Slums as laboratories of urbanism

Slums in the Global South are often used as "laboratories of urbanism," where initiatives can be experimentally "tried out." While this approach encourages self-invention in slums, it is also highly controversial to use slums as experimental territory. This first article from Curitiba,'s newest node, shows that much of the city's development success comes from integrating the favela into the formal city planning, as opposed to a running separate, isolated projects. Other cities report successful "laboratory" initiatives, suggesting that this approach can work in certain contexts.

Read on to learn more about the application of these methods in Curitiba, Cali, Cairo, Mumbai, and Johannesburg, and then join the discussion in the comments below.

Catalina Gomez

Curitiba: uma cidade planejada para todos seus moradores

Catalina Gomez, Coordenadora da Rede em Curitiba


URB.IM inicia suas reportagens sobre Curitiba, uma das novas cidades incluídas nesta plataforma. Curitiba é a capital do estado de Paraná no sul do Brasil. A cidade tem 1,7 milhões de moradores, a oitava cidade do país. A cidade é o epicentro da Região Metropolitana de Curitiba, um conjunto de 26 municípios de aproximadamente 3,2 milhões de residentes (IBGE, 2010).

Curitiba ocupa o décimo lugar no Índice de Desenvolvimento Humano do Brasil (0,82), destacando-se entre os 5565 municípios do país. Devido a sua alta qualidade de vida e indicadores sociais, URB.IM apresentará periodicamente alguns dos principais temas de desenvolvimento urbano e social da cidade para compreender melhor os fatores de seu bom desempenho.

Uma das ações principais da reputação de Curitiba como uma cidade modelo é sua cultura de planejamento. A cidade é conhecida pela incorporação de práticas de planejamento urbano a partir dos anos 60s com a criação do Instituto de Pesquisa e Planejamento Urbano de Curitiba (IPPUC) para planejar o desenvolvimento sustentável da cidade. O IPPUC é um órgão municipal mais tem um foco nos temas técnicos que guiam o planejamento, o desenho e a implantação dos principais programas de desenvolvimento da cidade. Ele participa na formulação do Plano Diretor e de outros planos setoriais para assegurar sua coordenação e complementariedade.

O IPPUC conjuntamente com outras instancias do governo local vem liderando o planejamento da cidade para que seja inclusiva e adequada para todos seus moradores. Para conseguir este objetivo, o IPPUC procura vincular às comunidades de baixa renda no planejamento formal da cidade evitando uma abordagem isolada baseada em intervenções separadas do resto da cidade. Um exemplo concreto de planejamento integrado tem sido o sistema de transporte da cidade, que foi projetado pelo IPPUC nos 70s e tem virado um pioneiro do transporte massivo que tem inspirado vários sistemas na América Latina como aqueles em Bogotá e a Cidade do México, entre outras. Um dos destaques do sistema é seu desenho concebido para atender até as áreas mais carentes e garantir sua integração física com o resto da cidade. O desenho inovador dos ônibus e suas estações, suas adaptações para responder a necessidades de adaptabilidade junto com seu foco integrador tem sido amplamente reconhecidos internacionalmente.

Além do sistema integrado de transporte, Curitiba também é conhecida pelos bons serviços urbanos que oferece a todos seus moradores incluindo a população de baixa renda. Merece destaque as Ruas da Cidadania que são escritórios públicos onde a população pode fazer pagamentos de serviços públicos, receber informação sobre programas sociais e expedir documentação básica. Todas as "Ruas" estão localizadas perto das estações de transporte para garantir o fácil aceso de toda a população. As Ruas de Cidadania tem virado um modelo importante que integra transporte e serviços contribuindo na redução de tempos e custos associados aos serviços públicos.

Crédito fotográfico: URBS Curitiba



Couple of days ago I watched the last part of a documentary from "Architects of Change" and for my good luck it was about Jaime Lerner and Curitiba's development strategies :) so excited to read more in the next posts.

This is a link for the documentary summary:


Carlin Carr's picture

This week's articles are inspiring to me, because they show how the inherent flexibility and innovation in self-built informal settlements lends them to being dynamic testing grounds for new ideas in urban planning. It's interesting to see how Joburg's "Informal Studio" has linked architectural students with settlement areas. This has been an important trend in Mumbai as well, which may have been fueled by increasing links between architectural schools abroad and Mumbai. For example, Columbai University's School of Architecture and Planning opened StudioX Mumbai in early 2012 as an open space to discuss ideas and issues in the city. Columbia students and faculty often travel to the city to research informal settlement areas and present the work in the space. Other architectural schools in the city have also begun to focus more on the informal environments around them. The JJ School of Architecture partnered with URBZ last year to map settlement areas and look at various self-construction techniques and processes and how these could potentially be built into redevelopment policy. The research culminated into a large-scale event, Homegrown Cities, and today URBZ is going forward with the project, which you can read more about in an earlier article on

The important point here is that these architects and planning students are the future drafters of this city. It's essential to have them working with these communities early on to expose them to what is happening there, what isn't and what are sensitive ways to move forward with improving their circumstances.

In Cairo too.

Recently Alshanek Ya Balady (AYB) NGO with Faculty of Engineering Ain Shams University, Faculty of Architecure and city planning University of Stuttgart and the German Academic Exchange Service in Cairo launched EZBET community centre competition for undergraduate and postgraduate students and organizing workshops and training sessions.

They aim to develop architectural and urban designs for the community centre in Ezbet Abu Qarn and to engage academics as well as students, and connect them with real projects and real achievements, the competition is a call from the AYB to include undergraduate, postgraduate and research interests in the goal of developing the current project at the Ezbet Community Centre linking university students’ projects with the current needs in urban development for informal areas.


I was very interested to learn about the diverse ways low income communities can become places for research, collaboration and for designing innovative development initiatives. I am also quite excited to be reading about new cities, like Cali and Johannesburg!

My main question regarding the “laboratories for innovation” is their sustainability over time and the mechanisms to link the different stakeholders acting in a particular area/neighbourhood, including its residents, the students and academic professors working on specific projects and even local governments. How can the actions of each group be better linked and coordinated for the benefit of the intended communities?

Tariq Toffa's picture

It is beneficial and informative to see in the articles mobilisation for urban poor communities coming from Government, NGOs, and other institutions in such a variety of configurations. However, Catalina’s comment is a critical one. It requires not only creative minds and sustained and committed engagement to initiate such projects, is important for the greater sustainability and longer-term longevity of such projects — especially smaller ones which risk being only temporal affairs — that frameworks and foundations to be put in place so that even if its initial founders move on, a legacy has been left that continues.

Jorge Bela's picture

I was fascinated to read about the micro garden initiatives in Cairo. The two initiatives that I point out in my Cali article also have micro gardening components. These initiatives were proposed by the communities themselves, which shows that they have strong support by their ultimate beneficiaries. If combined with compost facilities, micro gardens can also help in the proper disposal of organic refuse.

As for the Curitiba mass transit system, it is the perfect example of how a clever solution has an impact beyond its original city limits. The Curitiba system was, as Catalina points out, adopted by Bogotá, which adapted it to the much larger scale of the Colombian capital. Then Mexico took the Bogotá system as a model, and so on.

Sustainability is certainly a key aspect of any urban initiative. Bike lines, a pioneering initiative in Bogotá, poorly maintained by the last three administrations, is a perfect example of what can go wrong. The Curitiba mass transit is an example of the opposite.

Chris Baulman's picture

In the slums, residents are “active agents with resilience and imagination to negotiate the tough environments of African cities … capable of adapting to their physical and economic constraints and making the most of the opportunities available through experimentation and inventiveness” LEDNA. Planning with them in mind we should ask what would help them address their slum problems and flourish in their community? I believe a prerequisite is for them to have security over their housing.

I would like to propose that the poor should be offered the security of urban commons for food production AND housing, either the slum land on which they have built, or other viable urban housing sites. There they would be welcome to choose (or reject) voluntary community work on the commons.

With on-site training support, they could volunteer to help build suburban public housing there, involving choices from bookwork to labouring - building starting from a community room with facilities and interim accommodation for volunteers.

Food gardens should also be established as part of the traditional responsibility to the purposes of having commons.

Because this would not involve coercion but could provide food, housing security and social integration, it would be effective & attractive. It would not only provide valuable work but would lay the foundations for more sustainable urban development, with garden sanctuaries and places of creativity in the city for all its residents, rich and poor, to enjoy.

please see -
Neighbourhood That Works

Chris Baulman

Carlin Carr's picture

Chris, this is a fantastic idea and one that is being hard-fought in Mumbai. The government-proposed redevelopment schemes don't account for gardens or common spaces. There have been many beautiful proposals from outside architects that will accommodate the density factor but focus on low-rise, mixed-use spaces with clusters around courtyards. These spaces could then be used for initiatives such as you propose. However, the argument against that in Mumbai is that space is an issue, especially in the slum areas. When you say build in suburban areas, I'm curious what you mean. For example, Dharavi is technically in the suburbs, though with the expansion of the city, it is as crowded as any other place. Many proposals seek to resettle slum dwellers outside this heavily settled area — in the far-out suburbs — where there is more space for ideas like your, but with transportation as an issue, then this becomes difficult for the poor to reach their places of work.

More and more urban gardens are being implemented around the city, though its still a burgeoning idea. Great thoughts, and certainly an idea worth considering in redevelopment.

Picking up in particular on Catalina and Tariq's comments, it reminded me of an article by John Abbott on informal settlement upgrading, where he argues that we have many successful examples of small/medium projects in informal settlements globally, but which are not large enough to address the issue at a city wide level (or at least, few examples of up-scaling of these projects occurring), but few examples of successful city wide improvements of informal settlements (though there are notable exceptions). For me, this is the crux of the matter — projects which work on a project basis are not necessarily replicable at city scale.

I think this is where the idea being applied in Cali of having a multitude of lots of smaller projects occurring throughout the City, but supported by a broader organisation is a really interesting contribution. In particular, it allows for projects to have a limited life span, and be replaced over time by newer initiatives, all while being guided and monitored by a broader body (which theoretically could be the state). This is one way which we might marry the goals of having context specific projects, but still ensure that there is a wider City impact.

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