Testing the Informal Development Stages Framework Globally: Exploring Self-Build Densification and Growth in Informal Settlements


This article challenges the narrow definition of informal settlements as solely lacking a formal framework, which overlooks the dynamic city-making and urban design processes within these areas. Communities’ self-building processes and areas’ constant growth are indeed informal settlements’ most salient morphological features. The study builds upon the informal development stages (IDS) framework and explores how it applies globally. The research follows a sample of fifty informal settlements with a high change coefficient from the Atlas of Informality (AoI) across five world regions to explore how change and urban densification across IDS can be mapped in such areas using human visual interpretation of Earth observation (EO). The research finds evidence of IDS framework fitment across regions, with critical morphological differences. Additionally, the study finds that settlements can pass through all IDS phases faster than anticipated. The study identifies IDS as a guiding principle for urban design, presenting opportunities for policy and action. The study suggests that integrating IDS with predictive morphological tools can create valuable data to refine identification models further. Finally, the article concludes that an IDS approach can anticipate development and integrate into an urban design evolutionary process that adapts to the deprived areas’ current and future needs.

Program in Environmental Design, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO 80309, USA
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Urban Sci. 20237(2), 50; https://doi.org/10.3390/urbansci7020050


A recurrent framework of defining informal settlements (IS) has a singular goal of reaching formality. As such, development agencies define “slums” as areas that “lack” the expected features of a formal city (e.g., durable housing, sufficient living area, access to improved water, access to improved sanitation facilities, and secure tenure). Focusing on the lack of a (formal) framework results in overlooking the processes that make these urban forms and communities who live there different from the traditional western perspectives of city-making and urban design. Communities’ self-building processes and the areas’ constant growth are indeed informal settlements’ most salient morphological features. These features then permit the identification, mapping, and creation of geometrical models that ultimately help scholars predict informal settlements’ growth. Part of the challenge of accurately defining informal settlements is limiting our understanding to fixed characteristics regarding an urban form in constant flux. This research builds upon the informal development stages (IDS) framework to measure rates of change in IS and explores how such structures apply globally. The informal development stages (IDS) framework is a categorization matrix that has been developed to classify the age and level of densification in informal settlements [13]. The IDS created three unique thresholds of densification that determine patterns of urban form. The first one, foundation, represents the lowest level of density, which is followed by infill, an increase in population and urban density and a diminishing quantity of open space due to the growth of existing units. Finally, during consolidation, the units’ quality improves, and most growth happens in the third dimension (upward).
The research follows a sample of fifty informal settlements with a high change coefficient from the Atlas of Informality (AoI) across five world regions to explore how change and densification across IDS can be mapped in such areas. The research found evidence of change and densification across regions. From the 50 settlements sample, a total of 94% demonstrated densification changes that fit the IDS model. Furthermore, the timeframe of densification does not appear to have had a significant impact on the outcomes. IDS evidence can be found in newer settlements, some only 12 years old. After reviewing samples of settlements using IDS, we observed clear densification patterns between different stages and significant changes in area coverage rates during transitions. Specifically, the area coverage increased by an average of 225.6% between IDS1 and IDS2 and by 73.87% between IDS2 and IDS3. This difference is significant for classification and the creation of a policy tailored to the rates of change at each IDS.
Additionally, the research found that large settlements can exhibit all IDS simultaneously, meaning that as older areas densify, new expanding areas are created. The sample demonstrates a significant reason to believe that the IDS framework has evidence across regions. However, cultural and architectural typologies result in differences across regions. Furthermore, time changes happen at different speeds, probably reflecting each case’s political and economic local context that later reflects on the densification process. This research selected cases from the AoI; this introduced a potential identification bias toward new settlements with high rates of change. Additionally, the AoI standardized samples from a diverse methodological identification process and represented different contexts. Future research using further multiple methods could examine these changes on the ground more thoroughly.
In conclusion, this research highlights the importance of considering the self-building processes and constant growth of informal settlements in our understanding of urban forms. The IDS framework provides a comprehensive and dynamic approach to defining and understanding informal settlements, which is crucial in accurately predicting their growth and development. This research also demonstrates the global applicability of the IDS framework and highlights the need for further research to understand the unique morphological features of informal settlements worldwide. This research engages with the literature of understanding the morphology of informal settlements. It builds on a theoretical framework to classify them based on their unique characteristic of ongoing urban densification.
The possibility of classifying informal settlements based on their progressive densification, as expected in the IDS framework, presents opportunities for policy and action in informal settlements. For example, the predictive nature of model changes can help city governments to develop projects and funding in anticipation of future changes. Furthermore, classifying informal settlement areas by IDS can help city governments to include in city planning efforts a budget tailored to each place, concerning their needs more effectively.
An inherent danger exists in visibilizing poor marginal communities in informal settlements. Making these areas and their future change evident can also incentivize the dangerous actions perpetuated by slum eradication practices. Therefore, we must be vigilant about how such methods can serve as an excuse for further imposing harm and violence on these population groups. However, we need to also understand that the invisibilization of informal settlements does not automatically mean the protection of such communities and that their lack of recognition is also a strategy long employed to facilitate the use of violent and harmful practices.
The next step is to apply such new knowledge in the interventions in informal settlements. Improving the current urban upgrading practices means moving beyond palliative design responses to what informal areas lack. Instead, an IDS approach looks at growth and change as guiding principles of urban design by looking at not-developed areas as part of the intervention strategy, anticipating future development and integrating into the urban design not as a finite image of the neighborhood but as an evolutionary process that adapts to these settlements’ current and future needs. Finally, adopting an IDS urban design approach would require a radical change in how we approach design in these areas in terms of the regulatory framework and funding strategies, all of which are nonexistent today, as well as the creativity of multiple actors in developing new urban design paradigms of intervention in the planet’s most common form of development.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, J.S.; methodology, J.S.; software, W.L.; validation, J.S. and W.L.; formal analysis, W.L.; investigation, J.S. and W.L.; resources, J.S.; data curation, J.S.; writing—original draft preparation, J.S.; writing—review and editing, J.S.; visualization, W.L.; supervision, J.S.; project administration, J.S.; funding acquisition, J.S. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Data Availability Statement

AoI settlement information can be accessed at www.atlasofinformality.com (accessed on 15 April 2023).

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest. The funders had no role in the design of the study; in the collection, analyses, or interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript; or in the decision to publish the results.


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