Informal Settlements and Sustainable Urban Development: Towards a more inclusive urban agenda

Last changed: 28 October 2021
Roofs in an informal settlement under a blue sky.

On 14th September 2021, SLU Urban Futures together with SLU Global hosted a webinar as part of their webinar series as part of the collaborative project Urban Sustainability in the Global South. The event hosted international speakers exploring the dynamics of sustainable urban development in the context of informal settlements, asking how informal settlements form part of an inclusive urban agenda.

Livelihoods security for the urban poor in Namibia is closely intertwined with land rights in the context of informal settlements.

Dr Selma Karuaihe, Professor at the University of Pretoria in South African and President of AFAERE (African Association of Environmental and Resource Economists) opened the webinar by sharing insights from her studies in Windhoek, Namibia, looking at the relationships between the urban poor and water access. Whilst water access remains a key issue in Windhoek, it was found that land ownership is higher on the agenda for residents of informal settlements, as land rights formalises access to services and infrastructure. Dr. Karuaihe emphasised that the development of inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable human settlements should involve multiple stakeholders including local communities, government agencies and the private sector, as part of a concerted effort towards achieving the SDGs.

Globally 1 billion people live in slums, so it is essential that we deliver on building affordable housing if we are to create a more sustainable society as outlined in the SDGs.

Dr Donovan Storey, Head of Global Policy and Influence at Reall, demonstrated how Reall’s strategy for investing in human potential leverages cooperation between different actors to create sustainable and inclusive communities. Donovan highlighted three pillars necessary for realising this vision: 1) Investing in place: recognising that a house is much more than physical infrastructure and is connected to the provision of services, security and livelihoods within wider urban development processes. 2) Investing in people: closing the gaps between people and finance to allow the bottom 40% to invest in housing. 3) Investing in the planet: Ensuring that solutions are climate-smart and contribute to a low-carbon future.

We must shape planning processes for creating inclusive urban development around understanding the contexts and practices shaping cities in the Global South.

Paola Ledo, Researcher at SLU and CEPLAG, Bolivia, presented her research on the ‘Southern Turn’ in planning in the context of Sacaba, Bolivia. She highlighted that practices of participatory planning need to account for the contexts of cities in the Global South, where participation is often constrained by poverty, inequality and the limited capacities of institutions and planners, often limiting meaningful participation. Formalised technocratic forms of planning occur alongside self-organised and insurgent planning by local communities and new forms of hybrid planning should recognise these planning processes as complementary and not contradictory. Only by critically reflecting on the power imbalances between informal communities and those with power to participate in formalised planning processes, can we take steps to have an inclusive process of planning in sustainable urban development.

Co-produced knowledge can be leveraged to understand and address social and environmental concerns in informal urban settlements.

Johan Enqvist, Researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, presented his project set in the context of drought in Cape Town and asks: what does climate adaptation entail for residents in informal settlements who are already coping with environmental injustice and legacies of inequality? Together with his project team, they developed a tool called SenseMaker that employs a storytelling method as a way of understanding the complexity of problems on the ground from the perspectives of local people. He emphasises that co-creation is an empowering process that allows for different types of knowledge to contribute towards how we understand the impacts of climate change and create context-shaped responses. Learning from those living in informal communities through narrative-based approaches can support transformative adaption processes.

Towards Inclusive Urban Development

In a panel discussion, the speakers reflected on planning for urban development and looked ahead towards achieving inclusive and sustainable communities. Whilst policy discussions have relied upon the distinction between formal, regulated urban development and informal settlements, this binary is not useful for reflecting upon the lived experiences of people living in informal settlements. The speakers agreed that informal settlements are intertwined in the spatial and economic fabric of urban settlements, where political, economic, social, cultural and environmental processes interact in complex ways. Understanding the contexts of informal settlements in cities in the Global South is crucial for developing strategies for inclusive and sustainable urban development. Only by engaging with local stakeholders, government agencies, and the private sector in different constellations can we create place-based solutions that address the diversity of challenges.

The clock is ticking down toward 2030 and the international agenda for creating sustainable societies enshrined in the SDGs. We are currently not on track to achieve the ambitions of the SDGs but we should not dwell upon slow progress. We should continue to mobilise efforts towards developing innovative solutions in sustainable urban development that strengthens partnerships between different actors. These partnerships should learn from local experiences of poverty and marginalisation to better understand challenges, and create inclusive societies that invest in place, people and planet.


Informal Settlements and Sustainable Urban Development: Towards a more inclusive urban agenda


PowerPoint slides

View the PowerPoint presentations here.

Webinar series

This webinar was part of the webinar series ‘Urban Sustainability in the global south’, which brings together perspectives on the urban in low and middle income countries.

SLU Urban Futures
Among the four SLU Future Platforms SLU Urban Futures has the mission to strengthen sustainable urban development. The platform aims to identify knowledge needs and strives to develop new research questions addressing the challenges of an urbanising planet.

SLU Global
SLU Global is a unit at the Vice-Chancellor's Office that supports and facilitates the university's efforts to collaborate with low-income countries and regions, based on the Global Goals of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.

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