At a sustainable cities conference several years back, your correspondent was on stage with six urban luminaries representing a range of disciplines, discussing sustainable city development, when a question from audience stopped us in our tracks: what solutions do you propose to deal with the sustainable development of informal settlements? The panel was collectively stumped. Some nice ideas were bandied about around SMS-based applications for phones, and some well-intentioned thoughts were aired, but there was little in the way of practical solutions. The reality is, it’s a far more complex issue than people anticipate.
For those who live outside of shanty towns, or squatter camps, or favelas, or whatever they prefer to term them, solutions often tend to involve building something new, and moving people there. This basic approach has formed the basis of the South African government’s approach to the redevelopment of so-called township, as part of its laudable social housing programme. But the reality on the ground is that these simple dwellings are, for millions of families, something far more important than 4 shaky walls and a leaky roof: it’s home. And it’s their community too (and far more of a community than many realise, as the excellent book Shantaram will relay to you). And this makes moving on, and uprooting from this intense community, far more complicated than it may seem from the project plan perspective.
Indeed, as Hernando de Soto has eloquently argued for a long time, these settlements represent a huge value, if only banks would recognise that there is a legitimate address, and valuation, and lend money against that — while the shack acts as collateral. This is a side issue, but it’s an important context to understand when realising that upgrading and improving informal settlements from within, rather than directed from the outside, will likely be a fundamental part of how such communities are improved upon, and developed further.
In the light of this, a project out of a South African university – handily dubbed the iShack, or improved shack – provides an exciting step towards helping such communities practically realise their improvement aspirations. In a trial project in a Cape Town community, a host of innovations were implemented for trial:
- The roof is sloped to aid rainwater collection, while an overhang helps ensure greater shade in summer, and extra heating potential in winter. Specifically placed windows improve interior circulation.
- Fire-retardant paint helps cut down on the regular fire hazard, while milk cartons help improve insulation, and a mud-straw wall on one side helps improve temperature regulation. All materials and designs were based on what could be affordable, accessible and make an impact on the living temperature of the corrugated iron shacks
- The one major technology, a solar photovoltaic panel, provides two inside lights, a motion sensitive external light (partly for security), and a charger for a mobile phone. Six local residents have been trained to install and operate and maintain these, to help them start to become energy entrepreneurs.
More development will come in later phases of the research, but as one of the project’s researchers poignantly highlights in the NY Times, by giving people the ability to design and improve their own lives, they have an added motivation to fight for legal tenure and a more permanent residence. And to those scratching their heads over how best to develop such settlements, the iShack represents a clearer and safer path ahead.