A future for the informal city

A future for the informal city

The future of the informal city: Merging Planning, Design and Management Solutions

di Seth Asare Okyere

Division of Global Architecture, Osaka University, Japan


The drama of 21st century urbanization and urban growth is being played out in cities, particularly those of the developing world. As cities in the developing world grow, so do informal settlements. The self-constructed city, or informal settlement, is not a separable element of larger city; rather it is intricately welded into it. None occurs without affecting the other. It is therefore unsurprising, in view of current unprecedented urbanization dynamics that about one billion residents reside in urban informal settlements (World Bank, 2015). The figures are staggering, scholarly descriptions alarming: “billion squatters population” (Neuwirth, 2005), “planet of slums” (Davis, 2005) and “dysfunctional urban societies” (UN Habitat, 2006) among many terrifying narratives of developing cities.

Yet, there is a growing consensus that evoking grim descriptions of the phenomenon of urban informal settlements does not lead to the most effective policy and strategic solutions. If anything, these kinds of narratives generate exclusive and anti-participatory neoliberal urban policies that favor the elite minority. It also deepens entrenched socio-spatial inequalities (Lombard, 2014). In fact, informal settlements are projected to grow despite decades of improvement programs. It is in light of this and the growing consensus to practically rethink this phenomenon that an urgent question emerges: What do we do with informal settlements? How can it be guided for the benefit of the poor urban residents and the cities within which they seek a foothold?

This is the topic of David Gouvernuer’s (2015) book “Planning and Design for future informal settlements: shaping the self-constructed city”. The book departs from the conventional over-ambitious goal of “eradicating informal settlements” (Huchzemeyer, 2008). Fittingly, it focuses on a realistic approach that recognizes the current urban realities in developing countries: the growth of informal settlements and the urgent need of planning for it. The book avoids the mere “rhetorical conceptual stretching” (Myers, 2009), which often characterizes informal settlement literature. Rather, it relies on a strategy for “guiding the growth of emerging informal settlements, anticipating that properly self-constructed cities can become balanced, efficient, accessible, and desirable urban areas” (p. xxiii). To Gouverneur, this strategy is the “Informal Armateurs: an easy to implement design and managerial approach with the ability to provide residents with conditions they can achieve on their own” (xxiv). In view of the recently formulated SDGs and on-going discussions towards the Habitat III Urban agenda, Gouvernuer’s Planning and Design for future informal settlements is useful and offers a timely intervention.

Planning and Design for future informal settlements comprise seven chapters, well- articulated, concise, and systemically arranged. The book is compact, considering the complexity of informal settlements and its ambitions. It is rich, however, in primary and secondary data. Chapter one might be expected for those involved in the built environment, yet its value lies in how Gouverneur unambiguously confronts the institutionalized systems that hinder attempts at addressing the challenge of informal settlements. In what he calls “biases against informality” (p. 2), he cites formal urbanites, colonizers and government planning approaches as promoting these biases. Informality has to be reconsidered, “not as a problem but as a consequence of historic structural deficiencies in developing societies” (p. 24). The central idea here is that informal settlements have the potential to become livable and productive under the necessary political, managerial, and institutional support.

In chapter two, David Gouveneur discusses some of the well-known programs dealing with informal settlements in Caracas (Venezuela), Bogota and Medellin (Colombia). Drawing on lessons from these case studies, Gouverneur notes that informal settlements improvements must not be conceived as separate interventions without any connection to the larger cities. Instead, efforts should be geared towards holistic interventions that envisage “performative” (p.107) relationships between the formal and informal. Such interventions if rightly envisioned, contextually designed, skillfully managed and unreservedly supported can create efficient, sustainable and inclusive cities that benefit the poor urban majority. Herein lies one of the most significant aspects of this book.

Chapters three to five are devoted to the main proposal of the book: Informal Armatures (IA) concept. The IA is “a design and managerial approach that fosters sustainable growth of the informal city…enhancing their positive aspects while addressing their deficiencies” (p.119). The IA can be seen as a sort of hybrid concept that integrates the qualities of the formal and informal city to create better conditions. The IA seeks simple methods and design solutions that are deeply sensitive to local conditions” (p.131). It also demonstrates an awareness of socio-economic and environmental issues present in informal settlements, which if well planned and managed can contribute to sustainable urban growth. The three main design components of the IA concept—corridors, patches and stewards—underscore the environmental sustainability, spatial organization and the socio-economic qualities critical to shaping informal settlements. In this regard, Gouvernuer illustrates how to “merge planning, design and management with the dynamics of informal settlements” (p.158).

Chapters six and seven emphasize the implementation aspects on the IA concept. In chapter six, issues of site selection, land requirements, expertise, finance, and community leadership in the process are all considered. Chapter seven is however a useful addition, taking the reader from a conceptual level to experimental level in the form of case studies. These case studies are from interdisciplinary studio exercises undertaken in Chironi (Venezuela), Medellin (Colombia) and Harare (Zimbabwe). They reiterate the potential contribution of the IA experiment to the holistic development of informal settlements and sustainable urbanization.

A noteworthy aspect of this book is Gouverneur’s ability to bring to fore his many years of experience working on informal settlement improvement programs. Based on evidence, he illustrates how preemptive and proactive measures for the poor urban majority is part of the solution to urbanization challenges in the developing world today. It invokes in us right from the beginning the reality of informality and the need to not only improve but most importantly plan for it. It creates in the reader an awareness that the solution to addressing this challenge is in collaborative expertise not specialist expertise. It proposes real life solutions that are responsive and integrative of positive community practices.

There are however a few downsides, the most significant being the heavy reliance on advocacy to incite the political support needed for the implementation of the IA approach. That is, the author proposes advocacy to address the low political commitment to support future informal settlement programs in developing countries, but how this will be done is not clear. Moreover, the high planning and management skills required for implementation are foundational challenges that might militate against its success, especially in the context of Sub-Saharan Africa.

In conclusion, this book is stimulating. It inspires the reader both to think and wonder, how the proposals might be adapted to several contexts. For instance, how can the proposals be experimented in Ghana, where approximately one-third of the population in the capital city resides in informal settlements? It does provoke questions, debate, investigation and action. It is a paradigm. The book is therefore best suited to postgraduate students, researchers and practitioners in urban planning and development in the global south.



Davids, M. (2004) Planet of Slums. New Left Review, 26.

Huchzemeyer, M. (2008). Housing in Informal Settlements: A disjuncture between policy and implementation. In Hofmyer J. Risk and Opportunity (94-101). Cape Town: Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

Lombard, M. (2014) Constructing ordinary places: place making in urban informal settlements in Mexico. Progress in Planning 94, pp. 1-53

Myers, G. (2009) African Cities: Alternative Visions of Theory and Practice. New York: Zed book

Neuwirth, R., (2006) Shadow Cities: A billion squatters in a new urban world, Abingdon: Routledge

UN-Habitat. (2006). The state of the world’s cities report 2006/2007: The millennium development goals and urban sustainability. Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Programme.

World Bank (2015) World Inclusive Cities Approach Paper. Report No Report No: AUS8539. http://www-wds.wordbank.org

Image: Saul Cantoral Informal Settlement, Lima-Peru.


Title of book: David Gouvernuer (2015) Planning and Design for Future Informal settlements: shaping the self-constructed city. Routledge (London/New York) ISBN: 978-0-415-7389-0 (292 pages) Price: £52