“For the urban poor, nothing trumps location”

More than 200 million people in Africa live in slums, making it a major issue for cities growing at a rapid pace. With the Sustainable Development Goals – in particular SDG 1 and SDG 11 – national and local governments are looking for new ways to build inclusive and resilient cities for all, including the urban poor.

Slums take shape for a number of reasons, including the fact that rural populations migrate to cities in search of better economic opportunities, and cities often do not have means to accommodate and plan for this extremely fast growth. Some argue for better adapted regulations to make the city accessible to poorer populations and allow them to be included in the economy. Indeed, for many, building illegally is the only option – even sometimes in the most risky areas of the city. As Julian Baskin of Cities Alliance frames it, in the end “for the urban poor, nothing trumps location”.

Moving away from the old thinking, which led to relocation of slum dwellers, decision-makers at the local, national and international levels are implementing participatory approaches, working with slum-dwellers to include these communities into the city.

UN-Habitat and Cities Alliance both advocate a change in mindset towards urbanization. By looking at cities as the drivers of economic growth and by empowering cities, African states can strive to create an enabling environment for slum upgrading. Beyond political and governance issues, they also believe this change of mindset would enable large scale investment, including from the private sector.

The second key ingredient for successful slum-upgrading is the involvement of communities. All actors now agree that any sustainable slum upgrading project should be people-centered. Cameroon developed projects with the Participatory Slum Upgrading Program (PSUP). They brought together slum-dwellers in several cities to analyze the key problems in their settlements and provided training to existing associations within the communities. They realized that slum dwellers had the best knowledge about the problems in their settlements and – if organized and empowered – they could design the most sustainable solutions to improve the places in which they live. This approach ensured real ownership of the projects and helped create job opportunities in the settlements and foster links between communities and local governments.

The remaining question is how these projects can be financed. UN-Habitat believes the private sector has been missing so far and that projects need to be framed in a way that encourages large-scale investment. These investments should, however, be tailored to the slum context. To understand better what this means, UN-Habitat and KFW are assessing the financing needs for housing development and basic infrastructure in eight different cities in Africa and South-East Asia.

If cities are to really include the urban poor, the first step remains to shift our mindset and start looking at the opportunities and resources brought by these communities. Only then will cities be able to become truly inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

This blog post is based on discussions from the Resilient Cities 2016 session: ”Slum upgrading achieving resilient cities for all in Africa”.