Why Slum Upgrading has Flopped

Published on 20 March 2012 in Architecture Africa by Martin Tairo

The president recently launched another phase of Kibera slum upgrading project which entails the construction of 900 housing units, 230 business stalls, a nursery school, a social hall, a youth centre, three solid waste handling sheds, toilet blocks and a boundary wall.

This massive project is supposed to improve lives of the current residents of Soweto village, within Kibera slums. Previous similar projects have however raised major questions on their success in terms of benefiting slum dwellers and contributing towards ridding our cities off slums.

It is not a secret that beneficiaries of such projects usually end up renting out their houses while they find their way back into the slums. What these projects achieve therefore is slum relocation, not upgrading.

I carried out a survey in Soweto, Kibera, for a similar proposal back in 2008 where I asked the residents what they thought should be done to improve their lives. Out of the respondents I picked, only 15% though better houses were the solution. It is therefore worrying to see the government just putting up houses and expecting that the slums will at some point disappear.

The key concerns for the majority, which I picked up, included improved road networks, proper drainage systems, good sanitation, improved security and better incomes. Their reasoning was simple; they live in Kibera since they cannot afford better houses which were available elsewhere. If their life status improves, they would move to better homes and residential estates.

Another major issue was raised by the landlords who did not have legal ownership of the land they held. They thus could not make huge investments with the uncertainty that comes with such a state of affairs.

The above issues should have been addressed as a priority. Only then could the government move to the next level involving construction of houses. At this point, they could choose to engage directly through National Housing Corporation or City Councils. They could also engage private developers by giving them incentives and subsidies.

During construction, there are technical issues regarding ‘low cost’ housing, a terminology repeatedly used by those attempting to solve the slum problem, which must be considered. ‘Low cost’ housing can be approached from two different fronts, that of low cost of construction or that of low cost of maintenance. More often than not, these two objectives cannot be effectively achieved on the same project.

Phase I of Kibera Slum Upgrading Project in Soweto

For instance, to have a sustainable project that uses solar power and has water treatment and recycling systems, the initial investment to set up this kind of infrastructure is normally too high. However, during usage, water and power bills would be low.

If the target of such developments is people with low incomes, it only makes sense that the government makes heavy initial investments to come up with a solution that would be ‘low cost’ to maintain during occupation. However, this has not been the case as one of government’s main procurement and operation strategies is to keep costs down.

In design, a layout for such houses is not your normal two or three bed house plan. It has to be flexible in a manner that allows usage of the house as one unit or separate units. This allows an able individual use the entire house as one unit while those who need to supplement their incomes may rent out some rooms of the house without compromising on the security and privacy of the main house where they should be living.

Lack of sensitivity to needs of the intended beneficiaries of these developments is what drives them to look for tenants who can afford to live in these houses. Due to their economic status, the houses become a bother since they must spend money to live in them. They would rather the houses were a source of income.

Politics has also been a major impediment to slum upgrading efforts. If politicians and powerful organizations peg their survival on existence of slums, all these efforts would come to nought.

From history, two leaders dealt with the slum issue decisively and created cities that we all love and adore today. These are Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris and Pope Sixtus V in Rome. Both of were authoritarian rulers whose decisions could not be questioned. They ruthlessly demolished slums, evicted slum dwellers and built the cities they envisioned.

While we may not take the same approach, this shows that the kind of vision and commitment required from our leaders to deal with the slum issue borders on being dictatorial.

The writer practises architecture at a leading  architectural firm in Kenya. He maybe reached through martin.tairo@gmail.com. The original article can be found on Architecture Kenya: http://networkedblogs.com/vnAq4

One thought on “Why Slum Upgrading has Flopped

  1. KNT-TV reported ten thousand residents of the Kibera slum’s Soweto east village who were left homeless today after a fresh wave of demolitions. The Nairobi city council is carrying out demolitions in line with the government’s slum upgrading project. However, the very families expected to benefit from the project are protesting at the unexpected demolitions

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