Tariq Toffa

The big and the small: Designing for disaster and dwelling in neighborhoods of change

Tariq Toffa, Cape Town Community Manager


For newly arrived migrants and the unemployed in cities like Cape Town, wood and tin shacks built on flood plains and wetland or river fringes are often the only opportunities for land and affordable accommodation in urban areas. In 2000 it was estimated that most of the approximately 100,000 people in South Africa living below flood levels along rivers and streams live in informal settlements. A clear relationship therefore exists between unequal processes of urbanization and disasters like flooding, exacerbated by the frequent and devastating informal settlement fires ("shack fires"). There are various approaches, each with their own constraints and shortcomings, which have been undertaken to address these predictable cycles of misery.

The primary approach of the City of Cape Town has been invested in better fire emergency control (education drives, increasing fire-fighting capacity, a post-fire 2.7m² tin house, and humanitarian assistance). This has successfully reduced the fire mortality rate, but the scale of homes destroyed remains high.

A second approach, as advocated by the Paraffin Safety Association of Southern Africa, targets safe and multiple energy sources as a solution to shack fires.

In a third approach, the City has recently also begun looking toward a more pre-emptive approach to shack fires. In 2012 the City embraced a 'blocking-out' upgrading model (the reconfiguration of settlement layouts into clusters, allowing emergency vehicle access and some protection against the spread of fires), for several years the preferred model of the South African SDI alliance and local NGO Ikhayalami (fig. 1). Notwithstanding the successes of this innovative model, there are other factors not adequately addressed, such as natural growth and open space encroachment, and the reduced numbers of people who can be accommodated in the new settlement layout type.

A fourth approach explores creative, readily implementable projects or adaptions of existing strategies. 'Touching the Earth Lightly' (TEL), for example, a Cape Town-based design company, has in this regard built some innovative pilot projects which address key issues like fires and flooding. TEL's recent "light house" in Hangberg, Cape Town, is a cheap, low-tech house made flood-proof by sitting on stilts; while pre-fabricated wall panels are treated with fire retardant magnesium, and window shutters are designed with ties that quickly disintegrate in a fire, thus containing its spread (fig. 2). In TEL's "green shack" pilot project in 2012, a low-tech, vertical vegetable garden also functions as an alternative form of a fire wall (fig. 3).

A hybrid fire wall concept was also proposed by Emeritus Professor Julian Cooke of the University of Cape Town. Cooke proposed building fire walls between structures, not only to impede the spread of fire, but as the key first phase in a process of upgrading. Wall building would enable people to build their own structures up against it, and in so doing open up other spaces, including those for emergency vehicle access and services. The idea could create rich urban environments, yet is simple and economical (fig. 4).

As informal settlements are not only urban realities, but continually changing ones, an appreciation of their complexities requires continuing innovation toward more holistic and sustainable approaches, and the (political) will for their implementation. The slowness of changes or adaptions to prevailing strategies, by contrast, illustrates that new creative and innovative approaches which learn from existing processes must be implemented or piloted in parallel if they are to have any affect. The alternative is stagnation, or a new status quo, despite lessons learned in implementation. Parallel or pilot projects such as those described can in the meantime begin to bridge the gulf between formal housing delivery and the cycles of poverty and disaster.

Fig. 1: Bolnick 2011. Fig. 2 & 3: Touching the Earth Lightly. Fig. 4: Cooke 2013.