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Metropolis Nonformal – Anticipation

By on April 16, 2015

Informal urbanism is one of the dominant forces driving urban growth in cities in the developing world. In some sub-regions urban growth has become synonymous with informal construction, sidelining existing formal planning approaches, if they exist. During the last half-century a range of interventions were developed to improve the living conditions of existing informal neighborhoods and to integrate them into city-wide strategic planning. In the last decade urban researchers are increasingly discussing the successes as well as the failures of these efforts. Less clear, however, are viable anticipatory strategies for the additional two billion ‘slum’ dwellers projected by UN-Habitat to swell cities around the world by 2050.

With the understanding that official perception of informal urban growth must change radically, Metropolis Nonformal – Anticipation encourages cities to shift from an attitude of prevention to an attitude of anticipation that harnesses the entrepreneurial capacity and intelligence of future migrants in the production of urban growth. Metropolis Nonformal – Anticipation poses a basic question: What anticipatory strategies can prepare for urban migrants who cannot afford to live in the formal city?

The notion of solving migration surges through increased construction of subsidized housing has been largely discredited. In the past, subsidized housing served only a small fraction of the demand and rarely adequately addressed the true needs of its beneficiaries. When low-income populations resort to self-construction in the absence of better alternatives, policy makers often focus on infrastructural deficiencies and illegal construction. Better-off segments of society marginalize informal neighborhoods by designating them slums, shantytowns, favelas and so forth. In contrast, scholars, particularly from the social sciences, point out positive aspects of informal areas such as social cohesion, self-organization, inventiveness or adaptive capacities – traits mostly absent in planned city expansions. Designers point out that many informal areas in fact reflect ideal traits of “sustainable cities” – the multifunctional use of public space, pedestrian layout, and the compact co-location of housing, work and play. Investigative journalists such as Doug Saunders remind us that informal neighborhoods are “arrival cities”, playing an important role in housing the citizens of our urban future. Instead of focusing on the deficiencies of informal urbanization, it is crucial that we understand how best to increase their chances of success.

This notion is not entirely new. About forty years ago, there were many attempts to develop modest but healthy neighborhoods with the assistance and participation of its future citizens – such as sites and services projects, self-help mutual housing, self-management processes, and incremental housing strategies. Unfortunately these approaches did not enter mainstream city production. Instead, urbanization was shaped by free market policies – resulting in the systemic exclusion of low-income populations from the formal building and city sectors.

Today, one wonders if alternative inclusive approaches have surfaced? If so, what are the hallmarks of a more participatory urbanism?  Are there alternative land ownership and land allocation models that can provide buildable sites? What is the urban form and framework of managed self-construction? Can self-built holistic and resourceful infrastructures be deployed to foster water management, close food-waste cycles, provide building material, offer transport solutions, mitigate unsafe sites and ultimately generate income and jobs? How does one communicate with urban migrants in waiting, in transition or recently arrived? Is it possible to shift the attitudes of urban governing bodies from rejection to anticipation and even welcome inclusion of its future residents?

A UN-Habitat Hub on Informal Urbanism
The symposium Metropolis Nonformal – Anticipation will tackle these questions as part of a new initiative of UN Habitat to connect with academics around pressing topics of urbanization. Metropolis Nonformal will serve as the launching event of a new ‘Hub on Informal Urbanism’ as part of the Habitat Partner University Initiative (HPUI). The HPUI seeks to strengthen ties between academic institutions of higher education and UN-Habitat – creating a mutually beneficial relationship between urban research, education, knowledge production and global normative works.

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