinkBuild’s Social Enterprise Model
Strong Communities Make a Difference
In line with the tradition of community-oriented organisations like the Community Architects Network and the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights, LinkBuild works closely with the communities that it seeks to reach. The Philippine Alliance is the main enabler of this process. Each organisation in the Alliance plays a strategic role in delivering LinkBuild’s housing projects, as their active networks and expertise allows them to mobilise and engage communities through participatory processes. For example, through the Homeless People Federation Philippines, Linkbuild is able to link with strong communities (see Chart 1) in different regions. After connecting with the communities, LinkBuild conducts market research and hosts workshops with clients and communities to ensure that it is able to reach target clients; that it meets their specific needs; and that the project is financially viable. In the end, the gathered information directly feeds into the architects’ final project design.
Chart 2: What defines a Strong Community?
Moreover, the close ties of the Philippine Alliance with the local government units help to navigate the hurdles that land acquisition and development may pose. For example, in Mandate City, local government identified land and facilitated the negotiations for acquisition. Given the competitive nature of the sector, this form of support is crucial. Least but not last, LinkBuild also follows international best practice of developing in-city projects. By purchasing land that is centrally located, the organisation hopes to deliver projects that actively contribute to the integration of marginalised communities to the existing city fabric.
Participants of the Bago Gallera Site Planning Workshop in Davao City last September.
All of the above factors allow LinkBuild to distinguish itself from the traditional housing developers that tend to have a top-down approach to housing delivery and are primarily concerned with meeting sales objectives.
Ultimately Linkbuild’s model still remains to be tested since the mixed-income housing projects are yet to be completed. As the organisation enters unexplored waters with the Philippine Alliance, it will continue to learn by doing. And there remains a lot to be learnt. Given the housing sector’s state of permanent emergency, planning for the future of the countries’ urban poor is crucial. Despite the scale of the problem, there are only few organisations bold enough to offer an alternative. As it paves its way to sustainability, LinkBuild might well be leading the path towards the ‘imaginative reformulation of the systems by which we manage change’ . And it is leading the change by asking the right question – how do we build forwardbetter?
David Hoffmann is an alumna of the MSc Urban Economic Development and a participant of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme. He currently works at LinkBuild, where he is involved with the design and implementation of organisational development strategies. Amongst others he organised workshops to encourage the knowledge exchange between community associations in Cebu and Davao.
Over the last two decades, Uganda has attained a remarkable record of delivering development in the areas of growth and poverty reduction. The country has also seen a significant increase in the involvement of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) in the development process. The MSc Development Administration and Planning field trip to Kampala was focused on exploring how development intervention is planned and implemented in Kampala, Uganda, as well as examining the role of the practitioner and observing the tools and approaches that are used to conceptualise, design, manage, monitor and evaluate development interventions.
Kampala city tour
The field trip commenced with a guided city tour of Kampala, which was organised not only as an introduction to the environment but also to elicit and encourage observation and reflection in terms of spaces in the city, forms of social and cultural life.
Kampala is the biggest city and the capital of Uganda. It is also the administrative and commercial centre of the country. Kampala has undergone changes within the last few decades and with rapid urbanisation and population growth, the city has had to deal with challenges congruent with urbanisation. Kampala, a city, which was originally built on seven hills, has now expanded to one on more than 21 hills. The town formerly designed for 500,000 is said to now have a population of more than 2 million with migrants coming in from outside Kampala to work and find work in the city. This appears to have had a huge impact on the infrastructure.
Kampala faces a number of challenges, which is typical of urbanised cities in developing countries – aside from improving basic necessities; these challenges also include the lack of infrastructure and population increase. NGOs in Kampala are seemingly filling in some of the gaps in government provisioning such as being involved in service provisioning. The upward trajectory of NGO prevalence seems to demonstrate that NGOs in Kampala will continue to be involved in service provisioning as the city continues to grow and government struggles to fulfil their responsibilities.
Field site visit
The students were divided into eight groups with each working with one of our eight partner development organisations in Kampala. The students spent two weeks visiting their partner organisations and observing first-hand the processes and tools involved in carrying out development projects. Through employing research strategies and appropriate methodology, students utilised various theoretical frameworks and research methods to explore and understand the phenomenon under investigation.
Field site visits were also organised for all the students to observe development projects in action. One of the field sites visited was a project supported by Shelter and Settlements Alternatives (SSA) called ‘Decent Living Project’. SSA is a Ugandan based NGO involved in advocacy and sharing information for better housing policies, programs and practices towards sustainable improvement of human settlements in Uganda.
Decent living project
Decent Living Project – Kwafako Housing Cooperative
The Decent Living Project, which is one of SSA’s projects, supports its beneficiaries by providing affordable and eco-friendly houses as well as improving the lives of people living in informal settlements in Kampala. One such beneficiary of this project is a group of individuals living with HIV and formerly inhabiting an informal settlement. They came together and formed their own cooperative called the Kwafako Housing Cooperative. The students were introduced to some of the beneficiaries of the housing project and were also briefed about the history of the housing cooperative, which was said to be the idea of one of the beneficiaries known as Madam Betty. She was said to have noticed the lack of help for people living with HIV within her settlement and convinced them to come together and seek help. The cooperative is currently made up of 34 members who are mostly women, except for four males who upon the death of their spouses became members automatically due to the cooperative’s policy which states that once a female member dies, their husbands become members.
Machine used in making the interlocking bricks
SSA supports this community group through advocacy, providing capacity building through workshops. The members of the cooperative group were trained in the art of making the interlocking soil stabilised brick used in constructing their houses. Strategies used by SSA in meeting objectives include transferring affordable, sustainable and environmental housing technology. For example, the materials used in making the interlocking soil stabilised brick are dug from the same soil found within the housing project environment. This ensures maximum utilisation of land, keep costs at a minimum and affordable whilst also being environmentally friendly. They also encourage making bricks without the need of burning wood which they explained was not environmentally friendly and as such not supported by one of their funders.
The project which has 24 units which are almost completed is said to be also partnering with Water Aid who plan to provide water facilities to the project. Madam Betty stated that they participated in the design of the houses as well as making the bricks and helping with the building construction.
The members of the cooperative demonstrated how the interlocking stone brick technology is made. This gave us the opportunity to observe the process of making the interlocking soil stabilised bricks as well as encouraging deeper understanding of the capacity and hard work involved.
Housing engineer demonstration the process of making the interlocking soil stabilised brick
Apart from the quotidian activities which involved field site visits, collecting data and frequent group meetings, the students prepared presentations of their findings to tutors, peers and the partner organisations.
The above picture shows demonstration of how the bricks are interlocked
Golooba-Mutebi, F., & Hickey, S. (2013) ‘Investigating the links between political settlements and inclusive development in Uganda: towards a research agenda’ (No. esid-020-13). BWPI. Manchester: The University of Manchester.
Lambright, G. M. S. (2014), Opposition Politics and Urban Service Delivery in Kampala, Uganda. Development Policy Review, 32: s39–s60. doi: 10.1111/dpr.12068
Matagi, S. V. (2002) ‘Some issues of environmental concern in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda’, Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 77(2):121-138
Dr Lilian Schofield is the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Development Administration and Planning (DAP). She joined the students on the overseas field trip to Kampala. Each year, the MSc Development Administration and Planning students embark on an international research field trip. In recent years, the MSc DAP students have visited several countries including Ethiopia and Uganda.