Resident Input Is Crucial To Build Sustainable Communities In Africa

Feb 3, 2017


Urbanization is rapidly expanding on a global scale, and it is creating a demand for reorganization of cities and spaces. Urban and regional planners, like John Harris, weigh the different needs of societies to ensure the city suits the people who live in it. Harris focuses on sustainable urbanization, especially in Africa where he has dealt with informal settlements.

Informal settlement arise as a result of rapid urbanization, combined with inadequate government action or skewed policy agendas. Informal settlements, or slums, refer to communities where regulation is lax or nonexistent, services such as water or electricity are off the books, and it is difficult to ascertain who owns the property. Buildings are constructed without permits or codes.

“In most African cities, we’re talking between 60 to 80 percent of the population live in informal housing,” Harris told KGOU’s World Views.

Harris, a professor at OU’s College of Architecture, has visited and conducted research in many cities in Africa and Latin America that suffer the consequences of residing in informal settlements. He and his colleagues place a strong emphasis on the challenges the youth in these areas face.

Along with OU students, Harris participated in a project known as Photo Voice in Zambia. Vulnerable urban youth who live in informal settlements photograph what their life is like. This project illustrates both the appreciated and challenging parts of living in their communities. Harris says the photographs demonstrate what these young people see as priorities in their lives and their communities. In a way, it offers an alternative to large-scale projects that implement development from a top-down approach.


“All of these big ideas need to be connected to what people really want from life,” Harris said.

Understanding the community’s way of life is crucial for developing a sustainable city for the occupants. Harris has questioned if how occupants navigate informal settlements is just their own way of forming communities.


“I think, demographically, humanity is, as a species, become an urban species sometime in 2008,” Harris said. This transition from a rural globe to an overall urban globe is attributed to the rapid urbanization of East Asia, South Asia, and Africa.

John Harris compares rapidly developing African cities to the photography of Jacob Riis in New York, such as this 1902 photo "Dens of Death."
Credit Jacob Riis

Consequently, the pace of urbanization in these places outpace the government’s ability to respond. Government inability to keep up with concentrated population growth is not limited to countries like Zambia. In America’s urban history, cities like New York City went through a similar period.

Fixing these informal settlements and making them sustainable for the occupants requires what Harris calls, “slum upgrading.” The goal of creating sustainable development is tricky because it depends on what occupants prioritize in their livelihoods.

“On a typical upgrading scheme, you’re talking about running roads through settlements that really only have footpaths,” Harris said. “You’re talking about displacing people.”

The informal settlement of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya.
Credit John Harris

Interview Highlights

John Harris on becoming an urban species and defining sustainability

I think, demographically, humanity is, as a species, became an urban species sometime in 2008. We moved from being a majority rural population to a majority urban population. And while we have been urbanizing for centuries, that raises new challenges for us. Not only with the environment, but how do we meet our needs within cities for energy? For food? For really what we want to be as humans individually? When we think about sustainability, everybody says it, but what do we ever mean by it? The reality is, that's a concept that's ever expanding. At the same time, we've got to pin it down and really in the everyday experience of people. Within my discipline, we are looking at how concepts of sustainability within your neighborhood, within your block, within the people that you relate to on a day to day level, how is that meaningful and how can we within these context push ourselves towards more sustainable solutions?

John Harris on the future of “Slum Upgrading”

We call it either urban upgrading or slum upgrading. If you look at the new (United Nations) sustainable development goals, one of the goals is to “upgrade all of the world's slums.” Slums is a very deliberate word in this case- usually referring to informal settlements. And so over the next decades, the international community is intended to invest mass amounts of our resources to do that very thing, to formalize what is currently informal.


Grillot: John Harris welcome to World Views.

Harris: Thanks for having me.

Grillot: Well I'm really interested in your work. You're in the College of Architecture but your area of emphasis is urban and regional planning. Can we just start out by talking about what that is, exactly what you do and how that fits into the whole kind of architecture field. I mean obviously you're designing cities or studying the design of cities and how to best design cities. Can you give us a little background there?

Harris: Sure, urban planners, we’re concerned really with many aspects of human settlements and a lot of that is how we regulate the built environment so we work with designers to figure out the best way to meet needs of different societies. But we're also looking even from a you know maybe more of a 30,000 feet level perspective looking at, how are cities meeting the needs of their populations, whether that's economically, culturally, you know all the different needs that people have for where they live.

Grillot: Well obviously sounds very interdisciplinary then if you're looking at economic issues and you know society societal needs and relationships and that sort of thing so I assume you're incorporating a lot of other ideas and experiences into your work.

Harris: Right in fact. So so here at OU here in the College of Architecture. There are other planning programs that are in public policy programs that are attached to geography departments that sort of thing. We are at our best when we are connected to other disciplines. That's the truth.

Grillot: So I noticed in part of your work that you focused on sustainable urbanization. I assume that's not just about the environment here and in kind of protecting. I mean obviously urbanization has an impact on one's environment and resources. But is it more than that? Are there other things we need to be concerned about sustaining in in an urban environment?

Harris: I think demographically humanity as a species became an urban species sometime in 2008. You know we moved from being a majority rural population to a majority urban in that. And while we have been you know urbanizing for centuries that raises new challenges for us. Not only, sort of, like you said, with the environment but how do we meet our needs within cities for for energy, for food, for really what we want to be as humans individually. And I think when we think about sustainability you know everybody says it but what do we ever mean by it? I think that the reality is that's a concept that's ever expanding but at the same time we've got to pin it down and really in the everyday experience of people. And so I think within my discipline we are looking at how do concepts of sustainability within your neighborhood, within your block, within the people that you relate to to day to day level. How is that meaningful, and how can we, within these context, push ourselves towards more sustainable solutions?

Grillot: So I'm just think first of all something you said just kind of blew my mind that we've officially become of an urban planet I guess since 2008. I mean I guess that that kind of shocks me a little bit that we officially became more urban and rural only eight years ago. I mean, why is it that that's surprising to me?

Harris: Well you know a lot of it has to do so with places in East Asia, places in South Asia and in Africa which are rapidly urbanizing. And so Europe, North America we've been largely urban for for quite some time and it's of the other continents that really are driving not at this time.

Grillot: Very interesting. Well back to this concept of sustainability. It sounds to me like maybe what you're referring to is a sense of just kind of having reliable access to things every day. So reliability and being able to make a living and being able to have to turn on the tap or have regular access to water, reliable services and things that we need to sustain life everyday. I guess that's kind of maybe is that an accurate way of portraying it?

Harris: If that's not part of your concept to sustainability, then it's really sort of divorced from the reality of people's lives. We get into a problem when our concepts like sustainability or economic development or anything that really drives policy both at the local level and at the international level if we're divorcing that from people's everyday lives the things that they they want for themselves the things that they want day to day. I think we’re in trouble.

Grillot: So let's talk a little bit about your work in Africa. You've spent a lot of time in the continent in multiple countries. Some work in Kenya on tourism and how that contributes to economic development, I believe. And working in Zambia as well on informal settlements. Can you give us an idea of what you mean by informal life and informal settlements and informal cities and how that all plays into the center of Urban and Regional Planning issue?

Harris: Sure. The concept of formality is really is it's difficult to pin down it's it's one of those concepts that is squishy. We began thinking about informality really in the 70s thinking about informal economics. We looked at African cities and looked at the way the people you know made a living and they were working jobs or in industries or you know selling things on the street. It's not regulated, it's not tax, it's not officially recognized. And so because it's not officially recognized, we began to call it informal. But then we started to think, you know what, that label, so to speak, describes a lot of other aspects of urbanization in these contexts. So we began talking about informal housing so where people are you know living on land that who owns it is really not an easy question to answer. They are building their own structures that are not regulated by any building code anything like that. And so we began to call that informal, but the catch here is that of course we have that in the United States,right. Somebody will you know convert a garage into an apartment and not have it permitted but in most African cities we're talking between 60 and 80 percent of the population lives in informal housing, goes to work every day to feed their family an informal job. Access is electricity or water in ways that can best be described as informal or extra legal.

Harris: And so now we're looking at that is you know is that a different way of building cities is that a different way of building a civilization than we have seen and and do we're typical concepts of the city. Do they fall short if we're not really better understanding the way the people are living in these ways?

Grillot: It is it that people are having to you know build these kind of informal structures or build these informal cities and from lives because the government is unable to regulate that stuff or because you know you have to skirt the law? Are there laws that apply? I mean I know we're being very careful about not using the term illegal you used extra legal. Obviously informality would indicate that there's there. These things aren't being regulated. So what is the relationship here between these kinds of things and governments, and I imagine that might vary from place to place as well?

Harris: Yeah I think that's a really great question. A lot of these places we mentioned urbanization. And the reality is that urbanization the pace of urbanization far out far outpaced the ability of governments to respond. So even in the best cases, governments that were very proactive in some Asian cities and African cities and some Latin American cities that just could not keep up with the amount of people that were coming to their cities. I mean something that we don't remember is that that was true even in America's urban history. Right. I mean you think of the photography of Jacob Reese who you know what the how the other half lives. He was able to capture urban United States which really does resemble some of the conditions we see in other places in the world today, although that was 100, hundred fifty years ago and in New York. So it it's about the pace of urbanization but also it's about it's about the political choices that governments are making. You know and a lot of African cities, they were, quite frankly, designed on an apartheid structure. Many African cities until relatively recent before before independence for many of these countries, white settlers and black Africans were not allowed on the same parts of the city. And if you look at those cities whether you're talking about Nairobi or Lusaka or places like that, that structure is still dominates the urban form. And so you see a place like Lusaka, the governments would not officially recognize that black Africans were moving to the city. And so they had to find a place to live. And those areas now are the informal settlements, and so that has these deep roots and colonization and that sort of thing.

Grillot: So I would imagine that as governments develop as there is some sort of political development in many of these countries I know for the case of Brazil for example that then trying to formalize some of this informal structure becomes also very tricky. And yet, there's a demand to do so and in order to provide services like water, for example, or electricity, and you know trash collection I mean there are things that that obviously these informal settlements and cities need. And so there then becomes some difficult you know exchanges in negotiations trying to formalize what has been developed as in an informal way.

Harris: Yeah and you've asked the right question here. We often use the term upgrading, we call it either urban upgrading or slum upgrading. And if you look at the new sustainable development goals one of the goals is to quote unquote, upgrade all of the world's slums. And slum is a very deliberate word in this case and this is usually referring to informal settlements. And so over the next decades, the the international community is intended to invest mass amounts of our resources to do that very thing, to formalize what is currently informal. And so on a typical upgrading scheme you're talking about running roads through settlements that really only have footpaths. You're talking about running drainage ditches through, formalizing the water system, and all the things you're talking about, which is which is very difficult. You're talking about displacing people. But also what are the sort of democratic institutions that will be brought to bear on these decisions? And actually that that informs some of the work that I've been doing at OU actually with OU students. We've been in Lusaka trying to learn from vulnerable youth about their priorities for these types of upgrades. So we did what's called Photo Voice where we had vulnerable urban youth live in these informal settlements in Lusaka. They were out in their neighborhoods taking pictures of their settlements - both the things that they really appreciate, the things that they like in these informal settlement, but also the things that are really quite challenging to them on a day to day level. Going back to that idea that all of these big ideas need to be connected to what people really want from life. And so right now we are processing that data and have a few publications out under review trying to show that you know the way that these young people these vulnerable young people see their neighborhoods and the priorities that they have for their lives are a little bit different than sort of the typical, "Here's what we're going to do to upgrade these settlements." So it's it's a very tricky circumstance. But at the same time I think it's very hopeful that the international community has said, you know what, we're going to make these a priority. We're going to put this in writing. We're going to sign our name on the line and this is what we're going to do over the next decades.

Grillot: Well the work you're doing with you sounds really fascinating and also brings to mind the fact that the work you're doing is even more interdisciplinary when you get into things like you know young or early childhood education and health and well-being that this is even a broader issue and has so many implications. What are some of the bright spots? Where can we look to kind of see where this type of urbanization or these informal cities that have have created this maybe unplanned urbanization as being kind of the shining examples if you will of how you know these things can can grow and mature and become more sustainable for those who live there?

Harris: There are a couple of organizations and I mentioned sort of the democratic institutions of how we do these types of of upgrading schemes. There are organizations like they call themselves slum slash slacked dwellers international or federations of the urban poor. There are a number of organizations that do this and what they are doing is getting into these communities and organizing the residents in some ways similar but in a much better way than what we are doing. They're organizing communities of of the urban poor in these informal settlements to say, you know what, here is here's what we would like. Here are the solutions that we think would improve quality of life here that would that would allow us to contribute to the wider economy and more prosperous ways and I think that they're really bright shining spots and all these big issues.

Grillot: Wonderful. Thank you so much for being here today to teach us about something that we rarely think about. Thank you.

Harris: Thanks for having me.

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