Informal settlements

The growth of informal settlements, slums and poor residential neighbourhoods is a global phenomenon accompanying the growth of urban populations. An estimated 25% of the world’s urban population live in informal settlements, with 213 million informal settlement residents added to the global population since 1990 (UN-Habitat, 2013b: 126–8). Informal settlements are residential areas where (UN-Habitat, 2015b; Brown, 2015):

  • inhabitants often have no security of tenure for the land or dwellings they inhabit ‒ for example, they may squat or rent informally;
  • neighbourhoods usually lack basic services and city infrastructure;
  • housing may not comply with planning and building regulations, and is often situated in geographically and environmentally sensitive areas (see Topic Guide on Provision and Improvement of Housing for the Poor, Patel, 2013).

A number of interrelated factors have driven the emergence of informal settlements: population growth; rural-urban migration; lack of affordable housing; weak governance (particularly in policy, planning and urban management); economic vulnerability and low-paid work; marginalisation; and displacement caused by conflict, natural disasters and climate change (UN-Habitat, 2015b).

Many governments refuse to acknowledge the existence of informal settlements, which undermines city-wide sustainable development and prosperity. These settlements continue to be geographically, economically, socially and politically disengaged from wider urban systems and excluded from urban opportunities and decision-making (UN-Habitat, 2015f). City government attitudes to informal settlements range from opposition and eviction to reluctant tolerance and support for legalisation and upgrading. Upgrading informal settlements, through tenure regularisation and provision of infrastructure, is widely accepted as preferable to relocation (Devas et al., 2004), helping to sustain social and economic networks considered vital for livelihoods.

Living in informal settlements disproportionately affects certain groups. Informal settlements often sit on the periphery of urban areas, lacking access to markets and/or resources. For women, for example, this can heighten barriers they face in accessing livelihood opportunities. Home-based workers also face challenges to entrepreneurial activity (Chant, 2014). Women in informal settlements spend more time and energy accessing basic services than other urban counterparts, limiting their ability and time to earn through paid employment (UNFPA, 2007). In addition, the prevalence of male-biased land tenure policies and restrictions on women’s rights to own property decreases the likelihood of alternative housing options. Poor quality housing, or eviction and homelessness, can also increase the risk of insecurity and sexual violence (Chant, 2013; McIlwaine, 2013).

Map Kibera (Nairobi, Kenya): Technology and citizen empowerment

Map Kibera provides an example of a community information project that leverages mobile phone and geographic information system (GIS) technology to aid data collection, reporting and publication of information. The project was initiated in 2009 in response to the lack of information about the informal settlement of Kibera.

Community involvement included mapping the informal settlement, participatory GIS sessions, and work with local organisations to identify key community issues. Citizens located and recorded the positions of markets, schools, religious centres, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies, toilets and water points. The first digital map of Kibera was generated and made publicly available through OpenStreetMap. Maps were also created to improve the safety of women and girls, with locals recording which areas were dangerous, safe and where there were no streetlights. Map Kibera also sought to empower the community through citizen journalism. The Voice of Kibera website was established, where residents could post stories and share information via SMS. This information was subsequently geo-located on maps.

The Map Kibera Project had a tangible impact on the community, serving practical purposes such as labelling and monitoring polling stations (2013), publishing service provider locations, warning citizens about natural disasters, and improving NGOs’ awareness of local needs. Most importantly, Kibera is no longer invisible and now has a community of engaged, skilled citizens, trained to use technology to advocate change.

Sources: Hagen (2011: 69-94); Tavaana (nd)

Countering the negative aspects of informal settlements requires governments to recognise the challenges residents face and actively include them in wider city systems. However, the regularisation of settlements may not overcome the stigma associated with living in certain areas. UN-Habitat (2015b: 6-7) identifies a number of key drivers for action:

  • Recognition of informal settlements and human rights. Urban authorities that adopt rights-based policies and integrated governance create prosperous, sustainable and inclusive cities.
  • Government leadership. National governments must provide enabling environments to develop and implement appropriate policies to bring about change. Government at all levels must connect key stakeholders, harness local knowledge, enact policies and plans and manage incremental infrastructure development.
  • Systemic and citywide/at-scale approaches. Initiatives work best when they capitalise on agglomeration economies; use innovative financing and taxes; ensure equitable land management; recognise multiple forms of employment; reintegrate informal settlements with infrastructure and services via planning and design; clarify administrative responsibility for peri-urban areas; and undertake sensitive planning to avoid exposure to environmental hazards.
  • Integration of people and systems. Governments must develop and coordinate broader integrated frameworks that are underpinned by urban planning, legislation and finance arrangements; are supported by interconnected institutional arrangements; and ensure the inclusion of marginalised groups and key stakeholders. Participation must be at the heart of this approach, ensuring an understanding of economic and social community dynamics.
  • Housing. The provision of affordable, adequate housing, including in situ upgrading and avoidance of forced evictions, security of tenure and livelihood and employment generation, all play a role in urban prosperity.
  • Long-term financial investment and inclusive financing options. Sustained investment in affordable housing and upgrading programmes is critical. This includes pro-poor housing plans and financing support for all tiers of government.
  • Developing participatory, standardised and computerised data collection. Residents of informal settlements should be engaged in local data collection. Data collected at community level must be standardised and linked to city, regional, national and global comparative indicators. Data collection must also be embedded in monitoring and evaluation processes.
  • Peer learning platforms. Platforms that draw on stakeholders’ knowledge should be prioritised to facilitate peer learning. These platforms may include a range of communication strategies and multimedia mechanisms.