Mainstreaming Slum Upgrading at City Level

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December 8, 2021

By: Anacláudia Rossbach, Regional Manager, Latin America, and Caribbean, Cities Alliance and Kerstin Sommer · Slum Upgrading Unit Leader and Project Leader Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme at UN-Habitat 

COVID-19 is a wake-up call! We are challenged to deliver sustainable urban development for all - “leaving no one behind”. Since the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, cities from the Global South have been confronted with major challenges. Slums or informal settlements are a significant portion of cities and are key to cities’ economies and diversity. However, today after 20 years of slums in the international development agenda, many slums remain invisible, not on the map and therefore disconnected from the city’s bulk infrastructure, services, governance and opportunity of growth.

The impact of exclusion, the multiple dimensions of poverty and vulnerability have become a threat to the slum and city population during the COVID-19 pandemic. It became immediately clear that the provision of the most basic services such as water (as a minimum sanitation measure) is a major challenge. National and local response protocols were not applicable and transferable to the slum context. Slums were not immediately accessible and the scale of needs unmanageable.

According to UN-Habitat, about 70% of the approximately one billion slum dwellers in the world are living in the Asian region. Asia is the region with the highest number of slum dwellers today. Population is young and impacts of living conditions today will inform transformation in future. Slums make cities inclusive today. This is often not reflected in policies, investments in the provision of services, physical and social infrastructure. There is an immense gap to respond to urban realities. Historically, there have been projects to address slum upgrading in a comprehensive and holistic manner, still few cities and countries adopted robust policies with structured programmatic approaches to address slum upgrading at scale and on a more permanent basis. We need to take this global momentum to implement Sustainable Development Goals in slums or informal settlements and leverage those champions in the Asia region.

We also need to share and learn from these outstanding examples of integrated and comprehensive models of slum upgrading in Asia, for example the national policies of Indonesia and Vietnam. Other areas to learn from is the inclusive delivery mechanism such as from Thailand, Nepal and Sri Lanka where transformation was scaled in alliance with non-governmental and community-based organization. We need to invite the expertise of the agents of change such as the community-led initiatives supported by the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights engaging cities and national governments in countries such as Philippines, Cambodia, among many others to reach more cities and national governments. We need to make the case together, build the needed capacities and drive policies and long-term commitments to sustainable and inclusive slum upgrading in Asia.

The scale needs recognition in investment. Integration needs to be implemented from the equity lens. The most marginalized need in-fact more support and empowerment to catch-up and transform. It needs to be recognized that a comprehensive approach requires multiple-disciplines, partners, investment at national, city and community levels and mechanisms that can plug in and support transformation at all levels. We need to innovate finance, we need to scale investment and we need flexibility to deliver the whole continuum of transformation, often starting with service and infrastructure provision. We need a diverse range of expertise from social to physical aspects, and a high-level degree of horizontal and vertical coordination. We need delivery mechanisms connecting the dots and enabling full coordination and integration.

Cities need to provide long-term vision and planning, to be in the driving seat. City-wide strategies should embrace, mainstream, and prioritize informal settlements as organic and essential parts of the city. This means for example, embedding these areas in the zoning processes and making sure that sectorial policies and programmes will converge on the territory informed by integrated planning. As some policies are designed and funded at the national level, and informal settlements do not usually respect administrative boundaries, a second major challenge consists in articulating policies vertically with other spheres of the government, and horizontally within urban or metropolitan clusters of cities.

We need technical excellence combined with political will and drive. We need political frameworks to enable communities and social stakeholders to build on what they are already doing. In many cases community-based organizations, NGOs and social movements are the ones taking responsibility and promoting the necessary coordination among different agencies and institutions, from utilities providers to social policies. These initiatives are an immense asset to be strengthened, embraced, and enabled to scale.

To guarantee human rights in cities and the “Right to the City”, we need to promote comprehensive and integrated approaches of slum upgrading. There is a need to engage in participatory multi-level governance, coordination of public policies, city-wide planning, disaster risk management, community empowerment, flexible and innovative financing and resilience building.

Therefore, slum upgrading stands among the most crucial management challenges of municipalities engaged in providing comprehensive responses to the pandemic in the Global South. We need to understand more about the strategies in place, how cities and local stakeholders have been coordinating, lessons out there that can pave the development of critical mass on trends and possibilities to enhance mechanisms of planning and governance delivering services and infrastructure. We need to leverage investment to deliver on social cohesion, safety, job creation, gender equality and not least climate-resilience and mitigation.

With the crisis generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the fundamentals of cities are again back on the discussion tables: How do our cities look in future? And what do we need to do to get there? The current situation is an opportune moment to expand our way of doing. We need to leverage the debate on informal settlements and their upgrading, their larger role in development and quality of life of cities. The Asia Pacific Housing Forum took place on December 7 – 9, 2021, check out the recordings to learn more about how we can build more resilient cities and settlements through slum upgrading and the provision of infrastructure and basic services.


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