They are Not “Informal Settlements”—They are Habitats Made by People


According to the UN, at least one third of the
global urban population suffers from inadequate living conditions. Lack of
access to basic services (drinking water and/or sanitation, not to mention
energy, waste recollection, and transportation), low structural quality of
shelters, overcrowding, dangerous locations, and insecure tenure are the main
characteristics normally included in the definitions of so-called informal settlements.

Recognized as a global phenomenon, no
country can claim to be free of informal settlements, although the numbers of
people suffering can vary largely depending on the region: these problems now
affect up to 60 percent of the world’s population—or even more—in some
Sub-Saharan African and Southeast Asian cities, and the number of people
affected in these locations is expected to double over the next two decades.
High percentages are also seen in several Arab countries, and at least 25
percent of urbanites in Latin America live in informal settlements. Precarious
housing and living conditions and growing homelessness can also be found in
Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, affecting, on average, one
in 10 people.

Squatter settlements,favelas, shacks,villas
,bidonvilles, slums, and many other
names are typically used to refer to such impoverished neighborhoods. In
general terms, all of these names highlight their negative characteristics and
clearly imply pejorative connotations. By cruel extension, the words used to
describe the physical conditions of the settlements also tend to apply to their
inhabitants. Despite what normative frameworks might say about all persons
being equal before the law and the state, inhabitants of informal settlements
are generally treated as second-class citizens.

Rocinha (“little farm”, due to its agricultural
vocation until the mid 20th century), located in the rich southern zone of Rio
de Janeiro, is considered one of the most populous favelas in Brazil. Most of
its 70,000 inhabitants live in houses made from concrete and brick and have
access to basic sanitation, plumbing, and electricity. The neighborhood has a
vibrant local economy. Source:

houses at the base of the Rocinha Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image shot
2010. Source:

In academic and government documents, “informal settlements” is the
label typically applied to these areas. That those communities are not in
compliance with building norms and property and urban planning regulations is
often given as the main reason for qualifying them as “informal”. Also defined
as “irregular”, they can easily be called “illegal”, and their inhabitants
subsequently criminalized, displaced, and persecuted. From India to South Africa
to Ecuador, legal and administrative changes have been made in recent years to
give special/ad hoc inspection and demolition powers to local, provincial, and
national governments to deal with these neighborhoods and, in theory, to
prevent them from growing (in many cases, environmental laws and regulations or
urban projects are used as excuses for destroying these settlements). As was
recently recognized, the UN’s Millennium Development Goal 7-Target 11
commitment to reducing the population living in slums by 2020 was tragically
translated in several countries as the pressure to destroy people´s self-built
housing and even to incarcerate the leaders of social movements (for a critical
analysis of the “cities without slums” initiative and why language matters, see
Gilbert, 2007). In Zimbabwe alone, the UN reports that as many as 700,000
people were affected by terrifying slum “clearance” operations in 2005, which
took the revealing name of “Remove the filth”!

At the same time, these areas are frequently presented as empty, colored
grey or green on maps. As we all know, not having an official address (street
name and house number) is a huge obstacle to being able to fulfill other needs
and rights: applying for a job, sending one’s kids to school, being admitted
into health systems. Invisibility and stigmatization of citizens living in
particular neighborhoods go hand in hand and make poverty, exclusion, and
discrimination self-perpetuating. Social exclusion often means spatial
segregation, and vice versa.

Following a tradition most probably started before the mid-19th century
in some English cities undergoing industrialization processes and migration
from the countryside, our contemporary media still often depict the inhabitants
of informal settlements as the troublemakers, the thieves, the lazy. It is hard
to find positive stories about their daily struggles for better life
conditions, rights, and dignity.

It is clear that we urgently need a better approach to naming and
framing such areas broadly called “informal settlements”—one that is respectful
and sensitive to the people who live there and that could better promote the
transformations that our cities and our societies need.

Questioning the formal/informal dichotomy

The “informal settlements” label does not reflect, nor does it take into
account, the many variations that these popular settlements present in
different parts of the world. Using “slums” or “informal settlements” to
describe Kibera in Nairobi or Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro does not seem
appropriate when, just by looking at some pictures, anyone can tell that they
present many differences in terms of quality and durability of the housing
materials and access to basic services and infrastructure, to mention some of
the more visible contrasts. We can then look to statistics and realize that while
the cariocas of Rio have private bathrooms in every housing unit, their fellows
on the other side of the ocean only have 1,000 public toilets for 180,000
people. Not only that: as a consequence of massive investments during the
recent years in neighborhood improvement programs, a Rio favela house
with a view of one of the many wonderful bossa-nova bays might now reach US$ 250,000 in value—and rumors that Hollywood stars are
buying them are widespread.

Likewise, the classification of all such areas as “informal settlements”
does not indicate the relevance of the places in their cities that they occupy
or the spatial segregation they usually suffer from; the lack of access to
affordable and public transportation, places of employment, schools, hospitals,
and other basic facilities; the lack or limited access to financial resources
such as credits, subsidies, etc.; or the lack of technical assistance and/or
adequate materials to consolidate housing and neighborhoods buildings and
infrastructure, just to mention a few.

Originated as a settlement at the outskirts of
Nairobi for Nubian soldiers returning from service with the British colonial
army more than a century ago, Kibera (“forest”) is known as the largest slum in
Africa. Before Kenya´s independence, the law strictly segregated and
discriminated non-Europeans groups from political, economic and social rights.
Photo: Mathare Valley. Source:

Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: Mathare Valley. Source:

The difficulties of defining a phenomenon so varied and dynamic as
“informal settlements” are often invoked to justify the continuing use of the
catchall term and the predominant focus on what they do not have (Connolly,
2007). But academics in several regions have been discussing the
formal/informal false dichotomy as a kind of “discursive differentiation” that
shapes and enacts knowledge and power relations on the territories. Many of
them argue that binary classifications are clearly insufficient to reflect the
complexity of settlement processes that we face in reality; such
classifications simultaneously hide authorities’ responsibilities in producing
informality (Roy, 2009; Yiftachel, 2009; Wigle, 2013).

By defining what is formal and regular, and changing those definitions
over time, according to political interests, involved governments maintain
these settlements in a “grey” zone of non-definition and permanent negotiation
that makes their inhabitants more vulnerable to clientelistic practices
(understood as exchanges of goods and services for political support), which
are particularly intense during electoral periods. The above authors go so far
as to denounce that “the use of such binary categories also entails an
uncritical view of regular settlement areas” (Wigle). On a related note, the
irregularities in accessing urban services and/or violations of land-use and
other planning norms in rich neighborhoods are not punished and, in many cases,
are even presented and considered as positive ´investments´ that benefit the
community as a whole. Based on such considerations, formal/informal,
regular/irregular are ever-changing and mutually-defined categories and not
fixed, contrasting entities.

In more general terms, these classifications do not allow us to analyze
the profound, structural causes that explain the creation of precarious and
inadequate settlements: expulsion of rural, campesino,and
indigenous people due to the lack of government support for small and
medium-sized agriculture; lack of mechanisms to control land grabbing and
speculation; evictions and displacements due to multifactorial crises, social
conflicts over land, resources, and natural or manmade disasters; urban renewal
and “development” projects; lack of facilities and services; lack of affordable
land and housing policies; social vulnerability and low-paid, unprotected jobs;
lack of opportunities for youth; discrimination and marginalization.

Without considering the causes, how would we be able to reverse those
tendencies and find the needed solutions?

The city produced by the people: the urgent need to understand it and
support it

Academics aren’t the only ones who have being questioning this negative
and limited approach. For more than 50 years, civil society organizations,
engaged professionals, and activists have being analyzing and supporting these
processes from a different, but also critical, point of view.

This movement, described as Social Production of Habitat, intends to
highlight the positive and transformative characteristics of so-called
“informal settlements”, which involve people-driven and people-centered
processes to produce and manage housing, services, and community infrastructure.
In other words, processes of practical problem solving for achieving human
dignity and a better quality of life.

“Social Production of Habitat” is a phrase intended to describe people
producing their own habitat: dwellings, villages, neighborhoods, and even large
parts of cities. They may be found in rural and urban settings, ranging from
spontaneous individual/familial self-constructions, to collective productions
that imply high levels of organization, broad participation, and agency for
negotiation and advocacy with public and private institutions—although, in
general, they are implemented with very little or no support and often despite
a myriad of economic and institutional obstacles (Ortiz and Zárate, 2002).

In recent decades, Habitat International Coalition, or HIC (full disclosure: I am
currently serving as President of HIC), and other international networks have
been documenting some of these collective initiatives in various parts of the
world. Different kinds of organized social groups (social movements,
cooperatives, tenants’ federations, women’s organizations, etc.) are driving
innovative experiences that cover a broad range of activities: from accessing
land and building housing and basic infrastructure, to the responsible
management of the commons (water, forests and green areas, public spaces and
community infrastructure); from gender equality and human rights promotion and
defense, to food production and preservation of cultural identity.

The underlying, essential factor is that these initiatives and projects
consider the production of housing and human habitat as a social process, not
just as a material product. The collective effort to build and produce a place
to live is not a mere object for exchange. It is a combination of different
types of knowledge, expertise, materials, and other in-kind contributions from
different actors and institutions, and not something that one can just buy (or
not!). It is a social relation and not a mere commodity.

Instead of “informal settlements”, we prefer to understand and describe
them as practices and social struggles that not only build houses and
neighborhoods strictly on a physical level; at the same time, and perhaps even
more importantly, they also build active and responsible citizenships against
marginalization and social and urban segregation, advancing direct democratic
exercise and improving individual and community livelihoods, participants’
self-esteem, and social coexistence (Ortiz and Zárate, 2004). In fewer words:
the city produced by the people.

When organized, recognized, and supported (with the appropriate legal,
administrative, financial, and technical mechanisms), these processes have a
relevant positive impact both at the micro- and macroeconomic levels. Given
that official statistics usually do not measure these people´s and communities´
efforts, HIC members have promoted research and dissemination projects with
different academic institutions. The findings show that
in places such as Brazil or Mexico, the Social Production of Habitat represents
a constant contribution of around 1 percent of GDP (even in times of serious
economic crisis, when public and private actors reduce their investments
considerably); at the same time, they explain the multiple ways in which such
social initiatives activate and strengthen several circuits of the local
economy, at small and medium scales (construction materials and labour,
professional services, etc.) (Torres, 2006).

At the same time, and thanks to their innovative proposals and concrete
results, individuals and organizations engaging in the Social Production of
Habitat have influenced the reorientation of housing and urban development
policies and contributed to generating changes in legal, financial, and
administrative instruments relevant to social housing, self-managed processes,
tenure security, attention to low-income sectors, and environmental
improvement, among other issues.

Social Production of Habitat as a fulfillment of human

Social Production of Habitat movements and projects fill the gaps left
from the state’s failure to respect, protect, and fulfill human rights,
particularly the human right to adequate housing and other related rights:
property, water and sanitation, participation, non-discrimination, and
self-determination, just to mention a few. Moreover, the right to produce and
manage our habitat is one of the strategic components of the right to the city.

That being said, it is fundamental to highlight that people’s agency to
improve habitat does not absolve the state of its obligations to citizens and
residents (Schechla, 2004). According to the international commitments that
they have signed, governments—both at national and subnational levels,
including regional, provincial, and local authorities—are obligated to refrain
from forced evictions, confiscation and repression of human rights defenders,
discrimination, corruption, withholding services, and other such violations.

State institutions and officials should abstain from actions that would
obstruct the social production of housing process, in particular through
housing destruction and displacements. As established in standard-setting instruments, when resettlement is the only
available option (i.e. due to a disaster-prone location or similar issue), the
participation of the affected community and families is mandatory in agreeing
the details of the process and negotiating appropriate resettlements (including
providing shelter in a nearby location so as not to affect people´s livelihoods
and social networks), as well as just remuneration and compensation measures.

At the level of protection, state obligations in the social production
of housing process involve the provision of safeguards and assurances of
freedom from unnecessary and disproportionate use of force, public-service fee
increases, monopolistic control of building materials, and other impediments to
the people’s process. The state also bears the obligation to prosecute
violators and ensure effective relief and remedy for victims. Measures that
prevent, deny, or repress the inhabitants’ rights to association,
participation, and free expression in the physical development process would
also violate the obligation to respect the human right to adequate housing.

At the fulfillment level, the state possesses unique capacities to
ensure, recognize, and support people´s efforts and community-led efforts.
Enabling social production of habitat policies, programs, institutions, and
budgets is fundamental, including those that can guarantee access to:

  • land in
    good locations
  • security
    of tenure, prioritizing women´s needs and rights
  • services
    and infrastructure
  • adequate
    financial resources and schemes (credits, subsidies, and savings; recognizing
    people’s in-kind contributions)
  • professional
    technical assistance
  • information,
    materials, and technology
  • cross-sectorial

Comparing different forms of producing housing and
neighborhoods in face of obstacles to the right to adequate housing.Red: weak/no
compliance; Yellow: mid compliance; Green:high

A new
urban agenda 2016-2036: a paradigm shift?

The third UN Conference on
Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (known as Habitat III) will take place in Ecuador in October 2016. For
almost two years now, multiple actors and institutions, including national and
local governments, social movements and civil society networks, youth and
women’s organizations, academics, professionals, journalists, and the UN and
other international agencies have being participating in debates, declarations,
and other documents that will serve as inputs for what should be the
Conference’s main outcome: a “New Urban Agenda”.

An initial set of written
materials, the so-called Issue Papers, was produced during the first half of 2015 and
dealt with 22 relevant themes. One of those themes was informal settlements, which tried to provide definitions of
pertinent key words (without mentioning any critics or limitations), some
updated global figures and facts, as well as relevant recommendations. Those
“key drivers for action” included eight topics: Recognition of the informal
settlement and slum challenge and the mainstreaming of human rights; Government
leadership; Systemic and city-wide/‘at scale’ approaches; Integration of people
and systems; Housing at the centre; Appropriate long term financial investment
and inclusive financing options; Developing participatory, robust, standardized
and computerized data collection processes; and Creating learning platforms.
Although they might not be sufficient, each of these eight topics is
fundamental, and the group of topics certainly reflects many of the concerns
and proposals for which civil society and social organizations have been

However, it seems that those
important analyses and recommendations did not make their way into the second
round of official documents, the Policy Papers (February
2016). None of those 10 papers dealt exclusively with informal settlements, and
their contents do not seem to take into consideration the concepts or key
drivers discussed in the previous Issue Papers. It is true that a few weeks
ago, an official thematic preparatory meeting on this particular topic was held
in Pretoria, from which arose clear and strong recommendations on relevant
elements such as land policy (balanced territorial development and urban
planning), protection against evictions, participatory and in situ
slum-upgrading programs, among others; but, again, no critical review on the
concept or alternative definitions were considered in its declaration.

At the same time, the social
production of habitat is mentioned several times in different documents, but
only in a very limited and superficial manner, despite the prolific and solid
contents and formal commitments that the predecessor Habitat Agenda (Istanbul, 1996) managed to include.
Today, as yesterday, our networks will continue to push so that a more accurate
definition, analysis, and policy recommendations are considered in the new
agenda (see Mexico City Declaration on Financing Urban Development, March
2016). Bringing the communities´ voices to the debates and showing the
achievements and challenges that they face should be one of our main tasks.

Changing the words means
changing the concepts; changing the concepts means changing the way we
understand (or not) complex phenomena and are able (or not) to transform them
in a positive way.

Neither informal nor irregular,
these are, above all, human settlements. Or even better: they
are the city produced by the people: the people who claim their rights to live,
build, and transform the city.

Lorena Zárate
Mexico City


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* Original source.