To a citizen of the developed world, a visit to a slum, favela, township or other form of informal settlement comes as a shock. These are the poorest urban neighbourhoods you can find, and come with significant hardships. And yet, as environmentalist Stewart Brand has argued for years, they also show up wealthier neighbourhoods in a range of ways. His essential insights are that informal settlement’s high density (some Indian slums host one million people per square mile) and walkability and mixed use (there are no zones to separate shops from homes from schools) provide a range of benefits. Chief among these is community. While many urbanites rarely, if ever, meet their neighbours, residents of informal settlements can rarely avoid their neighbours, and an intense sense of community results from this*. Similarly, this density (but also poverty) leads to dramatically lower per capita rates of energy and water use, and far higher recycling rates.
Although some aspects are impossible to emulate (and some that few would want to), there are nevertheless varying lessons to be drawn from this:
- Ensuring high density, enabling economies of scale for mass transit options connecting an area or block, as well as allowing the shared use of resources, such as heating.
- Mixing up land use, converting streets into zones for shops, bars, homes, thereby creating a more vibrant community.
- Making it easy for residents to walk between all local amenities, promoting greater interaction and reducing the neighbourhoods risks (eg, fewer cars endangering pedestrians).
- Some go further, to argue for changes in the make-up of wealthier neighbourhoods, with a view to reducing environmental impact. For example, removing concrete pavements, so that rainwater can be better captured, or creating local cooperative schemes for power generation.
But all this ignores a pressing problem, which is the question of how cities can hold on to the benefits of informal settlements, while working to uplift and improve the lives of these residents. Some approaches have failed, such as well-meaning, but poorly thought-out, schemes to relocate slum-dwellers into new apartment blocks–providing safer, healthier homes, but without thought to the sense of loss that residents feel when they are withdrawn from their community.
One approach to how such informal dwellings could be uplifted and retrofitted comes from Peter Head, chairman of global planning for engineering firm Arup, as part of his inspiring global “Resilient Futures” lecture series, which presents convincing arguments for reshaping cities to make them better (see video here).
* This sense of community is stunningly captured in Shantaram, a novel roughly based on the life of Gregory David Roberts, an Australian convict on the run who settles into a Mumbai slum and integrates into life there. He rues the total loss of privacy, but is captivated by the deep sense of community–in dealing with both challenges and celebrations in any given resident’s life. A worthwhile read.