Toward an epistemology of the form of the Informal city: Mapping the process of informal city making

Jota Samper

Bello, Antioquia a new informal settlement in the metropolitan area around Medellin. Jota Samper


The current scale of poverty on the planet has overwhelmed the capacity of the formal market to incorporate the masses of impoverished settlers arriving to urban centers all over the world. The informal city now serves as the place for up to one-third of the planet’s urban population.  Even with renewed interest in the role of design to improve informal settlements living conditions, the urban design discipline lacks a comprehensive understanding of variations within this urban phenomena and therefore, effective intervention tools. I believe that we must develop new multifaceted methodologies for intervening in informal settlements. This paper seeks to develop such methodologies by analyzing data collected from interviews with residents in informal settlements in the city of Medellin, Colombia, over a period of the last three years. This analysis challenges some misconceptions of urban informality still present in urban design literature in a search to inform more coherent methodologies for the near future.


Mike Davis in his book Planet of Slums (2006) presents the scale of the problem of urban informality.  He writes that "neoliberal capitalism since 1970 has multiplied Dickens's notorious slum of Tom-all-Alone’s in Bleak House by exponential powers. Residents of slums, while only 6% of the city population of the developed countries, constitute a staggering 78.2% of urbanites in the least-developed countries."  If half of the world’s population is considered urban, and more than one billion of urban residents are living in the informal settlements, then at least one third of the world’s urban population lives in slums. Despite the catastrophic and global implications of such phenomena, we lack a coherent body of intellectual work that theorizes an epistemological knowledge of that informal “otherness” of urban form.
Perhaps the most evolved body of literature regarding urban informality comes from sociology. It posits a provocative question of informality as a pre-existing condition before the appearance of the formal urban realm in the early 18th century. Nezar AlSayyad argues that “many features of the formal/informal dichotomy may owe their origin to unresolved issues in this historical process” (AlSayyad 2004, 25).  Other sociological lines of thought define informality as the result of the ongoing process of globalization and the application of neoliberal capitalist practices that exclude large segments of the population (Davis 2006; Shatkin 2004). In this regard, Ananya Roy provides an interesting perspective, arguing that “the urban growth of the 21st century is taking place in the developing world, but many of the theories of how cities function remain rooted in the developed world”(Roy 2005). While urban sociology provides a new epistemology for understanding urban informality, it does so in a way that privileges social, economic and political issues. This work does not shed much light on the role of the urban form in the process of creating the informal city.
The lack of a coherent discourse about the physical space of informality stems from the early 1960s, when academic publications in architecture, sociology and urban planning appeared about ways that modern urban practices of urban renewal have failed (Fried 1966) (Gans 1962; Vale 2002). The collapse of modernist theories modified the discipline of planning into a more plural discipline that moved away from concerns for the physical space of the city (Sanyal 2005)At this time of urban renewal crisis, a new group of theories based on research in informal settlements in Latin America dismantled many of the “myths” about informality (Perlman 1976; de Soto 1989; Harris 2003). They question informal economies as existing as separate from the formal economy. Instead, they argue, informal settlements squarely part of the larger economic system. This created the possibility to understand that informal settlements are not a finite static object, but rather the result of a long process of socio-economic exchange and physical improvement with the formal means of production in the city at large.
I argue that we need understand and be wary of the ways that policies implemented based on this research focused on minimizing state intervention with the informal settlements, to avoid mass land evictions. These policies, then, focused on land titles, which in turn focused on individuals and units. This myopic focus on the individual (land title and family on this land) did not allow for an understanding of the informal settlements as an urban space with its own logic, let alone ways it connects with the formal city. In a world where land and property are a commodity, the critiques of this individualist approach reveal the fragility of poor communities against the forces of the market (Mukhija 2001b). Newly legalized land in informal settlements then became a place for speculation (Mukhija 2001a) and gentrification that further displaced original residents, who then had to move to become once again informal settlers.
Recently there has been a renewed interest in the physical design disciplines to understand the landscapes of informality. Koolhaas, for example, studies transportation networks in Lagos, Nigeria (Koolhaas et al. 2000) He argues that if you apply expectations for these networks in terms of the formal city, you would find them grossly inefficient. However, if you study these same networks from the perspective of the actual informal settlers, then you can see how these “inefficiencies” provide space for economic gain. For example, people in line for a bus might purchase food sold by a street cart while waiting.  Multiplying this waiting and food cart sales by a million, exposes a mega economy embedded within these informal inefficiencies. Other studies convincingly argue that the informal city scale is a larger and more complex issue than ever before (Davis 2006) and that  changes to its form will only make sense from within (Berger and Mehrotra 2010, Ballesteros 2008, Aquilino 2011, Cruz 2005).  Building on this older and newer research, I believe that we must develop new multifaceted methodologies for intervening in informal settlements.
For these multifaceted methodologies to be developed it is first necessary to have a better understanding of the historical process in which the informal settlements’ physical urban environment have been formed and are forming still. This paper attempts to contribute to the sparse literature on the subject using primary sources from informal settlements in the city of Medellin, Colombia. I analyze 300 video interviews with community members in informal settlements that I conducted as part of an ongoing research and historical memory and alternative archive project “medellin mi hogar / my home medellin”(J. Samper and Marko 2010), which I co-direct and co-founded. The goal is to analyze these narratives to articulate and draw from their spatial patterns and logic of the process of the foundation, consolidation and death of entire informal neighborhoods. My goal is to map different urban paths that can provide venues for understanding and intervening in the urban form of these places. This project will build on the work of scholars (Arango Escobar 1985, Mesa Sánchez 1985, Augustijn-Beckers, Flacke, and Retsios 2011, Vaughan 1997,  Hernández, Kellett, and Allen 2010,  Kellett and Napier 1995) who have tried to map how the physicality of the urban space of informal settlements impacts the development of the communities who live there.
This project can provide a window into understanding the role of physical and policy intervention in the geographies of informality. It does this in the following four sections.
Section one on the history of an informal settlement, explores community narratives in the city of Medellin, Colombia to build an understanding of the physical process the creation and development of an informal settlement. It challenges the concept of this process as spontaneous (Kellett and Napier 1995) or organic. Instead, the community narratives present informal settlements as a product of a highly developed process of market forces and political contestation. Here, I conclude that urban informality is the product of the actions of very organized communities who are engaged in contestation against state and private actors.
Section two on the urban logic of informal settlements, builds on the state of theory about informality to create a framework that understands the process of building a better understanding of urban informality. This section creates a framework that unpacks informal environments’ evolution as a process with different phases on a path toward consolidation.
Section three on interventions in the space of urban settlements contextualizes and critiques current practices of physical intervention in these informal settlements, including incremental, core housing, eradication and urban upgrading. This section concludes that even when great advances in the quality of the projects had been implemented, these practices are proposed as fixes to a problem. They still see urban informality as something that needs to be eradicated and do not provide tools to be implemented for the future generations of informal cities.
The final section focuses on moving toward better practices on dealing with informal settlements: a predictive model.  It proposes a new epistemological model of intervention in these areas, one that is based on the evolution of the best intervention practices in these environments. This new intervention model is based on predictive models that instead of seeking to prevent informality from happening they anticipate and deploy new urban forms which, over time, would create better urban environments.
As Tamera Marko, an historian and writing studies scholar and co-founder and co-director of my historical memory project on which this project is based, points out, analysis of the urban form of informality cannot be divorced from analysis of the underlying socio-economic inequality and other kind of violence that pushes people into informal communities in the first place. In Latin America, and Colombia is no exception, this kind of inequality gap between rich and poor, formal and informality, is massive. With the absence of this kind of socio-economic argument being developed in this paper here, I do not mean to normalize or reify poverty and imply that “poverty is inevitable, so let’s just plan for slum living!” For people, all people, to have dignified standards of living and equitable access to housing, health care, education and employment, there needs to be a more equitable distribution of land and resources. Given that this massive land reform is not happening, my work on informality here is an attempt at addressing what, without a doubt, is happening and will continue to happen. My research and arguments here on recognizing the physical urban processes of how people organize and strategically build their own informal communities, in ways that directly contradict much of the literature on urban planning, is an attempt to not abandon the more than 1 billion people who now live in informality, and the 2 billion who are expected to live in informality in the next 30 years(Marko Forthcoming).

The history of an informal settlement

“Most low-income immigrants to Colombian cities availed themselves of housing through land invasion or acquisition of illegal land partitions and self-settlement in the urban periphery. Thus, illegal forms of tenure, precarious dwellings, and violations of established regulations and codes characterized most of their settlements. Local governments could not intervene because they would be violating private land property rights or their own rules. Hence, improvements depended largely on settlers. Eventually, government developed a mechanism of intervention based on the distribution of construction materials and the loan of heavy equipment to settlers who then carried out the work. Meanwhile, government policies addressing the housing needs of the poor evolved from direct development of public housing to the provision of subsidies.“
(Betancourt 2005)

Figure 1 Informal growth in Comunas 1 and 2 from 1950 and 1990 showing current locations of MetroCable source: PUI Nororiental EDU
The city of Medellin is the second largest city in Colombia with a population in the metropolitan area of 3.5 million inhabitants. This city used to be the core of Colombia’s industry in the 1930s (Farnsworth-Alvear 2000), which made it an attractive urban place for migrants from the rural areas. These migrations were accelerated by the undeclared civil war that started in the 1950 with a period called “la violencia” 1949-1958 (Bushnell 1993). The city industries were able to absorb most of the migration until changes in the global economy along with the internal conflict and ineffective import-substitution national economic policies made those industries uncompetitive in the global markets (J. J. Betancur 2007). The continued migrations of people to the city, however, remained steady, a product of the national conflict that is still waged today (2012). So people arrive to the city without resources because violence forces them to flee their homes. They arrive to a city without employment opportunities to access the formal housing market. This is the origin of the informal settlements in the city of Medellin.
Contrary to most literature on informal settlements, the growth of slums in Medellin is not the product of a lack of planning. Medellin is a “late foundation Latin American city” (1700’s), based on the Law of Indies’ guidelines. By 1950, the year that migrations started to flood the city, the city of Medellín had fully implemented a variety of master plans. Most recently, the city government had contracted a new master plan to Paul Lester Wiener and Josep Lluis Sert. This plan, the foundation for the planning office of the city, was followed closely. It was probably the only urban project executed from the Cambridge firm in Latin America (Samper Escobar and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2010).  This plan failed to forecast the scale of growth that would in just a few decades flood the city and the challenges that economic failure would bring to those arriving populations.
These failures were more visible in the inability of the formal housing market to reach all sectors of the population; especially those recently arrived from areas in conflict and without economic resources. The informal housing market then appeared as the only solution to supply this inflexible commodity.
Following is a quick history of the formation of informal settlements in Medellin. Key in this story is to understand some misconceptions about how an informal settlement is created and the implications have for the way we understand belonging in the context of large migration in Latin American cities.

Foundation of an informal settlement

Let us engage in the foundational narrative of the informal neighborhood “El Triunfo” by co-founder Farconely Torres Usuga, in the city of Medellin (J. Samper and Marko 2010). This story narrates the process of invasion of the community of a terrain in the hills of the city of Medellin and the subsequent efforts of eviction from the state and other formal actors. Farconely explains that
[T}he neighborhood was started by an elderly man, a friend of ours. We were tired of paying for rent because if we paid the rent, we could not feed the baby and if we fed the baby, we could not pay the rent and so… he  invited us to come with him to the top of this hill where he had got a piece of land for him. So we started collecting sticks and materials and began building our new homes…the owners denounced us [meaning the police came]. First, they knocked down our houses, then, the second time, they burned them down with the flag and everything.[1] I sat to the side of the burning flag, watching my house and everything I had burning, and I began to cry. Because I knew they were never going to leave us alone. Later when more people had settled, we were already 12 families and we decided to get everyone together… and we all got on a bus and went down [downtown] to the government building to protest. We stood all of us with our kids outside the building… And so finally, they said yes, that we could live in our houses, and that nothing would happen to them. So they (the governor) gave us a paper that said they would stop knocking down our houses and burning them. So we got back on the bus and when we got home, everyone started singing “We have triumphed!” And every one was shouting “we have triumphed!” so we decided that since we had triumphed, we would call the neighborhood The Triumph (El Triunfo).

Figure 2 Neighborhood El Triunfo in the 2010 and after foundation in 1970's. Source: EDU and photo album of  Farconely Torres Usuga
 In this resilience story we can identify seven stages of urban development that have direct implication with the urban form of this neighborhood. It starts with the process of the (1) The taking of the land. Contradicting literature on the subject, land takings are highly planned community strategies. Here in this story, Farconely reveals that the process includes visits and gathering a coalition of community members and finally strategizing the actions of squatting. This process is followed by one of contestation about land, (2) the attacks fromm private and public entities. In this story, attacks are multiple and of increasing intensity, beginning with demolition of the home structures, to burnings of the entire squatting territory. These attacks are done by both state and private actors. This multiplicity of attacks is not unique I found in our sample. The same families who are considered to be squatting on the land, are evicted multiple times, with some families suffering eviction from their home on the same plot of land 20 times. Communities take different actions but most often they re-build in the same place. The permanence of them remaining in the same area depends on the ability of their coalitions as a community. This leads me to the third stage: (3) Growth and capacity building organizing. In the case of El Triunfo, the number of families increased in direct correlation to an increase in the level of community activism. This community activism permitted these families to make successive claims to the same land. Key here is see how actions are made by a collective then made their community more resilient and built their capacity to do the fourth phase: (4) fight back. This fight involves a highly organized and active coalition which permitted this community to raise their claims of sovereignty over the land and take it to City Hall with successful results. The community seems to have learned about the process of eviction and found the “loophole” of the burning of the flag (symbol) which empowers the community to challenge the state in claiming ownership. The success itself, I argue, is a fifth stage. (5) The triumph exemplified in tangible ways the potential of their organizing as a community and created a momentum collective organizing to build and expand and solidify their community. This starts a final period of (6) consolidation, in which the communitarian ties and the reduction or erased fear of eviction permitted the community to move beyond single homes to develop public spaces and institutions (schools, churches, baths, roads, water electricity, sewer, etc.) and also for the individual families to invest in the development of their units. The fragility of the first settlement they replace with more solid materials shelters become homes, small factories, apartment buildings and business. The last phase is (7) Integration or disappearance. Finally, any informal settlement has to deal with this final question. Does this community becomes a part of the formal city or will it eventually be destroyed by the state and private forces constantly returning to pressure the territory and in this way the destruction of the settlement can happen at any stage of consolidation. There is a final moment in which some informal areas reach a scale and connection to the city resources that it becomes unfeasible to be destroyed. Examples of this are Darhavi in Mumbai, Rosinhia in Rio de Janeiro, and Ciudad Bolivar in Bogota. Form and scale can serve to explain why some neighborhoods are not destroyed but also there are examples of large neighborhoods being devastated historically and even today when it is politically more costly. 
Figure 3 Process of creating an informal city.  Source: Jota Samper at estudio teddy cruz.

I admit that there are many limits to use Medellin cases as prototypes to understand the complex and varied world in which informal cities are built and that these cases are not generalizable evidence. But I think they shed light on important elements misunderstood in the literature. Following are some of the main conclusions that can be drawn from such cases.
·         Urban informality as mixed-use environment. Informal settlements are spaces comprised of not only housing, but also include infrastructure, public space, public buildings, different scales of industry and commerce. These uses coexist in a variety of architectural and urban forms and condition the way these areas develop.
·         Informal settlements are not spontaneous settlements. (Kellett and Napier 1995) The fragility of initial structures of informality are the result of a strategy that requires rapid mobilization but this mobilization requires high levels of communal planning and action. These actions are the product of concerted action by individuals who are part of a highly organized community. (Betancur 1987)
·         The level of unit investment if inversely proportional to the treat of eviction. More stable informal neighborhoods would invest more into the housing and infrastructure than those more recent of with larger possibility of eviction.
The next section builds on the state of theory about urban informality to create a framework for understanding how these places evolve.

The urban logic of informal settlements

Most literature in urban informality is dedicated to the social implications of marginality of urban poor (Perlman 2010; Perlman 1976; Soto and Instituto Libertad y Democracia Lima 1989; Roy 2005; Roy and AlSayyad 2004). A sparse body of literature is concerned with understanding the form of the informal settlements. The body of literature on the physical aspects of informal settlements has focused primarily on the housing units within these areas, rather than on the logics of the urban form. 
In “The Form of the Informal: Investigating Brazilian Self-built Housing Solutions,” Fernando Lara challenges the idea of lack of urban order within informal settlements. He explains that to an outsider’s first glance these spaces appear to be organic and lacking of structure, but that "upon closer inspection, the logic begins to emerge. Although most buildings have not been designed by an architect, or had the input of engineer-in the strict sense of the term- they are no less logical than those which have been designed by professionals; they simply follow a different logic" (Lara 2010, 24). Lara found incredible similitudes between modern building material and techniques in informal settlements. These kind of findings are supported  also by Alfredo  Brillembourg (2004) in his essay about “slum urbanism.” Lara finds the building techniques used in favelas in Rio are descendants of modernist ideas and opens a very interesting question, “How did the [Le Corbusier] domino’s scheme became so prevalent in [informal building in] Brazil and much of the developing world? (Lara 2010, 30) He establishes a link between professional disciplines of the environment and the builders of the informal settlements. The builders of the modern Brazilian homes and buildings of Lucio Costa and Niemeyer, to name a few, are the same people who build the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo. 

Figure 4 Domino Scheme of Le Corbusier and unit under construction in Favela Roshinia in Rio de Janeiro. Source: photo by Rahul Srivasta & Matias Echanove
The adoption of such construction techniques are not only the product of an economic or stylistic process. I argue that it is, more importantly, a technical one. The Domino scheme’s largest virtue within informal settlements is that it fits perfectly within a model of city and buildings that are always growing. The Domino is flexible enough to be adapted to any lot size and to any number of levels.  This process fit with the philosophy of incrementalism within informal settlements. The incremental housing development is also the result of logic of economic savings within the household. Shaaban A. Sheuya  (2007) finds that housing construction in informal settlements “is divided in two stages: start up (the first shelter) and the successive transformation phases (improvements).” In the first stage people traditionally use their own savings and in the second phase other systems of self-financing are used instead of traditional monetary savings. (Sheuya 2007) This includes the subdivision of housing units to access funds for future expansion. These subdivisions also are the starting point for diversifying single use housing into multiple use. 
Figure 5 Architectes des favelas Didier Drummond phases of evolving consolidation phase one “implantation precarious shelters” phase two “transformation of shelters to sheds" phase three “solid construction” source: (Drummond 1981)

At the urban scale, there are profound implications of this incremental process in the constitution of the form of the informal city. In the Architectes des favelas, Didier Drummond studies the urban development of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and based on his cases finds that the informal settlements go through a series of phases of evolving consolidation (see figure 5). Phase one” is implantation precarious shelters”; phase two is “transformation of shelters to sheds” and “phase three is “solid construction” (Drummond 1981).  In these three phases Drummond captures in abstract what is always understood as spontaneous growth. Lacking form, these mapping are the minimal but key infrastructure additions that accompany and make each one of these phases of the informal environment viable.
In my own research in Rio de Janeiro favelas (Samper 2011), it was possible to collect records which made visible how the infrastructure got built through a myriad of partnerships that include community paid and built or a mixed process of state paid and community built or the new and more sophisticated[TM1]  state design financed and built. The following images (see figure 6) specifically map streets in the favela Fernão Cardim in terms of historically, when communities did their own improvements and after the implementation of the state sponsored urban upgrading projects as it stands today. These images provide evidence of the continuous process of improvement of housing units along with the infrastructure. If it is true that all informal settlements units are constantly improved, then I conclude that there is collusion between perceived tenure security and the effects of infrastructure improvements. Those improvements at the urban scale are followed by ones in the housing units. Especially when the state is involved in those urban improvements because it provides community members with some assurance that they would not be removed. 
Figure 6 Fernão Cardim before FB, 1990's after implementation of the Favela Bairro project  and as it stands in 2011  Source (Samper 2011)
Similary in Medellin, Colombia, Marta Libia Velez Yepes, a community leader in an informal settlement and founder of her infomal neigborhood narrates how when she arrived 30 years ago there were no formal paths or steps to access this hillside community. At this point they  did not have paths, stairs or sewers. This meant that everyday life of walking up and down the steep Andes mountain to and from and within her neighborhood meant slipping sliding in mud, especially during the frequent tropical rains. She explained how her community organized among themselves to finance and build each one of these improvements.  They not only built their own houses, but as a collective, built the urban infrastructure.
Figure 7 A picture of a stair path before and after community members built the sewer paths and stairs to access their homes source: Marta Libia Velez Yepes in Jota Samper and Tamera Marko,  Medellin mi hogar / my home Medellin
Another face of community involvment in the physical structure of their neigborhood comes from Santo Domingo Savio, a neigborhood In Medellin founded in late 1964 by squatters. Luz Elena Marin de Mesa, neigborhood founder explains (Samper and Marko 2009) how the first precarious housing units were so small that “we needed to lean down just to come in”.  She also narrated how the community united around religious ties and built in new and improved public facilities that included public buildings, toilets, and the first neighborhood school.  The improvements in the private and public sphere followed the same pattern. As the neigborhood becomes older, new investements are made in both spheres. The church along with the school at the Santo Domingo neigborhood has been rebuilt three times in the last 50 years to accommodate the growing population and the availavility of funds. Also those shacks of the Marin de Mesa story are no longer to be found there, and many have been replaced by the Domino collage that Lara(2010) revealed. With time, the absent state engaged also in these practices of rebuilding the urban enviroment. Today, besides the church, most other public buildings and spaces had some kind of community-state reconfiguration.

Figure 8 Santo Domingo Savio neighborhood in 1967 and in 2012. Source: Photo album of Priest Gabriel Diaz and Jota Samper
It is clear from these surveys of multiple geographies that the evolving processes of the housing units happens also at the urban scale, and not in a single stage but in multiple iterations. What can we learn from this? From this survey I would argue that some of those initial infrastructural interventions (public buildings, streets and path) conditions the way in which these urban settlements developed the places as the first public buildings become the centers of commerce and where public space is more succesful. The development of paths, on the other hand, prioritize areas for future expansion. In terms of expansion, the three phases of Drummond (1981) still hold, but is important also understand that the process is less linear, some houses consolidate earlier and that public amenities are part of all stages of that process. The big element lacking them is this public-private interaction.
In terms of expansion there are multiplicities of ways that these settlements grow but I contend that in a broad sense they actually follow a logic more similar to urban growth than to the formal market. Given that most of these settlements are located in the periphery, they follow grow patterns more akin to those identified in the catalog of suburbia of Dolores Hayden and Jim Wark (2004). Two main patterns are important to highlight. One is the “leapfrog,” the development away from the edge of the city that is typical of new informal developments that jump territorial boundaries to areas still not included into the spaces for future development (Hayden and Wark 2004). The other is the “Edge Node,” which for formal markets in the north, refers to the effects that the location of malls adjacent to the main the highway system have on the informal city happens when the creation of a new informal settlement creates a centrality that in turn is connected to a main road adjacent to the formal city. From this newly created node, the edge will start expanding outward until it finds an edge condition that would limit its growth  or as in many other cases its destruction. The example of one of the informal settlements in Mankurd, Mumbai, India is an interesting testament of such process. A core of stable informal settlements probably in a phase 3, expand toward the adjacent market free land of the mangrove, and continues expanding until the edges of the river make it impossible to the further fill the land.  The final frame shows state evictions in 2009 (see figure 9)

Figure 9 Informal settlement growth and destruction in Mankurd in Mumbai time series from 2000 to 2009 source: Jota Samper and Google
In this section I have exposed a logic of urban growth within infomal settlements. It concludes that the disciplines of the urban enviroment lack instruments to map such incremental urban process inside the logics of infomal development.  It places some of the field research findings in critical conversation with the literature on these types of urban enviroments. It tries to connect the empirical and the nacent theory of infomal settlements as a way to inform future physical intervention in these places. The next section focuses on a quick critique of current urban practices deployed all over the word in the informal cities.

Interventions in the space of informal settlements

The modern movement and its new discipline of urban design established two important paradigms that had profound impact in the way we understand cities and in how we deal in the profession with issues of quality of life of the urban poor. The first was a medical metaphor, in which all unwanted, unplanned and uncontrolled growth needed to be destroyed and replaced by planned and modern tissue. While modern, this borrowed from older surgical practices of the Baron Haussmann (Jordan 1995). The second and more enduring paradigm is the concept that the city needs to be organized into specialized areas, the most special of which is housing.  The first medical paradigm found resonance in the urban renewal programs in the United States (Vale and Warner 2001,Vale 2002). The second specialization paradigm separated the relationship that existed between housing and the social, cultural and economic production of the city. This removed the poor from their former location intertwined within city activities; and defined the problem of poverty not as being linked to economic, social and political issues, but rather as a problem of housing stock and of how to more efficiently provide it. In the Global North some of the failures of this approach were stopped or corrected during the decades of 60’s and 70’s, but in the global south these practices were only diminished when international agencies stopped providing sources of funding for such projects. In other latitudes, modernist redevelopment practices continue still today, continuing to place emphasis on the provision of housing stock, removing the crucial connection of settlements to the cultural, social, and economical life of the rest of the city what accentuate marginalization (Perlman 1976).
Challenges to this framing posed by modernist theory appeared first as a reaction to CIAM, postulated by Team X in the 1960’s (Frampton 1992, Bakema et al. 1956)This criticism evolved into the post-modernist rediscovery of historical cannons that have characterized  successful urban environments throughout history (Rossi et al. 1982) (Krier 1979). This new way of thinking evolved in the US context into the theories of New Urbanism (Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and Speck 2000)(Bressi and Seaside Institute. 2002). At the same time, the collapse of modernist theories modified the discipline of planning into a more plural discipline that moved away from concerns for the physical space of the city (Sanyal 2005)This also lead to new methodologies for intervening in poor areas, moving away from clearance and renewal to non-Euclidian models (Friedmann 1993) which focused on values (Fainstein and Fainstein 1994) where decisions needed to involve the community (Innes 1996). 
Unfortunately, for informal settlements in the global south, this shift in thinking did not result in poor communities having more autonomy about deciding their future and instead lead toward a further degradation of the physical quality of the proposals and projects oriented to improve their quality of life. “In Planning to Forget: Informal Settlements as ‘Forgotten Places’ in Globalising Metro Manila,”  Galvin Shatkin clearly expose ways that “informal settlements have increasingly been forgotten by urban planners despite this housing crisis, as planners have consciously abandoned place-based poverty alleviation efforts based on the rationale that they are no longer tenable in the global era (Shatkin 2004).
Distinct from the urban regeneration practices in the global north, in the south those practices have been exported as ways to deal with urban problems of development and extreme poverty in informal settlements with mixed results. Traditional positivist planning solutions to the problem of slums—relocation and clearance, or slum upgrading techniques—focus on the creation of new affordable stock of housing (Kaufmann, Quigley, and University of California 1984), or the provision of basic infrastructure (Mayo and Gross 1987). However, to date neither of these approaches has been effective in controlling or dealing with the problem of slums. Such single-minded tools have been unable to cope with the scale of the problem of substandard housing and related social ills such as social, environmental and economic segregation and high levels of insecurity, in many cases, have just translated the problem to a new location. Some effects of failed slum clearance and renewal programs include feelings of loss and grieving (for their neighborhood) expressed by dwellers who have been expelled, as documented by Fried (Fried 1966) and Gans (Gans 1962) like in the case of the West End in Boston. In other cases, such as Indore’s Habitat Improvement Project, the new infrastructures were so poorly designed, they caused environmental illness and deaths, leaving the population worse off than it was before the upgrading occurred (Dewan Verma 2000). As a consequence of the failures of these types of physical approaches, today the prevailing policy literature on slum upgrading focuses on securing tenure rights as the key instrument in improving housing in low-income squatter settlements (Mukhija 2001b).  However, such purely legal approaches have their limitations, as well, since they have not addressed physical or social needs.
Today the global urban planning approach to dealing with urban poverty and its consequences on inhabitants’ quality of life is understood more as a compilation of strategies than as a single-minded approach. This approach is reflected in different sectors of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (Payne 2005), which has been developed as a multi-practice approach (United Nations Development Programme. 1992; Nations Unies. Centre pour les établissements humains. Conférence internationale 1996; (Vanderschueren, Wegelin, and Wekwete 1996) and Kreimer, Instituto Brasileiro de Administração Municipal., and World Bank. 1993) It broadly follows the same framework defined in policy guidelines (Riley, Fiori, and Ramirez 2001).The guidance offered is implemented in the neighborhood upgrading programmes and emphasizes seven necessary dimensions: (1) poverty is a complex and multifaceted problem; (2) a multisectoral approach; (3) design as a vehicle of social and physical integration; (4) the project needs to have an impact at a city scale; (5) public and private partnerships; (6) engagement in these type of projects require some level of state reform and of the state and (7) the pursuit of inclusion, participation and democratization. This represents the state recognition of its responsibility towards the inhabitants of the slum areas as a “Social Debt” (Samper 2010) or their “Right to the City” (Rio and Siembieda 2009). This is a rhetorical move away from the criminalization of slum dwellers found in the older practices. In general, this last multi-practice approach builds and incorporates elements of all previous explored approaches in the reduction of poverty (Handzic 2010; Soto and Instituto Libertad y Democracia 1989; Werlin 2000; Witherick 1970; Kaplan 1963; Fried 1966).
As a reaction to those failures of the last few decades a new typology of approach has emerged, Government agencies have invested in policies and projects that engage with the problem (of slums) from a new perspective. These policies move beyond just focusing on a single practice to a more operational multi-practice approach(Riley, Fiori, and Ramirez 2001; Meulder and Shannon 2007). They incorporate into a single project institutional reform, in situ upgrading, tenure legalization, social engagement and a special emphasis around physical public infrastructure interventions.  In taking a more comprehensive approach, these policies have been able to address social ills such as violence and physical ills simultaneously. While these guidelines are the base of the theory that inform research and projects around the world, one key element that distinguishes the new Latin American approaches to urban upgrading from those that happen in other geographies is an emphasis on the spatial strategies as key to make all other guidelines possible (Hernández 2010). 
In cities like Medellin (Samper Escobar and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 2010) and Rio de Janeiro (Samper 2011), a new set of urban upgrading practices is capturing the imagination of those interested in improving the living conditions of people who live in informal settlements all over the world. The projects that receive publicity in newspapers (Kimmelman 2012), in architectural magazines (Roth 2011; Jodidio 2010), exhibitions (Lepik and Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.) 2010), policy recommendation publications (Rojas et al. 2010) to name a few, present a new phase of policies and projects engaging with the problematic of urban informality. Specifically, this new phase examines ways in which urban upgrading projects, for the first time, are taking marginalized communities’ rights into account. This phase and proliferation of publications and publicity also reflects a rebirth in the belief that the quality of physical urban practices is key to improving the living conditions in these communities.
Following is a quick explanation of two of those projects that are the main concerns of publication and literature on urban upgrading: the Favela Bairro project in Rio de Janeiro and the Integral Urban Project (PUI) in Medellin:

Rio de Janeiro: Favela Bairro (FB)

Figure 10 Jorge Mario Jáuregui  Diagrams (areial, sketch and project plan) of FERNÃO CARDIM Source: Favela - Bairro Uma outra historia da ciudade do Rio de janeiro


The Favela-Bairro Project (FB) neighborhood upgrading programs executed by the municipality of Rio de Janeiro aimed to integrated the favelas into the formal fabric of the city through four interconnected projects: (1) Completion of basic urban infrastructure like water, sewer, electricity and waste disposal; (2) physical urban reconfiguration of the favela through new street grids ordering and the construction of new public buildings such as nurseries and community centers; (3) provision of social services of income generation and training programs and (4) legalization of land tenure. Since 1994 to the present this project has been implemented in 140 favelas and is one of the largest slum-upgrading programs implemented to date in Latin America (Riley, Fiori, and Ramirez 2001) this project serve of basis for the PUI in Medellin and for the Morar Carioca that when completed in 2020 would be the largest upgrading program in the world having upgraded up to 1000 favelas in Rio de Janeiro. 
Figure 11 Parque Royal, Favela Bairro program before and after Source: Housing Department Rio de Janeiro

Medellin, Colombia: The Integral Urban Project (PUI)

A fundamental strategy in the process known as “the transformation of Medellin” was the use of physical projects to transform the city socially and physically. This process was masterminded by Medellin’s Director of Planning Alejandro Echeverri in what he calls “urbanismo social” (social urbanism) in which transformation happens not through individual projects but through large-scale integrated urban projects (PUI). This type of PUI project brings together various physical initiatives: libraries, schools, transportation, public space, housing, and environmental remediation, and built them in a short period of time (two years) throughout the most economically and infrastructurally marginalized areas of the city. These PUI projects involve multiple stakeholder’s: community, state and private partnerships. 

Figure 12 All 5 Integral Urban Project (PUI)  in Medellin from 2004 to 2011 Source: EDU and Jota Samper
The PUI project is the refinement of a long process of small and sometime quite unsuccessful interventions that tried to resolve infrastructure problems in informal settlements and marginalized areas.  The ability to coordinate all initiatives from the municipal branches (Secretarias), along with private and public funding from different sources, in a myriad of projects is a major feat. The PUI Nororiental alone has more than 200 individual physical projects. It is what makes this project so effective and important to study and learn from it — the ability to modify the physical public structure of a neighborhood where the state had not previously had any important presence. 
Figure 13 Plan Santo Domingo Section of the PUI Nororiental here is visible in this 5 city blocks 8 different projects are integrated to create a new urban realm Source: Jota Samper with material of the EDU
Also, the opportunity to make these projects as a continuum of a single large urban project allowed the implementation—simultaneously—of a new network of publicly connected amenities throughout the existing neighborhood to create a series of connected safe spaces. Safe spaces for both the community and the state.[1] These new areas permit these once isolated communities to maintain open lines of communication with the state that are based on the necessary physical, human and architectural presence of the state. The new buildings and infrastructure competes in quality and style with new projects executed in any part of the city, regardless of socio-economic strata. This fact empowers the communities, which up to this moment have been approached by lower quality interventions of the state, as second-class citizens.
While these two projects have provided meaningful contributions to the discipline about best practices of how intervene in informal settlements, they still are seen as remedial projects for an existing problem. What is important to create for the future 2 billion people who will occupy informal cities is a predictive model that foresee future informal development and deploy urban tools that use the incremental process inherent on this places to generate better environments.

Toward better practices on dealing with informal settlements: a predictive model

This final section serves as prescriptive conclusion. It synthetizes some of the lessons learned from exploring these cases and the body of literature on the built environment of the informal settlements. It is clear today that given the massive global scale of the problem of urban informality and the socio political context of the planet that maintains high the levels of inequality, which in turn deprives large portions of the population from access to the formal housing market, that a future without informal settlements is not soon feasible. It is important then that the disciplines of the built environment accept the phenomena has having happened and continuing to worsen and to look for ways to improve its livability conditions.
Today most of the urban informal development encroaches ecologically sensitive areas. Therefore it is crucial in a moment where urbanization is going at an accelerated pace, to generate an urban technique that protects these sensitive ecosystems, while at the same time, provides a response to the social and physical conditions within the informal land appropriation strategies occurring today. All in a way that protects both the ecological landscapes endangered by encroachments and the social capital within the communities that do not have alternative to occupying these spaces.
In the previous chapter I have highlighted some new urban upgrading practices that are applied in consolidated informal settlements. This opens a window into some of the work that would be needed in most of the informal settlements of the world today. We need a new adaptive strategy that follows the logic of such evolving environments. I propose that new adaptive solutions within the discipline of planning, urbanism and architecture are needed to be deployed in areas of present and future informality. 

Figure 14 Informal development at the edges of the Mangrove is maintained at edge by the strategic location of public buildings and spaces that define the limits of the informal city in Mankurd South in Mumbai, India Source: Jota Samper in (Berger and Mehrotra 2010)

Maria del Carmen Portela (1992) in her settlement patterns in unplanned areas proposes imposing a typology of urban (planned) patterns into those first stages of consolidation of informal settlements. The main concept is that “by following certain patterns, these settlements would progressively produce housing areas with similar physical characteristics to those of planned low-income developments for comparable income groups” (Carmen Portela 1992). Also Christian Werthmann offers the environmental perspective to such forecasting of future informal settlements in his work on Sao Paulo (Werthmann et al. 2009) and Medellin (Forthcoming). He explore ways in which municipalities can create models that anticipate the intersection between urban informality and environmental risk in a way that deploys projects that would prevent the urbanization of such areas. Usually territories invaded are located in the intersections of ecologically endangered areas, interstitial spaces of infrastructure, and sites without clear ownership. Using these indicators, we can create predictive maps of future informality. Later we can categorize the probability of occupation and prioritize in this way sites for the deployment of new strategies.
An example of such strategies could be implemented is observations of the behavior of informal development at the edges of the mangrove in Mankurd South in Mumbai, India. There it is easy to see how the strategic location of public buildings and spaces between the edge of the mangrove and the informal settlements have contained, in part, future growth that could jeopardize the mangrove and the lives of those that in this place inhabit  (Berger and Mehrotra 2010).  A survey of sites and an evaluation of potential risk could generate a map of priorities of which sites would be in larger levels of risk of being squatter  on (see figure 15).

Figure 15 Map sites that would be susceptible of being squatter and measures of risk: Susceptible Matrix  source: Jota Samper in (Berger and Mehrotra 2010)
Understanding which sites have larger risk permits us to deploy urban strategies that we can learn from observing how informal settlements develop like the one explored in South Mankurd, where public institutions serve as edge condition that protect populations from encroaching into areas of risk while at the same time permitting some level of informal development that benefit from the services of such projects. From here a phasing strategy can be implement that grows along with the informal development (see figure 16) 

Figure 16 Deployment of urban strategies to condition and enhance urban informality source: Jota Samper in (Berger and Mehrotra 2010)
 The goal now should move beyond the uses of traditional patterns to heal the problems of future slums (Portela 1992) or to prevent invasion of high risk areas (Werthmann Forthcoming). We need to learn more about the urban processes within the formation of informal settlements and incorporate learned experiences form those urban upgrading projects that bridge the formal and informal public realm. And disseminate those findings to both states and informal settlers. We need a 21st-century “Law of Indies” to be distributed to the one billion forthcoming urban settlers who will be the builders of better environments in the future. This new document on how to build cities would need to serve two functions: one is to serve as predictive models that permits the deployment of systems that only state and other formal organizations can do (informed by community members who know what they need) so they are in place before occupation. And an urban model that is as simple and clever as the Le Corbusier Domino was to build housing in the favelas and that can be transferred to the DNA of the planners of this “informal urbanism.” 


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[1] Intense moments of increased violence impede the normal execution of any project of the state or any other organization. Maintaining these safe spaces and lines of state-community communication at these violence moments is important for the sustainability of any kind of long-term initiative.

[1] At this time in Medellin, there was an unspoken understanding between the state armed forces and the communities (a loop hole in the constitution) in which any homes with a Colombian flag raised would not get torn down when the army or police was sent to “clear out” the settlements.


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