News & Events | New Landscape Declaration

The Environmental/Social Crisis and the Challenges of Informal Urbanization

June 10, 2016

David Gouverneur
Associate Professor of Practice, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Pennsylvania
Professor Emeritus, Universidad Rafael Urdaneta, Maracaibo, Venezuela

This presentation was part of the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s The New Landscape Declaration: A Summit on Landscape Architecture and the Future held in Philadelphia on June 10-11, 2016. Each of the 25 invited speakers was asked to write a 1,000-word “Declaration” of leadership and ideas for how landscape architecture can make its vital contribution in response to the challenges of our time and the next 50 years. These Declarations were then presented at the Summit.


The Environmental/Social Crisis and the Challenges of Informal Urbanization

By David Gouverneur

“If we want to have a better life, our neighbors must live better also.” Oscar Grauer

 The disparities between the haves and the have nots are growing in technically advanced nations while the gap separating these countries from the developing world is widening.

Politically unstable, war-torn areas of the global south often lose people migrating to the developed world. Urban inequality results in increased levels of social resentment and violence. These are perhaps just early indicators of what the future may bring. These conditions will worsen as a consequence of climate change, water and food shortages, and the growing disparities in access to infrastructure, services, new technologies, information, and appropriate governance.

Such a bleak forecast and the depletion of the planet’s resources are closely tied to urbanization at exponential levels, much of which will take place in developing countries where some of largest urban agglomerations in history already exist. A high percentage of this growth will occur in the form of informal settlements.

In the early 20th century, modern city planning was globally recognized as a tool to manage rapid urbanization. Planning emphasized the functional and quantitative, ignoring cultural and environmental nuances. Zoning was introduced to regulate land uses, correlated with mobility and infrastructure systems and services. It also resulted in the expansion and fragmentation of once compact cities. Additionally, it became a tool for social segregation.

In the developing world, where a high percentage of the population could not enter the real-estate-driven model, planning unintentionally pushed out the poor from the areas singled out for urban expansion. Settlements occupied peripheral sites unfit for urbanization: unstable land, flood plains, and areas next to landfills, under high-power lines, or environmentally sensitive and protected.

While the informal city evolved with great dynamism, presenting strong social ties, encompassing informal economies, and producing compelling organic forms, it did so without the basic advantages of urban living. Informal cities have limited accessibility and mobility, endure unsanitary conditions, and lack public space and services, resulting in incomplete urban areas submissive to the formal city. As informal areas become larger, inequality increases, and city performance falls behind.

After decades of being ignored, eradicated (only to reappear someplace else), and targeted by housing programs with limited coverage, as informality became the dominant form of urbanization, creative planning and design approaches emerged to improve existing informal areas. Latin America was at the vanguard of such trends. In 2014, for example, the World Urban Forum was held in the one-time murder capital of the world, Medellín, Colombia, which proudly demonstrated how these interventions reduced levels of violence, social inequalities, and improved overall city performance.

These trends are now being emulated in many developing countries; however, such successful urban interventions are laborious and have limitations. These changes are efficient at a neighborhood scale, but they cannot address larger, more complex urban areas. In addition, an estimated billion people will live in new informal settlements over the next two decades. Even in countries where government proactively deals with informality, officials are skeptical of planning ahead for new informal areas. Unable to deter these informal areas, officials let them spring up, thinking that perhaps in the future they can address resulting problems with informal settlement improvement projects.

A paradigm shift is urgently required. In Planning and Design for Future Informal Settlements: Shaping the Self-Constructed City (Routledge, Oxford, 2014), I suggest how such challenges may be handled. The proposal is simple but entails a different mindset as well as new design and managerial criteria, which I have referred to as the Informal Armatures Approach (IAA).

IAA suggests that emerging informal areas, properly assisted, can evolve into balanced and attractive urban areas, perhaps surpassing the performance of formal cities. It is possible to combine the vibrancy, flexibility, organic morphology, sense of place, and communal engagement of informality with the benefits of cutting edge planning and design. This preemptive and ongoing method may nurture a hybrid product (formal/informal), operating at different scales (from the site specific to the territorial), resulting in a rich urban ecology, in constant transformation, while increasing resiliency.

However, for IAA to succeed certain conditions should be met:

  1. Acceptance that inaction will result, down the road, in a high price for social and environmental stress, which requires acknowledging that informality is a valid form of city making and that we must embrace it with creative methods to influence it.
  2. Proactive land-banking policies to reduce the exclusionary effects of the real-estate driven model to attain, over time, more balanced urban organizations.
  3. Planning, design, and managerial efforts that focus only on what communities cannot address alone, with a physical and non-physical support system that will support rapid change, addressing:
    i)      The public realm, the delivery of services, and how these transform over time,
    ii)     Providing patches where self-construction is suitable, and
    iii)    Gradually incorporating urban components that usually exist only in the formal city.  
  4. Alliances among the political sector, the professional milieu, the private sector, and communities, with strong leadership and qualified facilitators who can work on-site with cross disciplinary teams and residents.

In contrast to conventional planning, this approach enhances the environmental, the social, and the performative, delving into aspects that are relevant to each context, envisioning a compelling, flexible, and transformative public realm.

These supporting Armatures may bundle different components: low-cost mobility, water management, food production, access to education, tapping local manufacturing skills, targeting the reduction of violence, enhancing self-governance, etc. For the most part, communities will do what they know best: they will construct their own homes, develop strong social ties, and incorporate income generating activities.

IAA can be considered a Landscape Urbanism method that can better assist the emerging informal city. While these ideas are particularly helpful to the developing world, the basic criteria — addressing efficacy, creating added value, managing constant transformations, and fostering resiliency — may be applicable in any context.