The science and practice of urban planning in slums

Jose Lobo
Arizona State University, USA

The historical experience of the now developed economies is that urbanization accompanied and fostered industrialization, economic growth and productivity increases (Henderson, 2003). But the process of urbanization now unfolding in the developing world seems much more mixed in outcomes as the negative effects resulting from crowding, environmental degradation, and inadequate services can sometimes negate the productivity advantages of rapidly growing urban areas (Bloom et al., 2008). Central to the differentiated experience of urbanization in developing nations is the experience of the informal or poor  neighborhoods (“slums”) which are the principal spatial and social expressions of their rapid urban population growth (Arimah, 2010). While in some places and at some times slums have played a positive and dynamic role in urban development, (Frankenhoof, 1967; Ulack, 1978) there is growing concern that the rapid pace of slums’ formation and growth in some urban areas are turning them into “poverty traps” (Glaeser, 2013; Marx et al., 2014). It is unlikely that most slums will disappear or be transformed on their own.

Policy will need to play an important role in addressing the challenges and opportunities which slums present; but the question is, as has been for some time now, how to carry out urban planning in the developing world? Traditional urban planning, usually practiced in terms of organizing urban space and determining land uses, has a poor record of solving fundamental socioeconomic problems, especially those typically associated with human development. In particular, large scale infrastructure development projects—road systems, electrification, massive public housing—have largely failed at fomenting inclusive cities and has often been associated with increasing inequality of opportunity and income (Baker, 2008; Buckley & Kalarickal, 2006; Gulyani & Bassett, 2007). More generally, large-scale infrastructure investment efforts have not, by themselves, been very effective catalysts of development (Landes, 1998; Easterly, 2001).

Addressing socioeconomic issues in cities in the developing world requires information that is hard to obtain because it exists at the personal and neighborhood level, especially in poor informal settings (UN-HABITAT, 2003a, 2003b; Baker, 2008). The challenge of obtaining and coordinating information across levels of organization is an archetypal open-ended coordination problem: whenever individuals have common interests, or goals, and their actions depend on actions of others, they must coordinate their actions in order to reach their goals (Schelling, 1960). But recognizing that their goals and actions interact, is often not obvious, and arriving at this recognition, and devising ways to coordinate their problem-solving actions, requires information and deliberation, an issue we elaborate on below. While organized communities in participatory civic environments can achieve a lot, they crucially depend on local governments, on a functioning legal system and on private initiatives for addressing some of their material and socioeconomic needs.

Since the 1970’s it has been appreciated that traditional forms of urban planning, especially when applied to informal neighborhoods tend to lead to poor outcomes, and often to tragic consequences (Turner & Fichter, 1972; Angel, 1983; Werlin, 1999; Davis, 2006).  Policies relying primarily on evictions and relocations of poor urban communities “unlawfully” occupying land often lead to recurring problems of illegal settlements and to the disruption or destruction of fragile social fabrics and associated livelihoods, without tangible results in terms of growth and development to either the city or the communities involved (Patel et al., 2001).  Several early studies on development in slum neighborhoods (Sudra, 1976; Schlyter & Schlyter, 1979) and urban theory (Turner, 1976) motivated a more functional view of housing and neighborhoods (“housing as a verb”) – and of the importance of urban planning as supporting – and not disrupting – processes of human development at the household and community levels.  When these ideas gained acceptance among international organizations such as the World Bank, they became the basis for land policies such as “site and services” in the decades that followed (Buckley & Kalarickal, 2006), and to a general emphasis on inclusive growth as a process to be nurtured by urban planning.

While a shift in planning theory and practice has resulted in more constructive policies, many questions have remained about the role of formal planning and more generally of local, national and international agencies in promoting human development (Baker, 2008). Purely micro-level solutions at the community level have often been proposed, typically with an emphasis on harnessing market mechanisms or pecuniary incentives to solve issues of development. Land titling (de Soto, 1986) is one well-known example, and the laying-down of a street grid clearly identifying public and private land/spaces (Fuller & Romer, 2014).  Many interventions at the local level to provide specific services, such as water or sanitation, are other examples of these practices. Such solutions can be helpful, but most often fail to be sustainable because they are not integrated with other aspects of development at the individual and community levels. This approach reflects a predilection for a “silver bullet” solution. But we would do well to remember what “institutional economists” have taught us, or at least reminded us of, that successful economic policies do not exist in isolation and that functioning market mechanisms necessitate shared institutions, organizations, legal practices, and social norms (North, 1991). For example, many of the pitfalls of land titling have to do with remaining uncertainty of tenure and use and of associated inability to assess future land value. As a cause and consequence of this situation, which is typical of informal urban settlements, there is an accompanying lack of public and private organizations that can help make an equitable land market work.

How then can the information generated and collected by communities, and their agency, be best used in the process of development?  First, there is a need to create the conditions for what the community can do in terms of its own development (Holston, 2008). This means that individuals and communities must acquire a longer term horizon and the ability to accumulate investments in material improvements and in knowledge. The issue of security of outlook, which includes security of land tenure, but goes beyond it.  There are many ways in with security of outlook can be improved: most effectively this is achieved by practical measures, such as through the provision of services, the recognition of economic and civic rights, as well as associated obligations, in terms of civic participation, taxes and increasing formalization. Second, community organization and action is fundamental in solving the coordination problem underlying effective urban planning, by generating local knowledge and identifying priorities in an ongoing development program, and its continuous assessment in terms of evaluation and sustainability (of costs, quality of service, maintenance, etc.).  Local knowledge must, however, be shared otherwise comparisons of experiences cannot occur, collective intelligence (“crowd sourcing”) cannot emerge, and learning cannot accumulate.

The challenge of urban planning and the needs of poor communities’ are linked by the need to exchange information and agency across levels of urban organization, from the household, to the neighborhood and the city. While this point seems rather commonsensical, it has been argued in economic theory to be the fundamental development problem of human societies (Hayek, 1935; Arrow, 1974; Acemoğlu, 2008). This places the problem of creating and implementing good urban plans squarely in the light of the coordination mechanisms that can make individuals and institutions with different perspectives and capabilities likely to collaborate for long periods of time. How is this daunting coordination problem to be solved effectively? Must city planners spend their time in community town-hall meetings? How will slum-dwellers communicate their knowledge and needs to the city?  A crucial component to this process of socializing problem solving is the creation of trusted, verifiable and evidence-based means of communication between individuals and organizations. A community process which elicits data about the physical, social and economic characteristics of neighborhoods and their needs is the simplest and most effective means to achieve this goal. The process has the added benefit of creating a path of dialogue and inclusion to the urban poor and of responsive and knowledgeable government around practical issues for official organizations and private firms. This approach is the common practice of organizations such as Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and is a growing practice in urban neighborhoods throughout the developing world.

Data is part of the parlance of official planners as well as of researchers and international organizations. But by transparently collecting verifiable data about themselves informal communities and neighborhoods can join the discussion about their own local development.  Data is not always perfect, of course, but the act of verification and/or correction builds mutual trust and engagement.  Through such a process city planners gain information about neighborhood communities that they would likely not have access to otherwise. This allows for more informed planning that includes community priorities and a more functional understanding of why certain services may be more important than others. It can also engage the community as observers and guarantors of the new service in a way that can help ensure it sustainability, both financial and logistic. Data backed up by a community process that is integrated across many places allows learning not only between communities, but at higher levels of stakeholder involvement in the process, including international organizations and researchers, to whom complex processes of human development can become more transparent. A process of community data collection thus becomes a means to create social and “human capital” in poor communities, a crucial condition for economic inclusive growth.

By developing methods, social organization and a working knowledge of new technologies in the context of real general problems, neighborhood communities are gaining practical and empowering capabilities that allows them to continue to address development issues beyond their initial targets and to find other uses to their new skills, either as businesses or non-profits.


Jose Lobo

Dr. Jose Lobo is Associate Research Professor at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, USA.
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