How can architects solve the slum dilemma

Author: Andrew Amara
Architect, Urban Planner. RIBA. MUSA.

1. Introduction

The increasing growth of poor rudiment shacks and urban slums is a perplexing challenge. While they are presumed to present affordable and flexible options, households in slums face the challenges of insecure tenure and inadequate services. In reverse of what happens in the formal sector, slums grow when people move to available land, construct and slowly improve their shelter, and some go on to seek service installations or legalization. Housing improvement strategies have gone through different eras (slum tenement, modernist block, public housing etc), changing hands from public to private to market forces and drawing in various debates such environmental sustainability and climate change. To understand housing, it should be analysed in relation to the “social process of its production, exchange and consumption, and in relation to the many class-based interests tied to the commodity cycle”.

How is Sub-sahara improving its slum Housing?

It would be helpful to define some frequent terms::

-­‐ Slum upgrading refers to “improving the life of people in the informal settlements through provision of water, infrastructure, socio-economic activities, (and) decent structures among other facilities”
-­‐ Self-help refers to “step-by-step development which enables a household to phase in its capital and other resource investments in accordance with a variable income stream”. It is important to note that it does not only refer to labour.
-­‐ Sweat equity “includes the use of voluntary labour to reduce the cash costs of renovation”

1. The fact that the squatters do not own the land on which they erect shelters, multiplies their problems, limits access to services and opportunities, impacts perception and their status, and subsequently enhances inequalities. Although many governments have invested in shelter solutions, through finance or physical housing, the results are not as effective. The World Bank lending to developing countries for shelter improvement has grown to include policy guidance. While this is good, it may hold the governments at ransom. Although Market-based loans to households have increased, many low-income households do not have the necessary security to borrow from formal institutions and resort to informal sector options. Government support for mortgage lending is still low or limited due to a variety of reasons.

Public housing has been a traditional response to housing need. The South African government for example, run a massive public housing project delivering thousands of houses, but these have failed to meet the growing demand and are criticized among other things for the low-quality and unfavourable location. Another initiative is the installation of services on selected sites, which were divided into plots and sold to low-income.

At the turn of 80s, Structural Adjustment Programs were introduced to shape state policy, and these made governments reduce budgets and housing investments, and adopt approaches that ‘enable’ households build their homes. Nonetheless, some governments still invest heavily in housing.The housing sector has also attracted the interest of private developers, who in many cases drastically increase the unit cost making it impossible for many households to afford. In the midst of these challenges some public officials are passing on the role of housing supply and improvement to the residents and private sector, all in a bid to meet Target 11 of the Millennium Development Goals and now the new sustainable Goals.

The way low-income households ‘naturally’ and gradually erect their basic shelters, has given credence to incremental housing as a more suitable approach to improving housing. Case studies show that this increment takes on different forms: improvements to existing structures, construction of new ‘shell’ units to be improved by the beneficiaries or support to the beneficiaries right from the start of construction. Private developers and state subsidies, may aid these post-occupancy approaches to meet the socio-economic needs of the recipients.

Over the decades NGOs, community based organizations are increasingly becoming active in housing improvement. Whilst they cannot substitute policy, community-led initiatives are proving to be more responsive. However we should be careful that these informal routes do not burry the rationalities of formal policy or breed a reluctance in the state to carryouthousing obligations.
Some propose another approach: a model that borrows from the unplanned and ‘traditional’ way in which informal settlements pitch camp and develop. The suggestion is that this legacy can be refined into planning steps: starting from no preconceived plans and gradual installation of infrastructure, the beneficiaries should be allowed to select their own plots and unit layout. This proposal raises the subject of ‘cultural adequacy’. Traditional Kenyan homes were of mud and wattle and small in size. No wonder the housing proposed by governments and developers is too expensive for low-income families, and sometimes inappropriate. Who are we then to assume that the western planning standards are the best? Low-income households also show ‘ingenious’ resilience when they adapt to risky areas such as flood plains or steep slopes. This reinforces the discourse that we should not demolish slums but improve them. However it must also be stated that slums have negatives as well, such as vulnerability to disasters.

Today government approaches to improving slum housing include enabling households get housing loans, capital grants for house purchase, development of microfinance options for households, upgrading of slums, provision of plots and basic services and channelling subsidised funds to community organisations. There are also activists who are campaigning for rights to adequate housing and secure tenure.

As Kampala wakes up to its own slums, how can architects and city-building-professional, address the slum challenge? proposes that government agencies should create ‘enabling’ policies along with individual property rights in order to monitor and control the land and housing market.

Can we learn from the trends in housing improvement such as: the participation of the beneficiaries, the restructuring of finance to be accessible to all, the recognition that housing standards should be flexible and the benefits of combined action rather individual schemes …


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