“Cities don’t make people poor; they attract poor people. The flow of less advantaged people into cities from Rio to Rotterdam demonstrates urban strength, not weakness.” – Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City
Cities in low and middle-income countries will add more than two billion people between now and 2050. Slums, the informal settlements that many poor residents call home, will inevitably grow during this period as well. But with a bit of planning and a willingness to relax barriers that exclude the poor, cities can work with informal communities to ensure that urbanization lives up to its anti-poverty potential.
Informal settlements are those that are not laid out, built, or serviced according to official standards. These settlements provide poor people with a critical source of affordable housing but often lack access to basic services such as sanitation and transportation, and therefore leave residents vulnerable to disease and isolated from job opportunities. Ignoring and condemning informal settlements means excluding the poor from opportunity and a quality of life their wealthier urban compatriots take for granted.
There are three ways for cities to reduce the drawbacks of informality without shutting out the poor.
First, cities must plan ahead. Evidence from the 2016 Atlas of Urban Expansion — a global research effort led New York University Professor Shlomo Angel — suggests that city planning is not keeping pace with population growth and residential development. Increasingly, a declining share of urban areas are within walking distance of arterial roads — the roads that carry public transportation and infrastructure such as power lines, telecoms networks, water mains, and sewerage.
In Kolkata, an Indian city of more than 15 million people, nearly 90 percent of the urban land added between 2003 and 2014 was settled informally. Of this, only 54 percent of the expansion area was within walking distance (625 meters) of arterial roads.
By making 30-year projections for urban growth, planners and officials can work to set aside the land necessary for a network of arterial roadways. Because these roads will carry public transport and utilities, laying out the roadway grid in advance will allow for formal and informal residential communities in between to be both well-serviced and connected to jobs and amenities in the rest of the city. Planning ahead also allows cities to set aside parkland and protect critical habitat before development occurs.
Second, cities must relax barriers that exclude the poor from accessing suitable housing.
Though usually well-intentioned, cities often set housing standards at levels that make formal sector housing units — units built to conform to official standards — too expensive for the poor, further fuelling the growth of informality.
In much of Mumbai, Indian regulations stipulate that developers can only build 1.33 square meters of floor space for each square meter of land on the associated property. In other cities, it is typical for this ratio to be between five and 15 units of floor space per unit of land. By sharply restricting the amount of floor space that can legally be built on each plot of urban land, the government ensures that the majority of Mumbai’s residents — renowned urbanist Alain Bertaud puts the number at 60 percent — live in informal settlements that do not conform to official standards. Freeing up such controls on density would allow developers to introduce additional, legal housing units that are more likely to be both centrally located and affordable to low-income households.
Cities should also work to legitimize informal settlements by recognizing the rights and tenure of residents in their communities. As Bertaud has documented, this is precisely the approach taken in the kampongs (rural villages absorbed by a city) of Surabaya, a city of more than eight million on Indonesia’s densely populated island of Java. City officials leave the people residing in the kampongs to develop their land as they see fit — according to their own norms and customs — rather than imposing city standards. If, for example, waste removal is a priority for residents but the streets are too narrow for municipal trucks, the community can organize internal collection — much like a condo association — with the city agreeing to pick-up points on the periphery of the neighborhood. The kampongs are, therefore, an important source of flexible and affordable housing in which the residents work with the city to upgrade public service provision over time.
Informal settlements are not nuisances to be condemned or ignored, they are critical sources of affordable housing for the least-advantaged who have the most to gain from the economic dynamism of cities. By taking simple steps to plan ahead and accommodate the poor, public officials can ensure that all residents share in the economic benefits of urban growth.