Frayed at the edge (and at the centre)

At the edges of nearly all the world cities, and often at their centres too, are tracts of unplanned settlements. Labelled as slums, favelas and shanty towns, these are places that have been made largely without the intervention of planning. Their numbers are increasing as the planet moves from the field to the street and as urban populations reproduce.

Self-found and self-built, without the basic infrastructure of water and electricity supply, it is hardly surprising that such settlements harbour profound social and economic problems, manifest through the poverty that covers most. Hardly surprising, even though organic development around a move from agriculture to urban industry is the defining characteristic of urbanism throughout history. The differences between the towns and cities of history and today’s unplanned settlements include the unprecedented pace of change as well as social and political resistance to the integration of these new people. Likewise the fact that many informal places are made up of populations ejected from established urbanity.

State planners have an unerring ability to manifest political resistance to social integration through physical and spatial means. Thus we find the unplanned settlement wrapped by a cordon sanitaire – planned green swathes that distance the haves from the have littles. Or, the motorway dividing the established centre from the informal edge. Once built, these barriers are hard to breach. And it is in the occasional absence of a physical or spatial divide that the reality of unplanned settlements is clearest, as exposed in the Venice Biennale photograph in which the tin shacks of a shanty town abut the luxury of a high-rise condominium block with a swimming pool on each balcony.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this global phenomenon is the emergence of certain unplanned settlements as valued centres. Seemingly against the odds, many informal places are establishing themselves as local economies with stable social structures. Certain others are thriving. Two parts of the same city, occupied informally at the same time by populations of similar origins can chart very different courses when it comes to the generation of social and economic capital.

Understanding the factors that contribute to the success of certain places and the failure of others is an important academic and professional pursuit that offers hope not only to the current and future residents of such places but also to the municipalities charged with managing them. My experience from practice is that a first, important step is to be taken with the politicians and planners in terms of their mind set. It is too simple to view unplanned settlements as slums that need removing and replacing. The comprehensive clearance tactic has been tried and the violent resistance it has provoked is enough to alert most authorities to the need for an alternative solution.

Here, planning can play a new and different role to that of barricade-builder. Careful analysis of the physical and spatial fabric of unplanned settlements can identify opportunities to retain and improve certain parts while removing and replacing others. We have learned that a central factor in the success of historic urban places is a balance of global and local movement patterns and informal places are no different. Linking edge of city to its centre, and edge to edge, is a key way to achieve this and cannot simply be resolved by crude road building programmes. Instead it needs to be delivered through the planning of mixed movement systems that are about seamlessly linking the foot-based movement of the local residential marketplace with the foot-based movement of the central business district. This is a job for well-trained planners and designers working with the communities and municipalities that will benefit from better valued places. This is not all that unplanned settlements need – but it is the central element that planning can provide.

Dealing with the increasingly unplanned settlement of the world cities has to be the greatest challenge for urbanism today. Compared with the scale of fundamental instability and decline in these places, the day-to-day activities as public and private sector practitioners in the relative stability of the UK must either be the envy of those trying to make a difference to the outskirts of San Paulo or Istanbul, or they must seem like luxuriant distractions.

RTPI magazine column, June 2008

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