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Building Resilience in Informal Settlements

Building resilience in cities should enhance the quality of life for all residents. Yet resilience planning, like urban development, has previously excluded an entire subset of urban dwellers: those living in informal settlements. In reality, the residents of informal settlements should be central to strengthening local resilience; they represent a significant portion of the global urban population and face unique vulnerabilities shaped by geographic and resource-based disparities.

At a global level, with the 2030 Agenda as a frame, the resilience debate is increasingly focused on inclusivity, with informal settlements as a key consideration. ICLEI reached out to experts who are active in this debate, asking them to characterize the challenges that informal communities face, along with specific measures local governments can employ to mitigate risks.

The Reality and Scale of Informality

The scale of informal settlements is quite clear – as are the implications. Diane Archer, a researcher in the Human Settlements Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), notes in an article for the Dhaka Tribune that “one billion people around the world live in informal settlements, lacking access to clean water, sanitation, secure housing and other basic services”. This means that approximately one-quarter of the global urban population receive inadequate municipal services – or have no access at all. As Archer explains, “many local governments regard informal settlements as illegal and therefore do not provide the residents with basic risk-reducing infrastructure, such as drainage and piped water.”*

In Africa, these figures are higher than the global average. Kerstin Sommer, Slum Upgrading Unit Leader at UN-Habitat, points out that “60 percent of urban dwellers live in slums in Africa”. This presents a significant challenge for cities in this region as they work toward greater and more inclusive resilience.

Informal settlements not only lack basic services but also are highly vulnerable to natural and manmade disasters. Omar Siddique, Senior Urban Specialist at Cities Alliance, explains how “the urban poor often do not have the luxury of choice for where they site their homes” and are regularly situated on low-lying land. As a result, informal settlements “are likely to be at higher risk from either sea level rise or storm events, such as the West Point slum in Monrovia, Liberia or the relatively newer slum areas along the canals of Kolkata, India”.

Nor is it just a question of housing but also one of livelihoods and economic security. Siddique explains that “the working poor in many cities are more likely to be engaged in activities that are outside, predominantly unprotected from the weather, which greatly increases their exposure to temperature changes and extreme events such as heat waves.” Siddique also notes that “for some workers, their workplace is situated close to their home, and is itself severely impacted by any extreme event, for example, local markets or informal factories.”

As Skye Dobson, Deputy Manager at Slum Dwellers International (SDI), writes, “the informal settlement issue is increasingly recognized as central to creating resilient and sustainable cities.” Developing resilience in informal settlements benefits the city as a whole. Sommer explains that “slums are a significant economic, social and environmental pillar of the city. Participatory citywide slum upgrading provides entry-points for the resilience building of the whole city while reducing urban poverty.”

The Way Forward

So what is the best way forward? Experts recommend a few possible solutions, ranging from changes in land policy to highly participatory planning processes.

Siddique explains that “tenure security for the urban poor is an essential element in building community resilience and addressing urban inequalities. If both women and men-headed households enjoy secure land and housing, they are also more likely to plan ahead and invest in resilience measures.” Addressing vulnerabilities in-situ by “adapting existing housing to current and future climate threats is usually simpler and more effective than relocating communities.”

The residents themselves are also a valuable resource. They have intimate knowledge of their neighborhoods and the impact of extreme events, and are, as a result, well positioned to map vulnerabilities and develop innovative solutions.

Dobson writes that one initiative necessary for progress is “community-gathered data on informal settlements for assessing and monitoring vulnerability”, and Archer explains, “settlement and hazard mapping by local communities using simple GPS technologies can be used to plan upgrading activities. These maps can open dialogue between the community groups and local authorities to highlight the particular risks that need to be addressed as a priority by the city government.”†

Archer continues: “Beyond this, there are many cases of community-led innovations in addressing their development challenges. Many of these offer approaches that can now help them adapt to climate change – for example, the establishment of city-level revolving loan funds run by community groups. These can be used to finance small-scale infrastructure projects that reduce people’s vulnerability to risk, or as an insurance scheme that allows them to recover more quickly after disasters.”‡ These initiatives show how, as Dobson notes, progress is best driven through “localizing the resilience building dialogue so that organized communities and local governments take charge of setting and implementing priorities.”

Ultimately, local governments must be willing both to listen to vulnerable communities and to offer tangible support. As Archer frames it, “while individual households and organised communities can take some of their own adaptation measures, they can achieve much more when facilitated by supportive local governments.”

Resilient Cities 2016

To progress on these issues, it is important for all stakeholders to come together and discuss the opportunities for cooperation and the challenges that must be overcome. This year, one of the three major themes of ICLEI’s Resilient Cities congress is “Inclusive and Resilient Urban Development”, offering a platform for debate on governance structures, engagement with informal communities, housing and slum upgrading, and community-based adaptation in urban poor communities. Slum Dwellers International, Cities Alliance, UN-Habitat and IIED will all be strongly represented at Resilient Cities 2016. We invite you to register now and join us in Bonn.


* All quotes from Archer used in this blog originally appeared in the Dhaka Tribune article.

† See for example: Livengood, A., and Kunte, K., 2012, “Enabling participatory planning with GIS: a case study of settlement mapping in Cuttack, India”, Environment and Urbanization, 24(1): 77-97 http://eau.sagepub.com/content/24/1/77.abstract

‡ See Archer, Diane, 2012, “Finance as the key to unlocking community potential: savings, funds and the ACCA programme”, Environment & Urbanization, 24(2), 423-440, http://eau.sagepub.com/content/24/2/423.abstract


Featured image by Alicia Nijdam (Flickr: Rocinha Favela) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.