informal settlements essay

When planning falls short: the challenges of informal settlements

informal settlements essay

PhD Candidate and Research Assistant in Urban Design, The University of Melbourne

informal settlements essay

PhD Candidate, Australian-German Climate & Energy College, The University of Melbourne

informal settlements essay

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, The University of Melbourne

informal settlements essay

PhD Candidate in Urban Planning, The University of Melbourne

informal settlements essay

Research Fellow, McCaughey VicHealth Community Wellbeing Unit, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, The University of Melbourne

Disclosure statement

Hesam Kamalipour receives IPRS and APA scholarships from the Australian Government. He is also a Doctoral Academy member at the Melbourne Social Equity Institute (MSEI).

Alexei Trundle receives research funding from the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), and an Australian Postgraduate Award from the Australian Government.

André Stephan receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Hayley Henderson receives an APA scholarship from the Australian Government.

Melanie Lowe receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the National Environmental Science Programme.

University of Melbourne provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation AU.

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Informal settlements house around one-quarter of the world’s urban population . This means roughly 1 billion urban dwellers live in settlements that have emerged outside of the state’s control.

The Habitat III conference in Quito in October recognised informal settlements as a critical issue for sustainable urban development. But how did informal settlements come to make up such a large part of the world’s cities?

Resorting to informal housing

Rates of urbanisation can fluctuate rapidly and be hard to predict. This makes planning for urban growth a challenge, especially in developing countries, where more than 90% of urban growth is occurring. When data or government capacity is limited, housing shortages often result.

With formal housing too expensive or unavailable, urban migrants must improvise. Many resort to informal housing.

Informal settlements are generally undocumented or hidden on official maps. This is because the state usually sees them as temporary or illegal.

informal settlements essay

Over the past 50 years, governments have tried to deal with these areas in a number of ways. Strategies have included denial, tolerance, formalisation, demolition and displacement.

While efforts to improve settlements and anticipate future ones are becoming more common, the desire for eradication persists in many cities. Forced evictions in various parts of the world are putting the rights of informal settlement dwellers at risk .

Over time, however, it has been recognised that poverty and inequality cannot be simply eradicated through demolition or eviction. In the developing world, one-third of the urban population now lives in slums . In Africa, the proportion is 62%.

Many cities are looking for alternatives that formalise these areas through incremental, on-site upgrading. In addition to offering effective protection against forced evictions, it is critical to provide access to basic services, public facilities and inclusive public spaces.

We need to adopt integrated approaches that cut across urban scales and disciplines. These need to involve stakeholders from government, citizens and other organisations. Design thinking is essential in this process to meet the challenges of urbanisation.

The role of the New Urban Agenda

The Habitat III conference adopted a New Urban Agenda for the United Nations. This document presents a road map for sustainable urban development until Habitat IV in 2036.

While the quality of life for some informal settlement dwellers has improved over recent decades, growing inequality pushes more people into informal housing. As a result, the growth rate of informal settlements often outstrips upgrading processes.

informal settlements essay

The UN Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) was one of the key agencies involved in Habitat III. Since Habitat II, UN-Habitat has worked extensively on housing and slum upgrading . The New Urban Agenda incorporates lessons from this process.

An example is the need for innovative small investment models for informal housing and their inhabitants’ transport needs. The agenda also acknowledges the informal settlements located in hazard-prone areas. Their inhabitants often need more help with reducing the risks and building resilience.

The way forward

Dealing with informal settlements is an issue of inequality. This inequality is both social and spatial in nature, across cities worldwide.

It is problematic that spatial thinking does not have a high profile in the New Urban Agenda. While urban design by itself cannot reduce social inequality and urban poverty, much can be learned from cutting-edge practices that integrate design thinking into upgrading informal settlements.

One key lesson is that incremental housing (a step-by-step process of upgrading) can be a critical part of the solution. Incrementalism allows informal housing to be adapted over time. It also means community engagement is central to governments’ handling of informal settlements.

informal settlements essay

Another learning is that evidence-based, multi-scale and multidisciplinary approaches are essential to tackle the challenges of informal settlements. Such integrated approaches intervene at multiple scales to provide a network of public open space and access to affordable public transport and facilities.

Most informal settlements – but for a few exceptions located in hazardous areas – need to be upgraded incrementally and on the same site.

informal settlements essay

Are we prepared?

When it comes to the critical role of design thinking in the process of urbanisation, built environment professionals need to be prepared to tackle the challenge of informal settlements.

Incremental and on-site upgrading relies on a sophisticated understanding of informal settlement forms and adaptations.

Universities have a key role in equipping future built environment professionals with the skills and knowledge needed to meet the real challenges of urbanisation. Informal settlements are here to stay.

To better integrate these settlements into cities globally, they need to be recognised – politically, socially and spatially – and made visible through the gaze of mapping and research.

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Informal settlements and climate change in the ‘last mile of urbanization’

Subscribe to planet policy, angela r. pashayan angela r. pashayan political scientist and professor - american university school of international service.

February 29, 2024

This viewpoint is part of  Foresight Africa 2024 .

Rapid urbanization and climate change are impacting informal settlements in sub-Saharan Africa. An informal settlement or slum is generally defined as a highly populated urban area that has no infrastructure for human habitation and is densely packed with dwelling units constructed with weak materials of poor quality. Climate change affects slum communities disproportionately when compared to their formal counterparts. Informal settlements are formed organically by residents who occupy land not planned for residential living. Aside from having no infrastructure, the land is precarious and unwanted, often near industry structures or dumpsites along rivers.  Hidden from sight are the impacts of climate change on food insecurity, malnutrition, and disease in these communities. Policy change is urgent: Residents of informal settlements make up over 60% of the urban population on the continent of Africa. 1

Since late 2016 , drought has plagued the African continent, particularly in East Africa, creating food insecurity and malnutrition. In March 2023, the  World Health Organization  reported 7,800 cholera cases in Kenya due to drought and 122 deaths. While our minds habitually go to areas in northern Kenya—like Turkana—or eastern Kenya—like Tana River, urban Nairobi was also affected. In Nairobi, the  Kenyan Ministry of Health reported 11,181 cholera cases and 196 fatalities in July 2023. A targeted cholera campaign intended to vaccinate 300 Nairobi residents per day was surpassed, reaching 500 residents per day, according to the vaccine organization GAVI. 2 Effective infrastructure can mitigate disease and health issues related to climate change in informal settlements.

In 2022,  600 people were killed  in Nigeria’s worst flood in decades. In the same year, floods in  West and Central Africa  affected 8.2 million people in 20 countries—killing 1,418, injuring 4,398, and displacing 2.9 million people. While formally planned urban areas are zoned in locations safe for habitation, informal settlements are in precarious locations, often beside rivers, making residents more vulnerable to floods. For many slum residents, the river becomes a  dumping ground  for trash and waste. Each year,  homes along Kenya’s Ngong River  float away during rapid flooding due to climate-induced heavy rainfall, after which residents search for their belongings and  missing relatives. Excess water lays dormant near homes and attracts mosquitos which may carry malaria or other blood-borne diseases like yellow fever, dengue fever, or West Nile. 3 Stagnant water breeds more waterborne diseases than running water, including typhoid fever, cholera, giardia, dysentery, e-coli, hepatitis, and salmonella, all of which put residents of informal settlements near excess flood water at risk.

Excessive heat

The realities of increasing urbanization, rising average temperatures, and the population density in informal settlements gained attention during the COVID-19 pandemic. 4 Living in high-density slums increases heat due to a lack of open space. Heat makes you sweat, causing you to lose the water you have in the body. These effects are heightened for residents of informal settlements who cannot afford the recommended fresh water intake. In high-density slums, dwellings are, on average, approximately 10ft x 12ft with one or no windows at all, occupied by up to six people, and built along narrow 2-3ft mud paths. Slum dwellings are typically constructed of cinder-block, mud, and sticks, or corrugated tin. Some of these materials hold heat, leading to increased human suffering as temperatures continue to increase in urban cities. A study from Johns Hopkins University on climate revealed that Nairobi’s slums range from 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the central business district. 5

With the 1.4 billion population boom expected by 2063, informal settlements and climate-based issues must be addressed, lest half the population of Africa be lost due to lack of foresight.

Policy recommendations

The reality that over 60% of Africa’s urban population live in informal settlements cannot be denied, nor can it be denied that a country’s population is its best asset. With the 1.4 billion population boom expected by 2063, informal settlements and climate-based issues must be addressed, lest half the population of Africa be lost due to lack of foresight. 6 In light of these facts, my recommendations are: 1. Settle land tenure issues in slums. A working model is community tenancy. 2. Change the development approach: Ditch the high-rise model and upgrade slums with water and sanitation, keeping climate-smart ecology at the forefront of design.  3. Enact eco-measures to prevent rivers from overflowing and to capture excessive water to offset droughts. 4. Empower paid community health workers to manage 50 homes each in informal settlements for basic health issues, and to accurately report data linked to climate change. 5. Use micro-carbon credits to incentivize community-led kitchens that use clean gas to deter the use of wood and charcoal for cooking in slums. Addressing the challenges in informal settlements is key to fostering climate-resilient urban cities. The last mile of urbanization can be reached with climate at the forefront of “Leapfrogging to Settle the Informal Settlement,” that blends African Village Culture with climate-smart urban living as a blueprint for reclaiming the health and resilience of 60% of the continental population.

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  • Amegah, A. Kofi. “Slum decay in Sub-Saharan Africa: Context, environmental pollution challenges, and impact on dweller’s health.” Environmental Epidemiology 5.3 (2021).
  • Joyce Chimbi. 2023. “Averting a cholera disaster in Nairobi’s informal settlements.” Gavi. vaccinated,City%20County%20department%20of%20health.
  • Nabatanzi, Maureen, et al. 2022. “Malaria outbreak facilitated by increased mosquito breeding sites near houses and cessation of indoor residual spraying, Kole district, Uganda, January-June 2019.” BMC Public Health 22.1: 1898.
  • Mehrolhassani, Mohammad Hossein, et al. 2022. “Health protection challenges of slums residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the social determinants of health framework: A case study of Kerman city in Iran.” Journal of Education and Health Promotion 11.
  • Scott, Anna A., et al. 2017. “Temperature and heat in informal settlements in Nairobi.” PloS one 12.11: e0187300.
  •  Weny, K., R. Snow, and S. Zhang. 2017. “The demographic dividend atlas for Africa: Tracking the potential for a demographic dividend.” UNFPA.

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Informal settlements are growing worldwide — here's what we need to do

A cluster of houses at an informal settlement area in Mumbai, India, May 20, 2023.

Improving informal settlements is essential to make progress on the SDGs. Image:  REUTERS/Niharika Kulkarni

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  • Nearly 1.1 billion people live in slums and other informal settlements around the world.
  • A new report models the impact of improving informal settlements, and found it would enable millions of children to attend school and increase some countries GDP by more than 10%.
  • Solutions include providing land tenure, expanding microloans and supporting low-cost housing start-ups.

More people than ever before are living in slums or other informal settlements. This isn't just a global scale problem, though — it's also a global scale opportunity.

The number of people living in slums or other informal settlements has grown by 165 million in the past 20 years, bringing the total to nearly 1.1 billion.

Unable to access affordable housing, families have no alternative to living in substandard homes, with little access to sanitation services, electricity and safe drinking water. Residents of informal settlements often lack security of tenure or land rights, living under the constant threat of eviction.

Have you read?

In nairobi, this informal settlement is changing how we adapt to floods, slum populations are set to surge as the housing crisis bites, the opportunity of solving the housing crisis.

Take Freetown, Sierra Leone, one of the most crowded cities in the world. Up to 60% of the more than 1.2 million residents live in a patchwork of informal settlements constructed on precarious land prone to flooding, fires and landslides. This level of unplanned development led to tragedy in 2017, when more than 1,000 people lost their lives in a devastating landslide. Due to a lack of urban planning, the absence of governmental oversight and a chronic lack of affordable housing, it’s estimated that nearly 40% of housing developments in Freetown have been built in medium- or high-risk areas.

But if treated as an opportunity rather than a burden, housing can actually strengthen community health, education and economic outcomes, according to a landmark report by the International Institute for Environmental and Development (IIED).

If housing in informal settlements was improved on a global scale, life span would jump an average of 2.4 years. More than 730,000 lives would be saved each year around the world, preventing more deaths than if malaria were eliminated. Up to 41.6 million more children would be enrolled in school worldwide.

A global push to improve informal settlements would have a transformative economic impact. Some countries’ GDP would increase as much as 10.5%. Sierra Leone fits into that category: GDP would jump from about US $4 billion to nearly US $4.5 billion. The economic and human development gains from the improved housing would exceed the costs in many cases. A 2019 World Bank study estimated that ensuring residents have access to water, sanitation and other key infrastructure would require low- and middle-income countries spend between 2% and 8% of their GDP.

The Data for the City of Tomorrow report highlighted that in 2023, around 56% of the world is urbanized. Almost 65% of people use the internet. Soon, 75% of the world’s jobs will require digital skills.

The World Economic Forum’s Centre for Urban Transformation is at the forefront of advancing public-private collaboration in cities. It enables more resilient and future-ready communities and local economies through green initiatives and the ethical use of data.

Learn more about our impact:

  • Net Zero Carbon Cities: Through this initiative, we are sharing more than 200 leading practices to promote sustainability and reducing emissions in urban settings and empower cities to take bold action towards achieving carbon neutrality .
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Want to know more about our centre’s impact or get involved? Contact us .

Three steps to meet the SDG on housing

These insights underscore the importance of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11, the so-called cities and human settlements goal, which outlines the goal of decent housing for all by 2030. Unfortunately, a 2021 report from Habitat for Humanity International found that SDG 11.1 was actually regressing. We are seeing stagnation instead of progress toward the goal.

Governments must prioritize adequate housing, especially for those struggling to survive in today’s overcrowded settlements. That means increasing financial commitments by an order of magnitude and making meaningful policy changes .

Here are three steps that governments — and leaders in both the public and private sectors — can take to alleviate this growing housing crisis:

1. Prioritize land tenure security

Ensure residents of informal settlements have secure rights to the land they inhabit.

This has already happened on a large scale in countries such as Honduras, where civil society organizations and municipal governments came together to form diverse commissions that developed policy recommendations around housing and land, negotiating approval of the recommendations and then monitoring their implementation. Through their advocacy and technical assistance, more than 1 million people have improved access to their land rights.

In Freetown, addressing tenure security in informal settlements is a challenge, as local land use planning is under the authority and control of the national government. It is imperative that the national authorities empower municipal officials to govern land titling and housing standards. This collaborative approach would tenure security and access to basic services in informal settlements, such as clean water and sanitation systems.

Freetown City Council has convened a consortium of NGOs under the Transforming Lives programme to address the affordable housing crisis in the city. The consortium, led by Catholic Relief Services, are focusing their combined effort in two of the most vulnerable communities prone to flooding events. This work aims to improve infrastructure services in these settlements, addressing land tenure for existing residents and the provision of higher density housing on sites at lower risk to flooding.

2. Expand finance for housing

For residents of Freetown’s informal settlements and countless other cities, traditional avenues of housing finance are simply not accessible. Microloans offer hope by providing individuals with the means to access capital for housing improvements and upgrades. They exhibit similar characteristics to traditional mortgage loans, but their smaller size helps make them more accessible to families with lower incomes.

But microloans aren’t enough in countries such as Sierra Leone, where the estimated cost of turning the country’s more than 800,000 housing-deprived households into adequate shelter is USD $6-7.5 billion . The interest rates for mortgages from commercial and state-owned banks is high, limiting opportunities to finance for affordable housing. To finance affordable housing, the City Council and other agencies will need to work with private developers in identifying more economically sustainable solutions such as part-ownership or rent-to-buy schemes, giving tenants more affordable payment terms of 10–15-year periods.

3. Strengthen climate-resilient housing

Informal settlements are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The public and private sectors can work together to support and invest in community start-ups specializing in low-cost, climate-resilient homes and locally sourced building materials. For example, an NGO based in Sierra Leone, Home Leone, has over the past 5 years been developing affordable housing utilizing low-cost construction techniques, and providing facilities to meet the basic needs of communities and an integrated approach to housing development for low-income communities.

We must act now to pave a stronger foundation for the more than 10 billion people expected to inhabit our cities by 2050. This starts with the urgent improvement of housing in rapidly expanding informal settlements worldwide. This long-overdue investment will more than pay for itself by building more resilient, prosperous and equitable communities for generations to come.

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Informality in Human Settlements Development a case study of diepsloot informal settlement masters thesis gift makondo

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2020, Informality in Human Settlements Development: a Case Study of Diepsloot Informal Settlement Extension 1, Ward 95, Gauteng Province 2013 – 2018

During the 21st century a large percentage of the population is concentrated in urban land. The price tag attached to these urban land parcels is high, thus making it difficult for the poor to access it. For this reason, many African countries and other states globally have seen an increase in informal settlements. This means governments are expected to devise measures to either formalise or eradicate informal settlements in a way that does not infringe on the rights of the citizens. The South African government developed a human settlements model which seeks to cooperatively respond to housing challenges facing the country in the rural and urban context. This model takes into account elements of space, economy and equality in the society. The aim of this study was to examine challenges of informality in human settlements development in Diepsloot Extension 1. The study utilised semi-structured interviews to collect and collate empirical data. The data collected established that residents, community leaders, councilors, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) members, and government officials have different views on the challenges faced in Diepsloot Extension 1 informal settlement. The study established that in Diepsloot Extension 1 residents do not enjoy proper basic services (water and sanitation, refuse removal, electricity and roads) from the government. Due to the lack of basic services, the area has seen many violent protests. The study concludes that in order to expedite the process of creating informal-settlements-free communities, communities and private sector stakeholders must be involved in the process from the policy development stage to the implementation phases. The study further recommends that the government must strengthen the urban management and integrated land-use management policies in the country in order to control how urban land is utilised.

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By the term “Informal Settlements” (“IS”) we mean, either residential areas where occupants have no legal claim on land, or, areas where housing is not in compliance with planning and building regulations, which is mostly the case in Greece. Furthermore, public works and infrastructures not conforming to the specifications should also be considered as IS. IS in Greece are the result of a complex and often confusing land administration institutional framework and an inadequate way, planning and building regulations are controlled by the state. Nowadays, it is rather difficult to clearly determine what is formal and informal and classify all types of illegalities, since most buildings in Greece have some degree of informality! In this paper, housing policies in Greece and their impact on the evolution of IS over the last decades are reviewed. These policies are mainly regulated by the Greek General Building Construction Code (GOK) that establishes standards to constructions and specifies allowance ratios of built surface area to land area and by Laws and Ministerial Decisions that establish regulations about land administration and planning. Within this legal framework several attempts were made to address the problem of IS in Greece, accounting today more than 1000000 informal buildings [4]. These attempts aimed at legalizing and upgrading IS with their inclusion into formal urban plan, or, imposed financial penalties to the owners, thus providing the state with important economic profit. In specific cases of buildings illegally located e.g. within coastal zones or forestland, special measures were also announced, for the demolition of these constructions. An effort to categorize IS follows, in regard to the main housing policy characteristics and the building regulations in Greece. IS in urban areas are characterized by a tendency to illegally enlarge vital space, either by changing the use of auxiliary areas into housing units or by increasing coverage limits, imposed by the building regulations. In rural areas IS are usually not provided with the requisite permit or legal title for use on land, or are located within coastal zone and forestland, consisting an important IS type with negative economic and environmental impacts. Another major group of IS, characterized by rapid unstructured and unplanned development, are those located within the urban zone but not within the urban plan. Each of the above IS types, is extensively examined by considering characteristic examples. However, regardless the type of illegality, “IS” are a significant problem requiring a realistic approach as part of an integrated land administration strategy, relying on the establishment of good relations between the state and the society.

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Analysis of the Socio-Economic Challenges of Informal Settlements in Msholozi, South Africa

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  • First Online: 25 January 2023
  • Cite this conference paper

informal settlements essay

  • Benita G. Zulch   ORCID: 13 ,
  • Mafhungo Musefuwa 13 &
  • Joseph Awoamim Yacim   ORCID: 13  

Part of the book series: Lecture Notes in Networks and Systems ((LNNS,volume 579))

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This study aims to evaluate the socio-economic challenges that affect the inhabitants of the informal settlements in Msholozi, Mbombela, South Africa. Although many studies have been done about the challenges of informal settlements across the world, one thing is common; all informal settlements pose features that might be different due to the location. The age-long apartheid legacy that greatly influences the social and economic life of the people relative to their settlement patterns in South Africa was the main motivation for this study. To gather relevant information needed to achieve the objective of this study, household heads in Msholozi were interviewed. Findings reveal that lack of employment and poor remuneration for those with employment was paramount among the economic challenges, while the social challenges included poor facilities in school, health centre, and shopping centre among others. Interestingly, the residents of Msholozi are satisfied with their living environment. The study, however, recommends that government should be proactive in meeting the housing needs of its citizens as enshrined in the constitution to curb the proliferation of informal settlements in South Africa.

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Zulch, B.G., Musefuwa, M., Yacim, J.A. (2023). Analysis of the Socio-Economic Challenges of Informal Settlements in Msholozi, South Africa. In: Nagar, A.K., Singh Jat, D., Mishra, D.K., Joshi, A. (eds) Intelligent Sustainable Systems. Lecture Notes in Networks and Systems, vol 579. Springer, Singapore.

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Book launch of 'Informal Settlements of the Global South'

15 May 2024, 4:00 pm–6:00 pm

Senate House

Join us for a conversation between Gihan Karunaratne and Henk Wildschut, Fabienne Hoelzel, and Nishat Awan about Gihan's newly published book Informal Settlements of the Global South (Routledge, 2024).

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With case studies that span the globe, from the US-Mexico borderlands to the Calais encampment in France, and from refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda, and Bangladesh to ‘informal’ enclaves in the cities of India, China, Brazil, Nigeria, and South Africa, this book challenges current global perspectives on human settling, mobility, and placemaking. Its content is not just relevant to one region but to the entire world, making it a must-read for anyone interested in the global dynamics of human settlements. Together, the 15 essays in this book question the validity of the conventional hegemonic divisions of Global North vs. Global South and ‘formal’ vs. ‘informal’ in terms of geographic presence, transborder performances, and the ideological inter-dependence of Northern and Southern spaces, spatial practices, and the uniformity of authoritative enforcements. The book, whose authors come from all over the world, uses ‘Global South’ as a methodological apparatus to ask the ‘Southern’ question of settling and unsettling across the globe. Crucially, the studies reveal the sentiments, resourcefulness, and agency of those positioned by the powerful within the dichotomies of formal/informal, legitimate/ illegal, privileged/marginalized, etc. This emphasis on agency and resourcefulness can inspire hope and empowerment in the reader. By focusing on hitherto invisible events and untold stories of adaptation, negotiation, and contestation by people and their communities, this volume of essays takes the ongoing North-South debate in new directions. It opens up fresh areas of inquiry for the reader. It offers a unique perspective that will intrigue and stimulate the curiosity of researchers and students of architecture, planning, politics, and sociology, as well as built environment professionals. The launch will be introduced and moderated by Dr Paroj Banerjee and Dr Azadeh Mashayekhi.    

Panel Members

Gihan Karunaratne  is a Sri Lankan-born British architect who studied at the Royal College of Arts and Bartlett School of Architecture. He has taught and lectured in Architecture, Urban Design, and Interior Design in the UK, Sri Lanka, and China. He writes and researches extensively on architecture and urban design. Gihan’s current research interests are in architecture and urban conditions within cities, which are undergoing constant physical, economic, or social changes in urban living patterns. He has researched and explored the city's underbelly in many of his projects in detail, specifically focusing on non-conformist marginalized communities. From urban transition courses and temporality in the Global South, he remains actively engaged in urban research focusing on informal settlements and communities.

Photographer  Henk Wildschut’ s work is characterized by a contemplative and often distant view of the people and situations he photographs. This adds a balance and monumental quality to his photographs, inviting viewers to reflect further on the subject. In 2005, he started a long-term project around European illegal immigration. When visiting several refugee camps worldwide, Henk was intrigued by the need for domesticity. Small gardens around the tents became a universal symbol of hope and resilience.  

Fabienne Hoelzel  is a Professor of Urban Design at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design and the Founder-Director of FABULOUS URBAN. Formally, Fabienne was the head of the Urban Design and Planning Team at the Housing and Urban Development Authority of the City of São Paulo, Brazil, and twice a research associate at the Institute for Urban Design at ETH Zurich. Her field of research is planning theory. FABULOUS URBAN is an urban design practice, think-tank, and NGO specializing in research-led design in regions of the global South. Fabienne is involved in civil society-led urban planning policy development and strategic small-scale upgrading projects in low-income communities in Lagos, Nigeria, through the organization.

Nishat Awan  is an architecture and visual culture professor at UCL Urban Laboratory, the Bartlett (UK). Situated between art and architectural practice, Nishat Awan’s research and writing explore displacement, migration, and border regimes. She is interested in modes of spatial representation, mainly digital representation, and the limits of witnessing as a form of ethical engagement with distant places. She led the ERC-funded project, Topological Atlas, on the counter-geographies of migrants as they encountered the border security apparatus. Her book, Diasporic Agencies (Routledge, 2016), addressed how architecture and urbanism can respond to the consequences of increasing migration. She has written on alternative modes of architectural production in the co-authored book Spatial Agency (Routledge, 2011) and the co-edited book Trans-Local-Act (aaa-peprav, 2011).

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A bedroom with wooden walls and floors and a long window giving a view of a rugged hillside with clouds and power lines running across it.


In Ecuador, Homes That Are Part of the Mountains

A group of architects are creating disjointed structures that, in responding to their unsteady terrain, are a new model in cooperative building.

The bedroom at the Arrachay cabin, completed in 2021 in Papallacta, Ecuador, designed by Javier Mera Luna with Lesly Villagrán and María Beatriz Moncayo. Credit... Ana Topoleanu

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By Michael Snyder

Photographs by Ana Topoleanu

  • May 10, 2024

BEFORE THEY STARTED building Casa Pitaya, a country house on the rainy western slopes of the Ecuadorean Andes, the architects José María Sáez, Florencia Sobrero and Martín Real presented their clients with an image that would guide them through two years of design and construction: a rusted-out car submerged in water, its frame overtaken by coral. “That was our ideal,” says Sobrero, 33, who moved from her native Argentina in 2015 and formed the office Taller General (General Workshop) with Real, 30, two years later: “A foreign structure that would allow the environment to consume it.” The architects hoped the dwelling, rather than disappearing into the surrounding cloud forest, would encourage the landscape’s growth, becoming not so much a mountain house as part of the mountain itself.

Completed in November 2021 for an Andean historian and her husband, who works in environmental remediation, the 3,200-square-foot home hasn’t been obscured by the towering bamboo that rises behind it. Built largely from intersecting beams of laminated timber and slim steel girders, the structure stands like scaffolding among native fruit trees, a bare framework of joists and crossbeams supporting the boxes of steel and wood that contain the home’s rooms. From a distance, it resembles a bird blind — or perhaps the concrete stilts that lift houses in informal settlements over volcanic hillsides around Quito, the Ecuadorean capital 20 miles to the east. But Casa Pitaya is also a direct outgrowth of its site, its scale determined by the length of beams (roughly 32 feet) that the contractors could safely maneuver down the curving dirt drive. The house’s beauty — its warmth, its naked vulnerability — is both incidental and natural, a response to the singular mountain territory from which much of Ecuador’s most provocative new architecture rises.

Set more than 9,300 feet above sea level on a rain-soaked plateau traversed by the Equator, Quito exists at a narrow point in the northern Andes with access to tropical forests, temperate valleys and coastal fisheries. The region historically supported several autonomous but interdependent chiefdoms sustained through trade and organized around shared property and labor — cooperative traditions that survived invasions by the Inca in the 15th century and the Spanish less than 100 years later and persist today, though radically transformed through widespread urbanization, in the system of shared work known locally as the minga .

Later, the discovery of Amazonian oil reserves generated an economic boom beginning in the 1970s that helped establish Ecuador as a beacon of relative peace on a troubled continent. But two decades of rampant inflation followed, leading in 2000 to the center-right government’s replacement of the national currency with the American dollar. Between 1998, as the economy neared collapse, and 2006, the year before the leftist economist Rafael Correa ascended to the presidency, hundreds of thousands of Ecuadoreans fled to Spain and the United States. In May 2023, the conservative president Guillermo Lasso dissolved the National Assembly to avoid impeachment proceedings based on charges of embezzlement, which he has denied, triggering a flash election three months later. By the time Ecuador’s current president, Daniel Noboa, was elected in a runoff, the country had suffered months of political turmoil, including the assassination of a presidential candidate in broad daylight on the streets of central Quito. Noboa has since tightened security measures across the nation in the wake of prison uprisings and a homicide rate that nearly doubled last year. In August, Ecuador became the first country to pass a localized moratorium on oil exploration by national referendum, a victory for Indigenous and environmental activists.

In the shadow of all those upheavals, Quito has become an unexpected locus for a group of architects who argue, perhaps unsurprisingly, for added transparency, community and sustainability. All close friends, all under the age of 50, all guided by the imperative — repeated among them as a mantra — to “do more with less,” these practitioners, organized in collectives, build with materials like recycled wood and earth and share their resources and knowledge freely. “Their architecture is part of the land,” says Ana María Durán Calisto, 52, a Quito-born architect and scholar at Yale. “They’re neither Modernist architects of Latin American socialism nor neoliberal architects of Latin American corporatism,” she says. “They are architects of the minga.”

THE FIRST AND most influential of Quito’s contemporary firms, called Al Borde (To the Edge), emerged from the economic and political turmoil of the early 2000s. Al Borde’s founding partners, David Barragán, 42, and Pascual Gangotena, 46, met months before Ecuador’s dollarization, on their first day of classes at the esteemed Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador. While there, they studied under Sáez, one of Casa Pitaya’s architects, who had moved to Ecuador from his native Spain in 1994. Sáez, 61, a founding member of the new architecture school at P.U.C.E. that year, infused the curriculum with an ethos of intellectual openness; existential questions of identity also permeated the institution, says Handel Guayasamín, 72, another influential architect and former P.U.C.E. professor: “What do we do with our culture? Our way of being? Our materials and local resources?”

A wooden walkway leads to a small plunge pool.

Such questions had few concrete answers in Quito back then. Elsewhere in Latin America, Modernism had produced massive social housing and infrastructure projects but in Ecuador, the handful of Brutalist masterworks that emerged from the 1970s oil boom “were directed to the social, cultural and economic elites,” says Rómulo Moya Peralta, 59, the editor of the country’s 47-year-old architecture magazine Trama. By 2007, when Barragán and Gangotena established their firm, those monolithic projects, for all their formal power and coherence, seemed untenable.

By contrast, Al Borde, which now includes the partners Marialuisa Borja, 39, and Esteban Benavides, 38, was motivated by a “strategic capacity to create opportunities,” Sáez says. Take Casa en Construccion (House Under Construction), a dilapidated structure in Quito’s historic center that the group occupied rent-free from 2014 to 2020 in exchange for the opportunity to redesign and rehabilitate the space through workshops on alternative building techniques, ultimately creating an architectural commune that served as home, studio and laboratory. They applied a similar approach to 2017’s Casa de las Camas en el Aire (House With the Beds in the Air), an affordable renovation of a tumbledown adobe cottage in Ecuador’s northern sierras for a young couple with two children. When the architects first visited, a half-ruined terra-cotta-tiled roof capped the 893-square-foot main house. To add space without too much expense, they engineered a new roof to support a rough-hewn framework in eucaplytus that includes three plywood boxes, each big enough for a double bed, which hang over the open kitchen, dining room and living room. Friends, family and students contributed labor in exchange for lessons on carpentry, working with adobe and using old tires for roofing. For all its strangeness — the suspended bedrooms, connected by an open catwalk, resemble a jungle gym inside of a construction site — the house is also tactile and warm, its common areas generous, its outer form of a piece with the surrounding village dwellings. “Our clients don’t come to us imagining that they’ll end up with something like this,” Barragán says. “But we’re always thinking of new scenarios.”

BY THE TIME they completed Casa de las Camas en el Aire, Al Borde had become a training ground for younger architects drawn to the firm’s sense of play and cooperation. Over the years, “there’s been a collective construction of shared intelligence,” says the architect Daniel Moreno Flores, 39, a former collaborator with both Sáez and Al Borde who in 2019 founded the firm La Cabina de la Curiosidad (the Cabinet of Curiosity) with his partner, Marie Combette, now 37. “Even if we’re all doing our own things,” he says, “there’s a body of work developing,” defined in part by the usage of raw materials and exposed construction systems, what Durán Calisto has called “a brutalism of subtraction.” In recent years, these architects have worked together in Quito and elsewhere on ephemeral pavilions and mobile spaces for protests, community centers and rural schools. They’ve used living trees as columns (an ancestral technique borrowed from Ecuadorean mountain settlements), as in Al Borde’s Casa Jardín (Garden House) from 2020, and built prefabricated cabins like the 2023 Sula house in the Galápagos Islands by the architect Diana Salvador, 42, and the 2021 Arrachay house in the Andes by Javier Mera Luna, 37, Lesly Villagrán, 32, and María Beatriz Moncayo, 25. Each of these projects is, in its way, “a small big opportunity,” Moreno Flores says, “to rethink the model we live in.”

Few projects capture that spirit of experimentation better than Moreno Flores’s 2,250-square-foot Casa en el Carrizal, a 2015 collaboration with the 46-year-old architect Sebastián Calero Larrea. After receiving a commission in the Quito suburb of Tumbaco from one of Moreno Flores’s childhood friends and her husband — an art historian and a mountaineer, respectively — the architects built a house around a matrix of 30 recycled eucalyptus columns (which they acquired in exchange for clearing a local museum’s crowded warehouse) anchored by climbing cables. Supported by the columns, the interiors are divided among boxes striated by horizontal layers of exposed brick and adobe and connected by open-sided ramps that resemble the hanging bridges of a ropes course.

Nearby, Casa Entre Árboles — built in 2019 by Maria Reinoso, 31, Xavier Duque, 33, and Nicolás Viteri, 33, who together form a collective called El Sindicato (the Union) — takes a subtler approach. Half-hidden in a grove of citrus and guaba trees, the 1,938-square-foot house, with its stick frame, panels of glass and bahareque (a traditional construction technique in which raw soil and vegetable fiber are spread over a frame and left to dry), suggests an earthy Modernist bungalow. Yet for all its refinements — its precise carpentry and nine interior patios winding around old trees — Entre Árboles also exposes itself to the elements: It hides nothing, practically asking to be seen.

AS DISTINCT AS these projects are, their architects know they will not, on their own, transform construction, one of the planet’s most polluting industries. “A single-family home will never change the world — we have to be clear about that,” says Carolina Rodas, 38, who 10 years ago founded the firm Rama Estudio with her husband, Felipe Donoso, 38, and Carla Chávez, 37. Sáez, for his part, bristles at the suggestion that they ought to: These architects, he says, “don’t have to solve the world’s problems. They’re doing things in a different way. It’s the possibility of another option.”

In 2021, Rama Estudio spent two months and $16,000 renovating a 5,000-square-foot house, one of two slapdash structures they’d purchased on a steep, half-forested plot in the village-like neighborhood of Guápulo in eastern Quito. By enlarging the minuscule windows, reinforcing them with steel transoms and slaking the exterior walls with fresh earth, the builders turned the street-level floor into commercial spaces (now a local grocery), the second and third floors into a home for Rodas and Donoso and the top floor into an office for their growing practice. They relied upon “the minimum,” Rodas says, “to make the spaces habitable.” Using the same bare materials and budget, they’ve since adapted the second, smaller structure as three residential spaces and, in collaboration with El Sindicato, built a periscope-like apartment on the roof of the main building where Chávez and Viteri live together. More recently, Rama has collaborated with neighbors to create community gardens, install solar panels and retouch damaged facades with earth-based paints — the minga adapted to city life.

According to Inés del Pino Martínez, a 69-year-old P.U.C.E. architect and historian, the pre-Hispanic name Quito has many possible etymologies, among them a word that translates into Spanish as quebrada , referring to the ravines that furrow the city’s plateau. More literally, del Pino Martínez says, “it’s a point of division — between high and low, north and south — a place of dualities and ruptures.” Living in a colonial city built on top of that complex, fruitful terrain, “We never had a chance to see the best way to exist in our environment or to confront our own culture,” Rodas says. “It’s easy to get lost,” adds her partner, Chávez, sitting beside her. “When we’re in that position, we ask ourselves, ‘Where are we?’ And we always respond from the territory itself.”

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    Sheffield Road is an informal settlement situated in the central part of Philippi's area for residential sites near the N2 freeway on a narrow strip of land set aside by the City of Cape Town (CoCT) for the widening of the road called Sheffield Road (CORC 2011; CUFF 2013). The settlement was formed in 1993, when a.

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    The study concludes that in order to expedite the process of creating informal-settlements-free communities, communities and private sector stakeholders must be involved in the process from the policy development stage to the implementation phases. The study further recommends that the government must strengthen the urban management and ...

  19. (PDF) Analysis of Flooding Vulnerability in Informal Settlements

    2 Department of Finance and Investment Management, University of Johannesburg, P.O. Box 524, Johannesburg 2006, South Africa. * Correspondence: [email protected]. Abstract: The United Nations ...


    Alternative sanitation systems may be considered in informal settlements. There are two ways in which human waste is handled. It can either be treated on site before disposal, or removed from the site and treated elsewhere (Mara 1984). In either case the waste may be mixed with water or it may not.

  21. Analysis of the Socio-Economic Challenges of Informal Settlements in

    This section is devoted to the review of related literature on the subject matter of this research. The review was carried out from two perspectives, subsection 2.1 which dwelt on the economic challenges of informal settlements, and subsection 2.2 reviewed literature on the social implications of the informal settlements.. 2.1 The Economic Challenges and Impact of Informal Settlements

  22. Informal Settlement Free Essay Example

    Essay Sample: Background of the Study Urbanization is a dynamic socio-economic force which has considerable temporal and spatial variations (Ali & Mustaquim, 2007). Free essays. My ... The main causes of informal settlements are economic, religion, and politics. People from the rural areas are attracted for the great fortune that urban settlers ...

  23. Book launch of 'Informal Settlements of the Global South'

    Its content is not just relevant to one region but to the entire world, making it a must-read for anyone interested in the global dynamics of human settlements. Together, the 15 essays in this book question the validity of the conventional hegemonic divisions of Global North vs. Global South and 'formal' vs. 'informal' in terms of ...

  24. In Ecuador, Homes That Are Part of the Mountains

    They've used living trees as columns (an ancestral technique borrowed from Ecuadorean mountain settlements), as in Al Borde's Casa Jardín (Garden House) from 2020, and built prefabricated ...

  25. Towards Understanding Fire Causes in Informal Settlements Based on

    Abstract: Informal settlements (ISs) are a high-risk environment in which fires are often seen. In. 2019 alone, 5544 IS fires were reported in South Africa. O ne of the main problems, when i ...