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The reports contained in this website are the result of knowledge that is being co-produced between us, communities, professionals, experts and the state. Through spending time with people in informal settlements, we've become convinced that solutions to inadequate housing and services for the urban poor will emerge only when the knowledge of the everyday is recognised, valued and incorporated into the logics of upgrading. The process needs to be incremental - not grand, glorious, overnight reform. We hope that as you peruse this website you can become as inspired as we are, by the ingenuity of the informal settlement residents themselves.

Although it looks as if we are just focused on the physical aspects of upgrading, we believe that a critical part of the process toward upgrading is the social and institutional change that happens simultaneously with technological change. Many of the articles are categorised under physical elements but include content on these social changes as well.

More than half of the world's population now resides in urban areas. Current rates of urbanisation show that in the future an even larger proportion of us will live in cities. Urbanisation is more rapid in the global south where, currently, one in every three people in these cities of the developing world live in informal settlements. Africa has both the fastest rates of urbanisation and the highest share of informal settlement residents (62% in sub-Saharan Africa); currently there are estimated to be around 373 million Africans living in slums and by 2050 there will be 1.2 billion.

Informal settlements are here to stay. They are transforming the definition of the city. They can be understood as places of filth, grime, poverty, disease and crime, but that definition is often formulated by the fearful/powerful who have never set foot in a settlement. While working in informal settlements and with the people who live there, we have come to understand them to be spaces of concentrated ingenuity as residents adapt and use natural, built and social ecologies to further their connections to the city’s formal networks. In the work and research that we conduct we are strongly guided by Bayet’s concept of 'quiet encroachment'. Our supervisor, Mark Swilling, describes it well when he says:

"If one could imagine adding together the millions of microscopic, everyday actions of slum dwellers to build, connect, repair, clean and protect their tiny spaces, it must surely add up to an effort that is commensurate in (demographic/spatial) scale to the formal investments in networked infrastructures taking place to connect those who can afford to be part of the formal systems."

Informal settlements are characterised by inadequate infrastructure for basic energy, sanitation, water and waste services. Conventional approaches to infrastructure are not compatible within this context. The incompatibility is on both a technological and institutional level. Conventional approaches are usually designed by engineers who make big assumptions about the operating environments without consulting the people who would be using the infrastructure. They are usually over-capitalised, convey resource flows unsustainably, require expert operation, maintenance, large scale investment, and capital finance backed by loans. The economic returns from the productive activities usually accrue to private sector contractors and engineers; little benefit, aside from sweat equity, is seen by residents.

We need new approaches to urban infrastructure. The new approaches require innovation, both technological and institutional, and they need to co-evolve gradually and iteratively, with experimentation happening in situ, in real time, in partnership.

The South African government has committed itself to upgrading 400,000 shacks in informal settlements by 2014. This pledge marks a departure from previous approaches; the focus of housing policy has shifted from providing people with a free house in a greenfield development, to providing people with infrastructure where they are already living. There is a danger that, without adequate knowledge informing a new logic of implementation, informal settlement upgrading will revert to the straightjacket of past approaches of formalisation. If this occurs, upgrading will fail. If upgrading is to work we need to start figuring out new approaches together.

We are also guided by trans-disciplinary research principles which inform that solutions cannot stem from market-based solutions, nor can they come from state driven approaches. Rather, solutions need to be co-produced in a partnership between state and private sector participating in a people’s process. As researchers, we see our role as merely being enablers of this process.

This project aims to provide alternative design possibilities for a future affected by climate change and resource depletion. Stellenbosch, where the project started, is already facing major challenges in terms of resource depletion, with projections such as the water supply drying up by 2017 and the current landfill already overflowing with no options for a new site. We are all facing the challenges of water depletion, oil depletion and other resource depletions, as well as the knock-on effects from these, such as food insecurity. It is, however, the poor who will bear the heaviest part of this burden first.