Wednesday, 6 April 2011

"Informal Settlements" Space | Vision

The migration of people to cities in search of a better life has boosted the availability of cheap labour and growth of the urban economy. The urban economy gets convenient access to services provided by the poor but when it has to pay for the negative effects of poverty, it responds by trying to eliminate the settlements and livelihoods of the poor to drive them away.

Inaccessible housing, services etc. force the poor to exist outside the formal system - hence ‘informal economy’ and ‘informal settlements’. Informality is an important issue in urban planning because it challenges traditional planning methods. The first challenge is transforming socio-economic discussions on informality into actual changes in the physical planning process. Cities are trying to upgrade or network existing squatter settlements into the formal city. But the question of planning for future informality remains unanswered.

The second challenge is scale. Solutions so far have been localized, rarely spreading from local context of slum to the larger context of city. Poverty and informality are rooted in the broader realities of the city; therefore planning for them has to be at city level.

GURGAON street
suburb of New Delhi, India

The third challenge is the boundary between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’, blurred by the logic of growth as the ‘informal/ illegal’ develop closer, more intricate and organic relationships with the ‘formal/ legal’ systems. These blurred theoretical and spatial boundaries lead to complex patterns in urban form. The traditionally temporal (time-bound) nature of planning ignores both the rapid-growth rates and the complex patterns of informality. So planning has to develop a paradigm that takes advantage of the rapid growth rates of informality and occurs simultaneously with growth instead of preceding it.

The form and location of informal spaces varies greatly from city to city. But one thing is common - Slums have become the most visual expression of urban poverty. The working definition of slum used by the UN, for example, is very broad stating only three criteria – non-compliance with building regulations, inadequate basic service provision and insecure tenure status. However, one of the advantages of informality is that given service points, settlements are usually able to efficiently manage, distribute and/or plan use of services themselves without external planning guidelines.

It is the inadequacy of these basic services that presents the striking vision of unclean living and ill-health which is the image of poverty-related informality. Un-drained water, un-removed garbage, open defecation, exposed sewage and the pollution from fossil-fuels burnt locally for energy result from inadequate services. Spatial planning here can be reduced to its most technical – the provision of water, sanitation and energy. If urbanism can predict patterns of informality, then planning service networks for future spaces of informality may become feasible.
KISENYI settlement
Kampala, Uganda

Another key visual of slums is that of overwhelming chaos that dense numbers of people create even when there is underlying order. The perception of chaos is based on mere observation because the people living there do have routines, systems, hierarchies and movement patterns that follow a rationale that enable large groups of people to live together. However this rationale is lost to the citizen of the ‘formal’ city.

Additionally, the unfinished or ‘makeshift’ visuals and images of impermanence cause feelings of uncertainty and anxiety in both inhabitant and observer. Spatial planning may have to structure/ restructure informal space to create urban tableaux that are acceptable visual consumption. Even superficial design intervention to create visual continuity with the formal city is important in integrating informal with formal so that it becomes an accepted, even valued, part of the city as a whole.

"It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."  
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Author: Shahana Dastidar
Notes: For references or further information, please write to the author at urbanruralfabric(at)

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