Informal settlements must be reformed not demolished


Reforming, rather than tearing down, is becoming the primary government response to dealing with informal settlements in many nations.

It is estimated that over a billion urban dwellers live in informal settlements. These have increased in response to rapid population growth and a lack of affordable, better quality alternatives. They are “informal” because they do not conform to government regulations. The official response was usually to intimidate or, if they were not very visible, to ignore them.

But in the last 50 years, many local governments and some national governments have recognized their importance for housing the bulk of the low-income population and workforce, along with many enterprises. Now instead, they have turned to redevelopment.

Among the first such initiatives was the kampung (urban village) improvement program in Jakarta and presidential support for “young cities” in Peru in the late 1960s.

Unfortunately, there are still many examples of demolition of informal settlements, but redevelopment projects are moving from being rare innovative initiatives to being a government response.

Planning the Renovations

The planning of the redevelopments is quite different from conventional planning. To begin with, the land is already occupied, and much of the housing and the layout of the land contravene official regulations. The residents usually want to stay in their homes during the redevelopment, having no alternatives, which makes construction difficult.

Agreement must be reached on “repopulation” to create access and internal roads along with pipelines, sewers and drains, and how to meet the needs of the residents whose lot, or part of it, is needed for this.

The different ways to promote reforms

There are different alternatives for conducting this type of project, which impact the final result:

  1. Reforms that are, in fact, evictions

Residents are evicted from their homes without help in finding temporary accommodation. They are not able to access the “improved” housing or pay expenses such as for a water supply.

  1. Rough improvements

Some basic, low-cost interventions, such as community taps, can be installed.

  1. More extensive renovations

This includes running water and toilets in every home, along with electricity and paved access roads. There is little consultation with residents, but improvements are generally welcomed unless residents cannot afford the new fees.

  1. Government-led comprehensive reform

Here, land regularization and a full range of infrastructure and services for residents and businesses are offered. Residents are consulted. For tenants, there is concern about rising rents.

  1. Community-led comprehensive reform

This brings physical improvements comparable to those in (4), but with community organizations at the center of planning and implementation.

There are many examples carried out by slum dwellers’ federations affiliated with Slum Dwellers International (SDI). In Thailand, such initiatives have been supported by the national government’s Community Organization Development Institute (CODI).

  1. Comprehensive community-led reform with a resilience lens

As in (5), but with greater attention to anticipating, assessing, and preparing for climate change-related risks, such as extreme events happening with greater frequency and intensity. Informal settlements are usually located on land at high risk of flooding and landslides.

  1. Reshaping reform

As in (6), but considering the low carbon footprint results.

It all comes down to how the government relates to the residents

The nature of the government’s involvement with the residents involved in the reform determines what is done or not done. For the first four forms of modernization, it is usually the local government that plans and manages the process. For the first three, maintenance can be a problem if no provision is made.

For comprehensive reform (4), there is strong government commitment. Settlements gradually become “formal” as municipal authorities provide services such as policing, street lighting, and solid waste collection, so that they become part of the “formal” city and subject to its planning.

Comprehensive community-led reform (5) includes government support for community organizations, from data collection and planning to implementation.

There are examples of strong local government support for community-led reform with a resilience lens (6) with effective community-local government partnerships aiding greater resilience.

There is a large overlap between good quality reform and greater resilience to extreme weather events. Reshaping reform (7) also benefits from these relationships with national government support.

Engaging the residents

The first step in reform is to obtain the data and maps needed for planning. SDI’s 32 affiliated slum dweller federations have developed the capacity to conduct very detailed enumerations of informal settlements covering each household. They provide the information base for planning reform initiatives and negotiating with local governments.

Enumerating settlements is not easy – especially if the houses have no addresses and no maps or street names. Residents may be hostile to interviewers, fearing that the information will be used to serve “real estate” interests.

These fears are more easily overcome if the interviewers are residents and the other residents are kept informed so that they feel part of the process.

SDI’s community-based enumerations involve residents so that everyone knows what is being done. They are carried out by residents, guided by community leaders. The foundations of these community organizations and federations are the community savings groups, composed mainly of women.

The surveys are very detailed, for example, the data collected on water quality usually inquire about the

  • Main sources of water for the family (nine possibilities)
  • Number of individual, community and shared taps; functionality and quality of water
  • Water expenditures
  • Time needed to collect water and
  • Water availability.

Other relevant aspects are addressed with the same level of detail. And, unlike conventional surveys, there is room for respondents to express their priorities. The teams report the results to the residents, which generates more discussion about their needs and priorities. This provides the data that local governments need.

Examples of community-led reform

In Gobabis, Namibia, a program for Freedom Square, an informal settlement with 4,173 inhabitants on a 60-hectare site, was led by the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia, working with the Namibian Housing Action Group and municipal authorities. Upgrading costs were a fifth of those of conventional approaches, therefore they were affordable to many more families.

In Thailand, CODI funds and supports community organizations formed by residents to plan and manage the reform of their settlement. More than 100,000 families have benefited from this program.

A program in Mukuru, one of Nairobi’s largest informal settlements, led by the Federation of Homeless People of Kenya (Muungano wa Wanavijiji), has an unusual size (about 100,000 families) and it engages with all stakeholders seeking to generate consensus.


Reforms, if done well, transform housing and living conditions.

But successful improvement usually includes (and depends on) much better relations between informal settlement residents and local government. Successful improvement usually includes partnerships with local government, as in the examples given above.

The reform should include all departments of local government to avoid conflicts of interest, such as an infrastructure division intent on clearing informal settlements for road expansion while the planning department is developing reform programs.

These altered relationships can provide the basis from which other needs can be met.

Article originally published in International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) on October 5, 2021

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