Urban planning and design: Laws, regulations, and the informal city

Urban planning and design tend to treat the city as a formal and legible space — one where questions of land use and infrastructure, investment and development, title and tenancy are decided de jure through laws and regulations while finding de facto expression in development projects, slum upgrading, and urban 'revitalization'. Too often, however, this formal perspective fails to consider informal communities on their own terms and disregards the self-built housing and other structures created by their residents. How can existing institutional, legislative and financial mechanisms be applied or adapted to bring informal communities into the framework of urban planning and design — and do so in a way that recognizes the legitimacy of those communities and builds on their dynamism, culture, and history? This discussion will consider how cities can use spatial planning as a means to social integration, and how legal and policy frameworks can make justice and inclusion integral to urban planning and the housing development process.

Click on the pictures to see each panelist's perspective below.

Jorge Bela Widya Anggraini Carlin Carr Maria Fernanda Carvallo Eliana Barbosa Jaap de Visser


Jorge Bela

Jorge Bela — Bogotá Community Manager


Medellin has undergone a profound transformation. While two decades ago it was a city known for violence, lack of social services, and inequality, now it has become a model for all Latin American cities on how to tackle these problems. Urbanism, although not the only factor, has played a crucial role in this process. In Medellin, urban reforms became closely associated with the search for solutions for social problems. They also had a strong pedagogical ambition.

The projects already undertaken have significantly improved regional equity. They have done so by integrating formerly isolated informal settlements into the city. Perhaps the best known of these projects is the Metrocable, an aerial cable car connected with the metro system. Metrocable allows residents of the comunas, informal settlements in the highest parts of Medellin, to quickly and safely reach most areas within the city. Furthermore, social services have been dramatically improved, and community facilities have been built in areas formerly controlled by criminal groups.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of Medellin's urban interventions is that they have been planned and executed through a participatory process. The potential beneficiaries of each project were invited to participate in the project design and final decision-making. By participating in this process, residents of the informal settlements were able to improve their political participation and community self-management skills. Thus, residents of informal settlements, formerly isolated and vulnerable to violence and social and political exclusion, became key actors in the process of urban and social transformation. Furthermore, their trust in authorities also improved substantially. Medellin has become an example of how urbanism can successfully play a decisive role in the integration of informal settlements into the larger urban framework.

Bogotá Community Manager Jorge Bela has been working as a freelance writer and journalist in Bogotá since 2010. Prior to that, he worked at El Pais, Spain's leading newspaper, and Analistas Financieros Internacionales. Bela has also worked as a researcher at the European Latin American Research Institute and as project manager at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He has an M.A. in Latin American Studies from the University of Florida and completed the coursework for a Ph.D. in comparative politics at the University at Albany.



Jorge Bela's picture

Through the articles published in this week’s conversation we can detect a clear pattern: rapid (explosive in many cases) growth and urbanization have created inequality and exclusion. Cities like Mumbai, or Mexico, where more than 50% of the population live in slums, are representative of cities in Latin America, Africa and Asia. When this city prosper, inequality end exclusion increase, as the poorer sector of the population have to face skyrocketing prices, as the case of Jakarta illustrates. Environmental degradation is also severe in most of these cities. Better planning is the only way to break this cycle of poverty, exclusion and environmental degradation. Sao Paulo offers an example on how planning laws can make a problem worse. In Jakarta, Mumbai and Sao Paulo we can have some hope as the city governments are proposing major planning initiatives. However, as Jaap suggests, lack of regulatory authority and political problems often make it difficult for cities to tackle the complex problems they face. I would add one more caution, it is necessary to keep and maintain the initiatives through time, as things can deteriorate fast if the authorities drop the ball with their initiatives: Bogotá is a good example of how a city in the good track can go backwards.

En los artículos publicados en la conversación que se inicia esta semana podemos detector un claro patrón: el crecimiento explosivo en la población y en el tamaño de las ciudades a generado desigualdad y exclusión social. Ciudades como Bombay o México, en las que el 50% de la población vive en asentamientos informales, son representativas de la situación en América latina, África y Asia. Cuando una ciudad prospera, a menudo se agravan los problemas, ya que los sectores mas pobres no pueden hacer frente a los precios cada vez mas elevados, como ilustra el caso de Yakarta. Estas ciudades también sufren un severo problema medioambiental. Un mejor modelo de planeamiento es la única forma de romper este ciclo de pobreza, exclusión y degradación medioambiental. Pero ha de ser un buen modelo, Sao Paulo ilustra como unas leyes mal concebidas pueden agravar los problemas, no resolverlos. En Yakarta Bombay y Sao Paulo hay una cierta esperanza asociada a un creciente interés por parte de los gobiernos locales de sacar adelante nuevos planes urbanos. Sin embargo, como sugiere Jaap, en ocasiones la falta de autoridad legal y problemas políticos impiden que los planes se lleven a cabo. En este sentido el caso de Medellín ofrece un excelente ejemplo de un uso innovador y eficiente de las instituciones disponibles. Yo añadiría una advertencia adicional a las de Jaap: las iniciativas hay que mantenerlas en el tiempo, pues si se abandonan o no se las provee de los recursos necesarios el deterioro puede ser muy rápido. Bogotá es un ejemplo de cómo ideas buenas y bien ejecutadas inicialmente pueden deteriorarse si no reciben el necesario apoyo.

I agree with you Jorge, that to keep and maintain initiatives a key aspect to assure successful initiatives. This was the case in Sao Paulo, since most of the times whenever there was a political change in power, there was also a political shift in policies, accumulating unfinished plans and projects in the city. The question here is how to assure that political shifts and personal interest won´t harm the implementation of important policies? So far, we do not have the answer. The Public Ministry do not act, the executive power is too strong and there isn´t a legal mechanism which forces the executive administration to implement plans and projects enacted by a former political party. Is it necessary to redraw our democratic system on the local scale? Could you elaborate more on the Medellin and Bogotá cases? Was there a shift in political power? Did it represent the success or failure of projects and plans implementation in your case?

Carlin Carr's picture

It strikes me that Jorge presents the most exemplary model of changing courses in the direction of an explosive megacity. Not surprisingly, he is also the only one who mentions the integration of participatory processes. Including the poor themselves in the planning process--in a real and meaningful way--is so important for making plans and decisions that take into account their needs. And, as Jorge mentions, when they feel a part of the process, the poor develop a stake in what is happening and how to continue to sustain and improve these projects. In Mumbai, as in Sao Paulo, it is somewhat worrisome that PPPs have become the model to move forward. In Mumbai, at least, public-private slum redevelopment schemes are driven by profit and private interests rather than the needs of the poor. If PPPs are to be the way forward, there needs to be more discussion around who these are really benefiting and how they can bring about more equitable cities.

Priyanka Jain's picture

I agree with you, Carlin. The culture of planning in India remains authoritarian. While the grassroots social movements are effective at neighborhood level, they fail to mobilize political movements at the higher levels of political processes. This pattern has failed to institutionalize the process of citizen participation at municipality and neighborhood level.

I would like to expand upon the affordable housing policy, Rajiv Awas Yojana(RAY), that you mentioned in the article. Perhaps the most radical policy in the last few decades of Indian affordable housing history, RAY is progressive yet fails to capture the planning culture of India due to different reasons:

1. RAY mandates in-situ development that mitigates the damage done by rehabilitation schemes in the past. It helps the residents retain their livelihoods and promotes assimilation of different socio-economic groups. But local governments are planning high rise residential disregarding the home work culture and the effect apartment living will have on the livelihoods.

2. The central level policymakers fail to realize that many local governments are unable (or unwilling) to allocate funds to subsidize such developments and are exploring more market-based approaches. They look at PPPs and are unwilling to explore alternatives such as cooperative schemes where the house can be part owned and part rented out and managed out by resident association.

3. The financial scheme that supports RAY is dependent on land tenure, failing which the residents will be unable to leverage subsidized loans to build their houses. As we all know, land tenure is the biggest challenge in informal settlements. A need to understand how microfinance works in such unorganized sector is key to the success of RAY.

Carlin, the model of the PPPs today involves civil society participation in several scales. First the choice of areas in which they will take place is decided using public hearings. Afterwards the project of the area itself is created and evaluated using public hearings as well, before it goes to the city council to be approved and the most recent one approved has a mixed board of directors — in charge of deciding how the funds should be used — in which several members of the civil society (social movements, NGOs, developers, inhabitants of the area, academicians, among others) are elected members. It is clearly an advance. By overlooking to Sao Paulo's participatory processes, based on the public hearing models — I can state that sometimes the urban poor are not prepared to be involved at the policy level. New tools should be implemented — and we can find interesting cases in Colombia regarding this topic — but also I believe there is a more adherence for participation in a local scale, dealing with very specific problems. The legal system also should change — in the Brazilian case — to make room for these initiatives and the executive power should the required to do so, but maybe this is a different topic for further discussion. The new format of PPP, approved in December 2013 in ÁGUA BRANCA URBAN OPERATION is something to keep an eye on, to see if the mixed management board initiative will work.

I want to second the importance of empowered participation of communities, and affected groups in the shaping of urban systems. Taking the example of informal waste workers, in the case of cities across the world where integration of waste pickers into urban solid waste systems has been achieved what has proven essential is the involvement of waste picker groups at the planning table, and the broadest grassroots participation in formulating waste policies, programmes and projects. The motto "Nothing for us without us" entices planners, policymakers and city officials — as well as development agencies — to respect informal workers and their membership-based organisations when designing any intervention aimed at waste pickers.

We need a people-centred approach to urban systems. Shaping sustainable cities means enhancing social and economic well-being for all, including those workers who have traditionally been among the poorest and most disregarded — informal vendors, home-based workers and waste pickers amongst others.

Sonia Dias
WIEGO waste specialist

RESPETADA SONIA, en buena parte tiene usted mucha razon en la necesidad de personas empoderadas desde la COMUNIDAD. Sinembargo deseo manifestarle que en mi opinion, se requiere mas del verdadero compromiso de las administaciones municipales por apoyar decididamente las iniciativas provenientes desde los pocos colectivos urbanos existentes. Para su ejemplo le envio uno, no mas , de las muchas iniciativas que como actor social presente ante diferentes entes de la Municipalidad de Medellin sin exito alguno!!!. Por lo cual uno termina desertandfo de este trabajo comunitario

Diseño, Montaje y Operación Centro de Transformación Agroindustrial de Innovación y Desarrollo Tecnológico Nuevo Occidente.
- CTA Nuevo Occidente –

Perfil Preliminar Proyecto. ( JOHN MEJIA G. Mesa Intercorregimental )
Objetivo: Fomentar Desarrollo Económico Zonal suministrando aportes significativos a la cadena de valor de los productos agrícolas regionales, mediante Desarrollo e Innovación Tecnológica
Indicador de producto: 1 Centro de Transformación Tecnológica Agroindustrial con Desarrollo e Innovación Tecnológica cuenta con su Diseño, Montaje, e inicia Operación.
El anteproyecto Plan de Desarrollo Municipal de la ciudad de Medellín 2012-2015, Medellín un Hogar para la vida, en su Línea 3 Competitividad para el Desarrollo Económico con Equidad, plantea en su componente 1: Desarrollo Empresarial, la necesidad de orientar las acciones de la administración Pública hacia la configuración de una estrategia de desarrollo local que permita fortalecer la competitividad, a partir de las potencialidades del territorio. Además diagnostica que la oferta y el andamiaje institucional en torno al emprendimiento y a la economía social, barrial y solidaria, ha sido una estrategia que enfocada en la creación de pequeñas empresas con bajo valor agregado (70% con baja o nula innovación) y poca demanda, que no ha tenido la efectividad suficiente para mejorar el desarrollo económico y la inclusión social. Señala finalmente que Medellín” es una de las ciudades más caras para crear empresa, con dificultades para obtener permiso de construcción, con inexistencia de acuerdos entre el sector empresarial y las instituciones educativas” y que es preciso incentivar entorno económico y legalmente propicio para incentivar el emprendimiento, facilitar acceso a capital físico, facilitar la innovación y transferencia de tecnología. Pero más importante que las anteriores estrategias, que tengan un impacto incluyente que lleguen a las empresas sociales, comunitarias y solidarias que son medio primordiales para facilitar el acceso a oportunidades causa primitiva de la desigualdad y la pobreza.
Según el perfil alimentario y nutricional de Medellín 2010, entre las comunas con mayor inseguridad alimentaria se encuentran los corregimientos de San Sebastián de Palmitas y San Cristóbal, (12,4% y 11,6% respectivamente, de los hogares): corregimientos con vocación agrícola y suelos para los cultivos y los cuales poseen la mayor población rural campesina; además contienen las vías por donde transitan hacia la ciudad de Medellín, materia primas agrícolas y alimentos sin valor agregado, de las cadenas piscícola, láctea y hortofrutícola, provenientes de los municipios ubicados al Noroccidente y el Occidente de la ciudad.
El componente 2: Aprovechamiento de responsable de los recursos naturales, línea 4 del mismo Plan, sobre el aumento de los territorios agrícolas plantea que se vuelve un problema, ”en la medida que el aprovechamiento del suelo para actividades agrícolas requiere de fuerte carga de fertilizante, en su gran mayoría de síntesis química, causando un empobrecimiento del suelo cada vez mayor y por ende un requerimiento cada vez mayor de insumos que encarece la producción•”

Técnicos y profesionales fuera del mercado laboral, un creciente Mercado de Nostalgia y envío de remesas por quienes encontraron oportunidad en el exterior, infraestructura física disponible, redes sociales que favorecen el reclutamiento de estos Capitales Intelectuales y Sociales, para ser sumados a Capital Semilla, como pago a deuda que el mismo Plan reconoce a los corregimientos, hará posible que los bienes y servicios que posee la ciudad estén asociados a la conectividad y producción agropecuaria con las condiciones de competitividad requeridas.

El proyecto pretende dar transversalidad a las líneas 2, 3, y 4 del Plan en sus diferentes programas de: Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional - Desarrollo Empresarial - Planeación y Gestión para el ordenamiento Territorial, - y el de Aprovechamiento responsable de los recursos naturales: y además se articula con otros proyectos en el Programa: Desarrollos tecnológicos, Investigación, Ciencia y Tecnología al servicio de las actividades productivas, agropecuarias y de servicios de los corregimientos, presentados por La Mesa Intercorregimental al Concejo de Planeación Territorial, como lo son:

San Cristóbal Centro Frigorífico Zonal y Centro Politécnico Universitario.

San Sebastian de Palmitas Centro de acopio de productos y corredor comercial.
Centro de asistencia técnica y agropecuaria
Santa Elena Promoción tecnológica, científico y técnico para el sector agropecuario

El CTA Nuevo Occidente, brindará Gestión Agroempresarial, en un espacio físico, virtual e Innovador para LA INNOVACIÓN Y DESARROLLO TECNOLÓGICO, germinador de Empresas de Conocimiento Urbano-Rural – ECOUR - conformado por diferentes módulos o cubículos para cada sector agrícola a desarrollarse mediante el apropiamiento de nuevas tecnologías, interactuadas en forma directa con emprendedores corregimentales, validando diseños experimentales en el territorio. Los nuevos aprendizajes adquiridos son las semillas germinadoras de las empresas de conocimiento que se crearan desde el mismo Centro para generar valor agregado tanto a los productos y subproductos de proceso como a insumos relacionados, procurando de tal forma en el mediano plazo un desarrollo sostenible.

El esquema del proyecto plantea a diferencia de la Incubación Empresarial, la Germinación de Empresas de Conocimiento Urbano-Rural con de Capital Social, Capital Intelectual y Capital semilla parcialmente empleados en consecución de Socios de Mercado antes de la constitución empresarial lo cual es facilitado por el techo Institucional que brinda el CTA Nuevo Occidente.

Dear John, sorry about my late response. I agree with you that in addition to organization and active participation from local groups real commitment from municipalities, i.e. openness for dialogue, responsiveness to demands put forward by civil society groups is also relevant.

María Fernanda Carvallo's picture

Al igual que en el resto de las ciudades, los asentamientos irregulares constituyen el techo para muchas familias; no obstante dentro de esta clasificación hay familias que presentan mayor vulnerabilidad ante los agentes externos, como pudiera ser los cambios climáticos. En el DF, en la Delegación Álvaro Obregón existen más de 80 asentamientos irregulares que se encuentran en barrancas, de los cuales 15 viven bajo un riesgo latente de que sus viviendas sean deslavadas por las barrancas ante las lluvias e inundaciones de la ciudad. En este sentido, el gobierno local reubica a esta población en albergues de manera temporal, en lo que pasa la temporada de lluvias y deslaves y posteriormente regresan a la misma condición en la que se encuentran todos los días.

Hay grandes retos para que estas personas tengan acceso a la vivienda de manera segura y teniendo la tenencia de la tierra; sin embargo una primer problemática es la zona de riesgo en la que viven, por lo que tendrían que ser reubicados hacia otra localidad en donde pudieran instalarse. En segundo lugar, al carecer de un suelo para uso habitacional en donde las personas pudieran construir su vivienda en el DF, la población tendría que adquirir un micro crédito para poder obtener una vivienda en las zonas de desarrollo habitacional, de lo contrario seguirían expandiéndose a territorio restringido por el uso de suelo de conservación. Ante esta problemática, una posible solución es la regularización de la tierra de los terrenos que no están en peligro por condiciones climáticas, pero que implica grandes cambios en el marco normativo. Cada una de las delegaciones del DF tiene un Departamento Intransitivo para la Regularización Territorial, no obstante se requiere la modernización y desconcentración administrativa para que las autoridades locales comprendan el problema desde un enfoque más integral y se trabaje de manera conjunta e intersectorial.

Jorge Bela's picture

Fernanda, apuntas acertadamente a la necesidad de una aproximación integral a los problemas urbanos. La tenencia de la tierra, las zonas de riesgo, el acceso al crédito: todo está interconectado y es imposible separar los problemas. En Bogotá se ha dado un caso exitoso de titulación de predios fiscales que sirvió también como instrumento para retirar los asentamientos informales de ciertas zonas de riesgo (http://urb.im/ca131021bts).

María Fernanda Carvallo's picture

Jorge, gracias por compartir este caso, definitivamente es una estrategia que establece un pilar para que los habitantes de estos asentamientos tengan recursos para acumular diversos capitales y desarrollar estrategias de vida.


El gobierno nacional en cumplimiento a su mandato constitucional de garantizar vivienda digna a la poblacion mas vulnerable, ha promovido las llamadas VIS Y VIP (VIVIENDAS DE INTERÉS SOCIAL Y VIVIENDAS DE INTERÉS PRIORITARIO RESPETIVAMENTE). Pero se ha generado una gran problemática por cuanto, para maximizar la densidad poblacional se han construido apartamentos en construcción vertical, lo cual esta reglamentado por un regimen de propiedad Horizontal, que los nuevos habitantes e incluso el mismo gobierno desconocen para lograr una mejor convivencia y hábitat. Otra problemática es que no son equipados con el resto de componentes de tipo educativo y socio cultural, como tampoco cumplen con las reglamentaciones en manejo de residuos sólidos. Igualmente los nuevos habitantes no cuentan con los ingresos para cubrir los nuevos gastos que generan estas viviendas: Servicios Publicos domiciliarios, impuestos, cuotas de administracion , etc. Una solucion seria que el gobierno fuese el propietario de las viviendas y arrendara por una cifra siblocia a los muevos habitantes y sobre todo que ademas de lo anterior se cumpliera con todos lo relacionado a los equipamientos que requiere la nueva poblacion.

widya anggraini's picture

I think it is really interesting what happen in Madellin and now I understand why it’s home for having World Urban Forum. Thank Jorge for the writings. Participatory process has certainly create better sense of belonging towards city development and Madellin successfully done this although I don’t know how this ‘pro-poor planning’ affects opposition or other stakeholders who see little economic returns in government’s efforts to integrate informal settlements to city. Definitely it’s interesting for me to learn more.

Regarding to Mumbai’s Plan with new housing policy, RAY, it does sound ambitious and as Priyanka said it’s radical given the nature of planning process in India and the fact that the plan will fail if they use the market based approaches as we know that market never be a good friend for the poor. It is also often that planners forget to consider the work culture and as happened in Jakarta, slum dwellers that have given apartments back to their place because they feel disconnected and certainly the new place is far from their work place hence they have to pay higher transportation cost. The failure to see root of problems and managing risk are usually created more problems and wasted resources.

Governance, I will say that it’s no longer government responsibility but it requires greater participation from private sectors, academics, Ngos and community to provide better public service for the poor. The idea of PPP as Carlin mentioned is one way to ensure that slum dwellers receive their rights and in doing so process of PPP should involve impacted groups/people, or maybe in the case of Eliana it’s the source for PPP becomes the problem. I probably can add that there is now some government who has trust fund for certain purposes such as Indonesia has trust fund for Infrastructure that allocated for improvements of infrastructure such as transportation, sanitation, housing, water and energy that mostly allocated for city’s improvement and government of Jakarta used to finance slums relocation.

Based on Sao Paulo's PPP model I disagree they are a problem. If done properly — and so far there is not one case considered an entirely good example, but I have hopes for the future — they could solve one of the most important problems of housing the poor: funding. Real estate in Sao Paulo, as I believe it is in Jakarta, is a very dynamic economic sector. What these PPPs do is to channel real estate's revenue into infrastructure and social housing. Basically, by creating areas for development — offering extra area for development auctioned by the municipality — a fund is created to be used in the area. It is an initiative which is being improved since the '80s, in different formats. To me, the most problematic thing so far is that the executive power does not use the fund as it is entitled to, i.e. for social housing. The most paradigmatic example is Urban Operation Faria Lima, in which only 20 years after the beginning of the operation the fund was used to create social housing. Yet, eventually, it was done. It is for sure a model to be improved and a scheme to be constantly under the evaluation of civil society, preventing corruption. But I still believe it is an important model.

Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi's picture

Starting with Jaap's questions as to right or wrong way of securing against eviction of residents of informal settlements, I would say there is no right or wrong. While it can be argued that land titles and deeds is not only a secure way of ensuring the rights of slum dwellers but also one that has the potential of integrating the poor into the economic circle through property, the legal process is most likely tedious. Concerning focus is on developing cities in countries were legal institutions are weak, at infancy stage or just stabilizing. On the other hand a guarantee of non-eviction, a form of land lease if you will also protect against eviction, this can be argued to be a faster way of getting security. It largely depends on the level of development of the city and what works best for its planning.

I find it interesting that most of these cities are rapidly increasing in population, Lagos for instance has thousands of people migrating in everyday as the social and economic hub of the nation. This makes it difficult to plan adequately and while I oppose the process of slum clearance in Lagos, it can be argued its the most practical way to creating a solid planning frameworks for slums. The city is so small that urban planning efforts are begging to encroach upon ocean spaces to accommodate the cities inhabitants and unfortunately unplanned slums tend to spring up in these spaces as well. How does one propose a city like this goes around upgrading slums in these areas?

The city is experiencing a lot of changes and revitalization projects, green spaces, cable cars and rails to ease transport from the outskirts and slum areas. It seems to me that city slum upgrades and planning is not on the agenda for the inner city, instead the city is looking to relocate slums to outskirts and better plan their location. For Lagos, this might be the most feasible solution to plan low income housing and slums from the beginning as opposed to restructuring poorly created slums infringing on the environment and causing degradation and flooding. It is easy to argue for or against such an approach, but each city plans according to what it can accommodate. Hence there is not right or wrong way to go about planning and upgrading as long as it is inclusive, well structured to provide for inconveniences and the outcome benefits those involved.

María Fernanda Carvallo's picture

Coincido con Wura en que la limitante del espacio muchas veces obliga a que los asentamientos informales sean reubicados en la periferia de las ciudades para garantizar un mejor desarrollo; muchas veces al interior de las ciudades no hay forma de como asegurar y garantizar el bienestar de estos asentamientos. No obstante, el reubicar a la gente en la periferia de las ciudades también está generando una dinámica de aislamiento de la economía de la ciudad y la dinámica laboral pues el transporte no es integral, la movilidad es más complicada y la vinculación y acceso a la ciudad es más costoso.

I agree with Wura that the limiting space often dictates that informal settlements are relocated on the outskirts of cities to ensure better development; often within the cities there is no way of securing and ensuring the welfare of these settlements. However, the relocation of people on the periphery of cities is also generating a dynamic of isolation to the city's economy and labor dynamics because lack of acces to transportation , mobility is more complicated and linkage and access to city ​​is more expensive.

Carlin Carr's picture

Wura, these are all really good questions you pose, because the reality is the situation is never so black and white. In situ always seems like the better option, because it is so disruptive to the fabric of what slum dwellers have built to displace them to the outskirts. They choose these central locations for a reason, often because of the proximity to livelihoods and networks. In many of the cities we're discussing, lack of integrated transport makes the pushing of the poor to the periphery an even more destabilizing option. Not only is commutes long, but the trips often dip into the income of the displaced, reducing already meager wages. Better integrated transport wouldn't solve the issue about whether relocation to outskirts is best, but making traveling back and forth easier and more affordable would certainly expand the opportunities and perhaps willingness of the communities to move to these areas.

Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi's picture

I completely agree with you that infrastructure that makes commute easy and affordable certainly is necessary for such hard decision as relocating slum dwellers. It is more important that they are put in place prior to relocation and or slum clearance, this is my bone of contention with the situation in Lagos. However while things are not always black and white, hard decisions have to be made in certain situation where limited space and geography of city needs to be factored in. As Tariq has raised regarding definition, the best solution really is dictated by how informal settlements are defined, if its really about the people then a relocation to a better planned area that provides better environment and longevity even outside city areas might be best, but if its is about the location of the settlement different solutions apply.

Nonetheless, I agree with the point and it was one of my highlights that systems that make urban planning work for all stakeholders need to be integrated into designs. However, this is going to vary from city to city.

Tariq Toffa's picture

Thanks to all for another engaged discussion.

I am interested in, conceptually, what we mean when we speak of "The Informal City." Where is it? Is it in the planning, upgrading & formalization of informal settlements? Or is it in acknowledging the informality that already exists in the formal city?

I would argue that it is more than physical places but a way of understanding & engaging the city. Most probably, significant change to the status quo, to policy, & to people's lives, will necessitate a radical revision of what we understand by 'city' & the way we plan for it.

Thank you Tariq. This is a topic in which I'm also interested, especially since it can mean different things in different contexts. I believe it became too much of a broad term, a notion intead of a concept.

Whenever dealing with Sao Paulo, the "informal city" term relates to tenure and acknowledged property rights, yet, we are talking about very distinct urban realities, since the informal can be from an illegally occupied private area, without any kind of infrastructure, to a neighbourhood in which the allotment was done disregarding the urban policies, therefore the inhabitants, which most of the times bought their plot from a private developer, cannot legalize their tenure. The amnesty laws that I refer to relates to this situation, whereas the ZEIS instruments (Special Zones of Public Interest) relates to illegally occupied areas, slums, among others.

Also, there is a now an interesting debate. Slums are being upgraded, tenure is being regularized and infrastructure is being built, yet the stigma of "informal city" is still there, in some territories. To me, this shows that there is more to it than be legal or illegal, formal or informal. In a recent paper I wrote about "spontaneous" and "induced" processes of urbanization and occupation, regarding urban morphology in Sao Paulo, Jakarta, Belo Horizonte and Hanoi, yet the terms are still open for debate.


I really like the question you pose – what is exactly the informal city?

Recently I have been very interested in this question. It makes me think of the history of slums in Rio de Janeiro. It begun at the end of the XIXth century, when the main strategy from the local government was to demolish the informal settlements in the city centre, or the ones considered inappropriate from a health perspective (such as the cortiços). The city was urbanizing very quickly. The demolition strategy was supported from a hygienic rationale (as a way to stop the epidemics), but in reality the attempt was to make Rio a modern, European city, and there was no space for the poors. A parcel of the dwellers went to the periphery, but a large amount re-established themselves in what we understand today as slums (the Favelas).

Throughout the XXth century the demolition attempts continued, but in the 70s there was a new strategy: promote urban upgrading to the favela and integrating them to the formal city. So there was recognition of the importance of keeping the dwellers were they were (I guess mostly for being efficient from a cost-benefit view, for the economy of the city). Favela Bairro, a big program in Rio in the 80s meant exactly to make the informal city formal.

In my opinion we are now in a new stage, where more than trying to make these spaces formal, we acknowledge the informality that exists, and we look at its potential. In this sense, the questions that planners should look at are what interventions can be proposed to the territory – and to its governance - which will significantly improve the quality of life to the informal settlement populations considering the urban morphology, topographical conditions and, above all, the diversity and communities’ particular patterns of entrepreneurship.

I like very much what Jane Jacobs said so many decades ago, about "Unslumming and slumming": "It is curious that city planning neither respects spontaneous self-diversification among city populations nor contrives to provide for it. It is curious that city designers seem neither to recognize this force of self-diversification nor to be attracted by the aesthetic problems of expressing it. These odd intellectual omissions go back, I think, to the Garden City nonsense, as so many of the unspoken presuppositions of city panning and city design do. Ebenezer Howard's vision of the Garden City would seem almost feudal to us. He seems to have thought that members of the industrial working classes would stay neatly in their class, and even at the same job within their class [...]" (Life & Death of Great American Cities, page 377).

The "informal city" is a concept that indeed eludes many of us, particularly if one tries to make sense of it from a legal/institutional point of view. Take, for example the City of Cape Town's recent 'reblocking policy'. It is a policy that acknowledges that settlements spring up without the city having planned for it. Once a settlement has emerged (somewhere unplanned for), the City can, on the basis of this policy, enter that space and essentially de-densify the area. The main aim is to make it possible for city services (basic utilities, disaster management etc.) to be made available to the community. Secondly, the City can start engaging the community with the aim of establishing some sort of informal tenure system.

The City is emphatic that this policy is not the same as the 'upgrading of informal settlements' (a concept supported with official policy and government subsidy) but does state that the formal upgrading may follow. So is that an example of the "informal city"? Or is it a form of ex post planning?

Hello Jaap, very interesting case indeed.
Yet should it be interpreted as ex post or ex ante planning?
Isn´t the informal settlements upgrading a form of planning of its own?
Can this 'reblocking policy' be interpreted as preparation for planning?

Jorge Bela's picture

In Bogota, a highly segregated city, endless city expansion allows for a reverse process: as the wealthier segments of the population abandon large areas, these formerly consolidated areas become increasingly deteriorated and susceptible to a wave of informality. For instance, the San Juan de Dios Hospital, formerly the number 1 medical institution in Colombia, was abandoned at the en of last century and the huge central building was occupied by informal settlers that to this day make the hospital their home.

The same processes happen in Sao Paulo where abandoned structures (buildings, warehouses) are occupied by organized social movements related to housing.

Katy Fentress's picture

I find Eliana's comment that "sometimes the urban poor are not prepared to be involved at the policy level" interesting. I recently had the opportunity to interview a community leader, Samuel Kiriro, in Mathare slum and his remarks somewhat echoed what you just said. Kiriro felt that the community in Mathare was very active at the initial stages of planning but that their support would often melt away at the monitoring and evaluation phase. In his view, it was the community's responsibility to stay vigilant at all stages of a project and to ensure they kept a strong role when it came to overseeing how funds were spent - but that somehow this was not always the way things went.

That said the main push to change urban planning and implementation tools comes from Nairobi's civil society in the guise of Muungano Trust and other organisations that are fighting an uphill battle to get the government to change its policies and recognise the struggle of slum dwellers to achieve a life of dignity. Private sector involvement has so far shown little success in helping to improve the situation, with the exception of the Adopt-a-light initiative. At a city council level there are public hearings but these are often under-publicised or held at difficult times of the week so often there is a lack of participation on the part of those who are most affected by the decisions.

The KENSUP slum upgrading initiative in Kibera is also an example of a project that did attempt to involve the community at all stages of the process but that somehow still failed to give people a sense of ownership, a fact underlined by the number of people who moved back to the main part of the slum after they had been relocated to the decanting highrises.

It's easy to talk about community participation and involvement in informal settlement planning but often the community is not in a position to get as involved as would be necessary for projects to succeed.

Thank you Katy. Well, I don't have the answers, but I strongly believe that public hearings are not enough and participation depends on genuine political will, which is not so common to see in my context. The recent book of Susan Fainstein "Just City" debates on this issue, if you are interested.

It evaluates the participative planning trends results, from the last 15 years. Her argument is that the outcome does not always generate "just cities". That's open for debate. I don't believe that top down initiatives are the answer. Yet, from what I observe in Sao Paulo, we are far from insuring participation both in the planning and in the management of our projects and policies. There is a very interesting case going on in Lisbon right now, in which areas were delimited having priority for intervention in the master plan (top down decision) and a budget for these interventions (social or physical) were defined. Yet the budget is applied via competition of projects, in which each community can design its project and submmitt for evalution. If accepted, the community itself will organize it, built and manage it. It is called BIP ZIP and there are presentation in English about it. Very interesting.

Eliana, thanks for suggesting the Just City book from Susan Fainstein. I agree with you that public hearings are not enough, although they are the main (and most of the time) tool used by municipal level governments to fulfil the participation requirement as stated in the Estatuto da Cidade. At ITDP (Institute for Transportation and Development Policy), where I work, we have been putting this challenge forward, and trying to identify best practices of participation. What do you think of the process applied to the revised Plano Diretor de São Paulo?

Dear Clarisse, thank you for your comment. I have to apologize because I don't know the work of ITDP, I'll try to catch up. Regarding the new revised Plano Diretor of São Paulo. From what I observed they used mainly public hearings (I went to some). The new revised Plano Diretor is now on the City Council (Cãmara dos Vereadores) to be revised and approved. I just received an invite of a final Public Hearing with more than 2000 people subscribed. What kind of useful outcome can a public hearing this big generate? In my opinion, none. It is basically just for the sake of saying there is widespread participation, highlighting the number of people which attended, disregarding what "to participate" means.

There is such a polarity of left and right wing parties (as you might know) in Brazil right now that what I see is a constant 180º shift in policy making every time there is a change in power. In practice this makes "planning" impossible. From 2010 to 2012 the former administration worked on the revision of the 2002 Masterplan. This revision was also made using public hearings, focus groups and experts panels (the same methodology the current revision of the plan is using). They even did an online survey about some key aspects of the plan. It was already to be voted in the city council but once the new party assumed the power, they started the revision process all over again, based on the argument that there was not participation enough.

What I want to highlight here is not the content of the different versions itself, but how the concept of participation is being manipulated. There are some interesting aspects about the participation in this new revision. A draft version of the plan was available online, open to comments of inhabitants and there was a call for ideas regarding the new use and occupation law (LEI de uso e Ocupação do Solo), social movements were involved, for instance.

But my point is: a new revision was really necessary? Is it necessary to constantly reinvent the wheel, every time there is a shift in power?

I believe participation is today being used, not to assure that the inhabitants have a saying on planning, but to assure policy shifts led by power shifts. Nobody wins. There is no continuation on any degree, with or without participation.

To me the forms of participation that works better are in the local level. The local plans (Planos de Bairro) could be the key, since we are dealing with smaller communities (smaller in the sense that it doesn't involve the entire city). Yet, since the planning process is this bureaucratic in Brazil, there are very few experiences of Plano de Bairro. In Sao Paulo the only experience that I know of is the Plan of Perus (a district in the Northwest zone).

If you are interested on participation related to mobility, you should check the initiative of FEUP at Porto. They have a study group focused on mobility patterns in Porto Region (Northern Portugal), based on a mobile app.

Thanks for the response Eliana. Perhaps the distinction we tend to make here in South Africa between 'development management' and 'forward planning' is useful.

We use the term 'development management' to refer to the actual granting of land use rights.

'Forward planning' refers to the production of spatial plans that indicate the spatial vision of the local authority (we always joke here about the tautology forward planning: there is no such thing as backward planning).

Anyway, I would argue that the City's 'reblocking policy' is a form of 'development management' but has nothing to do with 'spatial planning'. The settlements, that are to be assisted through this policy were never 'planned for' by the City. They sprung up organically and thus represent the 'informal city'.

However, the City is granting some form of land use right through the use of this policy.

So perhaps the upshot of this rather dull and academic narrative is that a legal conceptualisation of the 'informal city' can be done with respect to 'development management' but not very easily with respect to 'spatial planning'. Planning and designing is perhaps not easily squared with the 'informal city'?

Thank you for clarifying Jaap. I agree. Regarding that aspect I believe that the Special Zones of Public Interest in Brasil (ZEIS), despite a lot of problems in their implementation, are important instruments, since they do this linkage between spatial planning, urban management and the informal territories.

Hi Eliana,

After a considerable time doing research on the subject of informal dwellings I found that the chief problem is speed. Already by 2003 slums were growing at three times the rate that govts. could solve them. Today the rate is 3.7 times faster. The only solution I have thought to face this is prefab. Calculations may allow to develop a 20,000inh. informal dwelling in just 30 months using prefab kits.

Have a glorious day,


Hello Reinaldo, thank you for sharing! Are you talking globally or is it specific regarding one context?

I agree that prefab is a plausible solution, but it also depends on where. There are contexts in which civil construction is not that developed (Brasil is an example), talking about addressing a problem that increases as fast you pointed out, we cannot rely only on technology that sometimes is not yet accessible. There is also the issue of the services when we deal with these territories. I don't think the problem is only the housing unit but also infrastructure. But, I agree that fast-built housing units solutions should be on the agenda for discussion.

I want to second the importance of empowered participation of communities, and affected groups in the shaping of urban systems. Taking the example of informal waste workers, in the case of cities across the world where integration of waste pickers into urban solid waste systems has been achieved what has proven essential is the involvement of waste picker groups at the planning table, and the broadest grassroots participation in formulating waste policies, programmes and projects. The motto "Nothing for us without us" entices planners, policymakers and city officials – as well as development agencies – to respect informal workers and their membership-based organisations when designing any intervention aimed at waste pickers.

We need a people-centred approach to urban systems. Shaping sustainable cities means enhancing social and economic well-being for all, including those workers who have traditionally been among the poorest and most disregarded – informal vendors, home-based workers and waste pickers amongst others.

Sonia Dias
WIEGO waste specialist

Me uno al foro comentando lo siguiente: El caso reportado por el Dr. Bela para la ciudad de Bogotá, si bien se ejecutó y en algunos casos se sigue desarrollando presenta inconvenientes como: Los asentamientos periféricos en algunos casos están en zonas que presentan riesgo de deslizamiento, escaso servicio de transporte, alta inseguridad debido al nivel social y/o son migrantes o desplazados por la violencia. La integración de la unidad familiar es que por vivienda pueden encontrarse hasta 8-10 miembros de una familia. De igual manera, las construcciones se realizan de forma no técnica. En algunos casos, están situados en zonas que fueron antiguas canteras sin una previa conformación geotécnica. El suministro de redes de servicios públicos si bien "legalizó" predios, considero por mis recorridos en las zonas de las periferias de montaña, no dan un cumplimiento aún de criterios que puedan considerarse sostenibles. En las zonas planas (occidente de Bogotá), los desarrollos de vivienda se han incrementado al grado de generarse cambio en el uso de suelo para que áreas aptas para agricultura y/o reservas se urbanicen. Esto ha llegado a tal grado que se han generado grandes proyectos de vivienda o industriales con una alta afectación y sobre todo reduciendo las zonas de amortiguación hidráulica generándose emergencias por inundaciones. Así mismo, en contravía a prácticas de sostenibilidad, los vertimientos de esos proyectos van directamente a la cuenca del río Bogotá, agudizando su contaminación. Bogotá en su "desordenado"crecimiento ya ha "invadido" los municipios vecinos con un alta pérdida de zonas verdes e incremento de impermeabilidad, así como acrecentando el efecto de isla de calor. Se plantean nuevos proyectos de construcción sin que las entidades ambientales realicen el correspondiente análisis de los impactos y exijan las medidas de mitigación.

Jorge Bela's picture

Hola Liliana, ¡muchas gracias por tu comentario y por participar en el debate! Concuerdo plenamente en el diagnóstico que haces sobre el crecimiento caótico de Bogotá. Mientras en Medellín se han realizado avances significativos en la última década, no se puede decir lo mismo de Bogotá. Aquí mientras el centro de la ciudad se ha ido abandonando y deteriorando, los asentamientos informales han crecido fuera de control, y los desarrollos en las zonas de mayores recursos económicos se hacen en gram medida en "conjuntos cerrados," una forma de desarrollo excluyente y que ocupa una gran cantidad de terreno. La contaminación del río Bogotá es extrema, hasta el punto de que al agua tiene ausencia total de oxígeno disuelto en los últimos tramos de su transcurrir por la Sabana, pudiendo ser considerado un río muerto. Las inundaciones causadas por sus desbordamientos las sufren tanto los "ricos" como "los pobres," y fueron dramáticas durante el fenómeno de La Niña 2010-2011. Las diversas entidades públicas y privadas responsable de resolver los problemas del río Bogotá no solo no se ponen de acuerdo, sino que pleitean constantemente unas contra otras, y actúan de forma individual, no solo no resolviendo problemas sino agravándolos en ocasiones. Justo hablaremos de esto en el debate de la semana entrante.

Pero precisamente por lo certero que es el panorama que has descrito, vale la pena destacar la iniciativa de la legalización de los predios fiscales que analicé en su momento. En este proyecto sí se tuvieron en cuenta los aspectos que mencionas, como el riesgo de deslaves, o la proximidad a basureros como el de Doña Juana. Decenas de miles de familias se vieron beneficiadas por este proyecto exitoso. Es un pequeño paso si miramos la escala de lo que es necesario hacer en Bogotá, pero, pero es definitivamente un paso en la buena dirección.

Muchas gracias de nuevo por tu certero comentario, y ¡ojalá podamos contar contigo en debates futuros!

Jorge, estoy de acuerdo con el avance de Medellín, precisamente sigo de cerca URBAM (EAFIT) y BIO2030, pues me interesa mucho como se están generando los procesos. Como bien referencias la desarticulación de los entes públicos (sumados a la corrupción, una triste realidad) son causales de que no se consoliden planes integrales y se genere el caos presente. He tenido la oportunidad de reunirme con varios entes públicos y atender foros pero, si me permites la expresión popular hay "Mucho cazique y poco indio" es complejo. Colombia está ad portas de consolidar una paz, que si bien, por fuentes ya se están generando una serie de proyectos a implementarse, el urbanismo sostenible sigue sin estar claro en estas iniciativas post-conflicto. No solo en Bogotá, sino en el general del país. Si le sumamos a esto, las propuestas - aún no se cristalizan - del Plan de Adaptación al Cambio Climático, generar planes integrales (Social+Ambiental+Económico) debe estar en la palestra. Serán interesantes los próximos tópicos y espero poder participar activamente.

Respetados Jorge y Liliana Medina. Por supuesto que uno ve el desarrollo urbano de la ciudad, en especial en el centro y sur de la ciudad. Es altamente destacable los equipamientos educativos para la primera infancia o Jardines Infantiles, como también los parques bibliotecas que como el caso de el Parque Biblioteca España, transforman culturalmente las zonas. Sinembargo en Materia de viviendas de Interés social y viviendas Viviendas de interes prioritario, son mas los errores cometidos por la administración municipal que sus exitos. Los invitaria gustosamente a pasearse por la comunidad de la Ciudadela Nuevo Ocidente, para que constaten con la misma comunidad sus necesidades mas apremiantes en materia de equipamientos sociales, culturales, y de comercio. Y eso que son obligaciones urbanisticas dentro del mismo Plan Parcial. La misma ley de Manejo integral de residuos solidos la viola el constructor quien no dejo zonas apropiadas para ello y pos si fuera poco, niiuiea las obligaciones en materia de administracion de zonas comunes las paga el tenedeor del inmueble como lo fueron los respectivos constructores, ademas de que como lo dice la ley, son ellos mismos los administradores provisionales para el recaudo de la resèctivas cuotas. De tener en cuenta estos aspectos, la convivencia no tendria los problemas que hoy padecemos y que en algunos caos , como el mio concreto me lleva a ser desplazado interno por los problemas de convivencia que desde un principio bien se pudieron corregir. Espero que este comentario no sea censurado , simplemente por corresponder a la verdad!!!

As Martha Chen, International Coordinator of the WIEGO network writes, "what the working poor in the urban informal economy need most urgently is recognition and inclusion as productive economic agents: inclusion in city planning, the allocation of urban land, basic infrastructure and transport services, and local economic development. Otherwise their livelihoods will remain threatened by the juggernaut of urban renewal. No amount of social and financial inclusion can compensate for the costs of having one's livelihood undermined or destroyed."

More on her call for a "radical reappraisal of urban planning" can be found here:

Planning laws in Africa are notoriously problematic in that they (1) are often used against marginalised groups (2) tend to protect elites and (3) are completely at odds with the predominance of illegal structures (viz. Stephen Berrisford's How to Make Planning Work in Africa). Some of this can be attributed to what Berrisford calls the "grip of colonial legislation". Colonial powers unashamedly used planning laws to exploit and exclude. After independence, that didn't change. It's just that the colonial powers were replaced with a new elite. On this continent we have done very badly in urban planning reform. What can we learn about urban planning reform from some of the countries represented on this platform?

Integrandome a los comentarios, tengo que decir que recientemente en la ciudad de Cali, se han realizado reubicaciones de poblaciones en situacion de riesgo o asentamientos en lugares no permitidos; estas comunidades han sido trasladadas al sector de protrero grande, un barrio donde han trasladado personas que desde el mismo gobierno como la comunidad en general como personas desplazadas por la violencia, adultos mayores solos, mujeres cabezas de familia, en si han sido catalogados como una poblacion dificil; en este sector han construido viviendas de un bajo costo, viviendas gratuitas entregadas por el gobierno, viviendas con subsidio, etc personas que al cambiar su entorno, aspiran a mejorar su calidad de vida, pero desafortunadamente se encuentran con un rechazo general, a pesar de ser trasladados a una vivienda construida, no siempre les activan sus servicios publicos, generando mas desordenes sociales, etc, los desplazan a un sector mas lejano dentro de la ciudad, impidiendo al mismo tiempo que se genere actos entre ellos mismo de vandalismo, violencia, etc....

Creo que a pesar que los objetivos son claros como mejorarles su calidad en vivienda, se debe tener en cuenta que los cambios requieren de una unificacion de procesos culturales, educativos, deportivos para que la comunidad se apropie y se comprometa ella misma a mejorar y sostener esa calidad de vida.

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