Urban Ingenuity: No Upgrading Without Us

By: Bruce Hull, David Robertson

Billions worldwide live in informal settlements, without adequate roofs, sewer, water, safety, electricity, land tenure, or a quiet night’s sleep.  Providing these basic building blocks of society presents an enormous challenge for governments, businesses, and NGOs.  These settlements extract a high cost of lost and damaged human potential, as well as risk triggering ruinous social collapse. Urban population growth often overwhelms formal housing programs offering modern structures. Likewise, high unemployment limits upward and outward mobility. Shacks built from wood and metal panels can be home for decades.

Ikhayalami, a non-profit organization based in South Africa, offers an innovative and strategic solution to some of these problems. Through lessons learned improving one residences, one neighborhood at a time, Ikhayalami has built an innovative and potentially scalable response to the housing challenges in South Africa and other rapidly urbanizing places around the world. Ikhayalami’s work “is premised on the realization that informality is part of the modern urban fabric, will remain a reality for the foreseeable future, holds within it ingenious adaptations, and is part of the solution.”

CLiGS Senior Fellows Bruce Hull, Michael Mortimer, and David Robertson recently met with leaders of Ikhayalami at several sites in Cape Town where they are implementing informal settlement upgrading projects. By paying attention to the innovations in shack design and construction, Ikhayalami and their partners have learned to build a shack-in-a-day via a process that does not require relocating families, uses easily transported and fire resistant materials, expands or contracts to fit the site, and does so affordably. Ikhayalami’s unique “blocking out” strategy creates small, shared courtyards that provide safe areas for children, laundry, and a sense of community at the neighborhood scale.  Access corridors and walkways create firebreaks and connections through the community.  Lives are changed for the better.

The real challenge is scaling-up. Ikhayalami Director, Andy Bolnick, is strategic, accepting that real impact will require changing more than a few hundred or even thousands of shacks. She is trying to create momentum and a process that will lead to large-scale adoption of these innovations.  Most critical is overcoming the skepticism and distrust of residents, creating enough on the ground examples, one building and one block at a time, so that others can see and those who have benefited can testify to the success. The next step is to engage community leaders and to get other housing and social organizations to implement similar practices. Ultimately, government policy needs to encourage and support it.

Ikhayalami’s scaling-up potential may be reached because it is engaging in a collective impact strategy that involves partners from government, business, and civil sectors, including organizations such as the Informal Settlement Network and Federation of the Urban Poor. For more information on Ikhayalami’s strategies and partners, please visit their impressive website at http://www.ikhayalami.org/.

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