Issue 2: Strategies for Improving Informal Settlements

A billion people—one-sixth of the world’s population—live in informal settlements. 1 This number is forecast to double in the next decade, as increasing numbers of refugees from armed conflict and climate change seek safer environments, and as economic migrants continue to pursue opportunity in urbanizing areas. Though informal settlements offer at least some degree of promise to their residents, they also lack basic infrastructure to support health and wellness, including clean water, adequate sewage systems, durable housing, and public spaces for commerce and recreation. Additionally, informal settlements are frequently overcrowded and situated in political conflict zones, eco-sensitive environments, and locations vulnerable to extreme weather events (e.g., cyclones, hurricanes, and unusually-severe heat or cold) and natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes and flooding).

Responses to the Challenges of Informal Settlements are Varied and Evolving

For decades, governments in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have responded to informal settlements with a range of approaches, including denying their existence, reacting with benign indifference, evicting residents, and demolishing settlements in whole or in part. More recently, it has been understood that eviction and demolition do not address the cultural and material realities that drive the creation and expansion of informal settlements; this trend has prompted increasing interest in improving informal settlements and attempting to formalize land tenure for residents of these communities.

As a consequence, to ameliorate informal settlements, local governments in LMICs have commissioned remediation plans from architectural and urban planning firms, many of which are from high resource countries. Unfortunately, in developing plans and interventions, many such firms are not mindful of the economic limitations of LMICs, and also do not take into account the lived-experiences of people who reside in informal settlements. While geographically focused, Korydon Smith and Tomà Berlanda’s book Interpreting Kigali, Rwanda: Architectural Inquiries and Prospects for a Developing African City2 offers architects, planners, and policy makers strategies and principles—rather than prescriptions—to guide the improvement of informal settlements worldwide.

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