Thursday, 09 April 2015 11:23

Arrival City - A Challenge to Planners

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Saunders was speaking at a recent London meeting hosted by the Overseas Development Institute. He argued that too many policy makers fail to understand the dynamics of such neighbourhoods. He advocated the need to break down the idea that places are either urban or rural. Similarly, conventional thinking imagines that people from a village get on a bus or a train and leave for the city, but “It simply does not happen that way.” Rather there is a sequence of moves and temporary locations that over time acquire “accretions of permanence” and the people gradually begin to think of themselves as urban rather than rural residents.

Crucially, people back in the village depend what happens in these “Arrival City” neighbourhoods. Income earned in the city finds its way back to families left behind. Such remittances are the largest source of income in rural China. Even in Poland, the money flowing back from émigrés working in places like London exceeds the sums generated by agriculture, EU and Polish government subsidies.

Uprising in Egypt: Boulak El Dakror

Problems begin when people start to get established but then find their upward mobility blocked. Public policy is a key influence. The neighbourhood of Boulak El Dakror to the west of Cairo developed from the 1970s on a wasteland whose ownership was ambiguous.  Like many similar developments it is viewed by officials as a “chaotic / disorderly place”, yet within it there are merchants who in a modest way have done well for themselves.  Not only have they sent money back “home”, but they have also managed to get their children into school. However, access to the more established middle class in downtown Cairo is not open to them. It was people from Boulak El Dakror who were in the forefront when the demonstrations began in Tahrir Square.

Officialdom views places like Boulak El Dakror as “chaotic and disorderly places”, “static slums full of poor people”. There have been repeated attempts to re-house residents in planned high-rise apartments located further out of the city. Such policies may be well-meaning but they misunderstand the way “Arrival City” works. There is no flexibility of space in the new neighbourhoods, said Saunders. Once there it is impossible for a family to convert the ground floor of a property into a workshop or a shop, while distance and lack of transport make it hard to reach centres of formal employment.

Lessons from Istanbul

In the early 1960s Istanbul was a city of 900,000. Today it is 14 million. The huge growth has largely been through self-built neighbourhoods. At first there was an attempt at clearance and re-housing. That prompted political opposition. A military coup followed. Since then the approach has been to stabilise and legitimise the informal areas, and grant the residents formal ownership rights on the property. “This did not solve all the problems,” Saunders argued, “but it does allow people to turn their plot into a five-story building, and to earn incomes from the extra floorspace. It led to a new middle class.” He pointed to a similar story in Brazil. China too has a thriving property market catering to new urban arrivals through unregulated developments.


The Masterplan remains the main tool that the planning profession brings to these situations. For example, in his recent “Letter from Delhi”, Bob West described the new Masterplan for India’s capital for the decade 2011-2021. He noted that over 70% of Delhi has been developed without official permissions.

“The city has just offered to regularise these ‘unauthorised’ settlements by building the connecting infrastructure for 200 rupees (£3)/square metre, hopelessly less than cost; but it is well understood that these middle class developments house valuable voters and party donors. The ‘illegal’ settlements or slums don’t do so well, of course, although over time they can get hooked into power and water and form supportive social and economic networks and communities. They are home to many key workers close to the city’s centres and soak up most of the annual in-migration of 230,000, which means that the authorities don’t rush to attend to them. When they do choose to act, it results in rapid displacement so that the site can be developed, often regardless of the Masterplan. Dedicated new housing on the city fringes is built to poor standards – one bathroom per 20 families is common – and located a long way from work opportunities, so people don’t move there readily…. In practice there is no pukka housing for the poor.”

What to do?

Saunders failed to mention the fact that Istanbul is a disaster waiting to happen. It is built on an active fault line and its 14 million people are living in properties not designed to cope with an earthquake. Also not everybody in Arrival City achieves middling incomes. There are no easy answers to the age-old equation that says that in market economies urban land is expensive and safe, decent housing is something that people on low and irregular incomes cannot afford. However, part of the problem is that the professional culture of planners too often is rooted in the idea that there is a simple solution. It is a Masterplan, subsidies to the better off and effective regulation of land use. It is a solution that is neither realistic nor affordable in most, if not all, rapidly urbanising countries, and makes planners the enemies of the poor.

Saunders advocated a high-intensity “shock-approach” approach to slum-upgrading. Upgrade houses, put in street lighting, give people an address, and establish policing and job training within the neighbourhood.  It requires inputs from many different agencies and is targeted on the neighbourhood as a whole. In recognising that these people are citizens, it is also supporting entire villages which are relying on the capacity of their kith and kin to make it in the city.


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