Monday, 28 September 2015 12:59

Forced evictions - there are alternatives

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The new Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN commit governments to inclusive cities. In particular one target for the "Urban Goal", Goal 11, is  “By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums.” Yet, too often there is a punitive approach to slum housing that shows a callous disregard for the damage forced eviction does to families and livelihoods.

Clearing slums to create places for tourists and luxury apartments

Earlier this month a massive clearance began in the Aberdeen Beach area of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Shack/Slum Dwellers International report that the evictions and demolitions were driven by the Ministry of Tourism. The slum known locally as Crab Town occupies a coastal site with tourist potential. Indeed, local activists claim that the ministry plans to clear other coastal slums to faciliate developments that will attract and accommodate tourists.

Half a world away, in Rangoon, where 200,000 people live in informal settlements, evictions are also taking place. There is a real estate boom and many slum communities occupy land that the local authorities identify as having potential for large-scale residential and industrial development.It is reported that "Since 2012, there have been at least half a dozen large-scale forcible evictions in Rangoon, involving several thousand slum dwellers and attacks by plainclothes thugs and security forces."

Back in West Africa, there are reports of armed thugs demolishing homes in Otodo Gbamé, an informal settlement in an area of Lagos where development pressures are intense. There is a long history of clearance and eviction in Lagos. In the 1950s, 200,000 people were displaced from central Lagos Island as part of a “beautification” scheme. Twenty-five years ago, 300,000 people were removed during a state-sponsored eviction in Maroko, one of Lagos’ most visible slums. New mansions and luxury apartments have since been developed there.

Why are there slums and informal settlements?

Of course cities change over time, and there can be a succession of land uses. Developers, politicians and investors will always be looking for sites with development potential.  However, planners need at the very least to weigh the merits of differing claims on land. That means they should at least understand why so many poor people need to live in slum areas, and what value their homes and neighbourhoods hold for such groups.

Natural demographic increase (cities have young age profiles) plus rural to urban migration mean that there is pressure on the urban housing stock, and on land for new housing. People leave the countryside because they know about the opportunities that cities can offer. In many parts of the world agriculture is being rationalised by big corporations who seek to get more output from a reduced labour force. There are also natural disasters that drive people from the land, a process that climate change is likely to exacerbate.

Though the city is a better option than the country in terms of access to education and other services, and though urban businesses need labour, in the rapidly urbanising world urban growth typically outstrips urban job creation. Informal employment is very impportant in sustaining households, but does not generate sufficient reliable income for many to afford regular housing. Informal housing is thus an essential element of the new urban economy. It often provides important support mechanisms to the residents.

Alternatives to forced evictions

It is many years now since John Turner argued that informal housing was part of the solution not the problem. In principle, we should have been able to build houses providing adequate shelter for all with access to essential services. In technical terms we have known how to do that for 100 years or more. However, since slums are now home to over a billion people, we need to think of ways to make them better and to protect the interests of the slum dwellers. 

As Shack/Slum Dwellers International notes "Land prices in cities have skyrocketed and the poor find themselves increasingly priced out of any formal land or housing market. In most cities in Africa and Asia, planners and governments, at all levels, have been unable to cope with this influx of poor people and with the natural growth of urban poor populations. It is hard to find cases where governments have been able to intervene successfully in these markets with programmes to help meet the land and housing needs of their poor populations."

We have at least a generation's experience now in participatory slum upgrading. We know that small savings and micro-finance schemes, in which women typically figure prominently, can boost skills and self-reliance and provide a basis for improvements and access to land. Often informal settlements are ignored in  official data collection: local censuses and drives to register property can help slum dwellers to withstand evictions or at least get some compensation, though they are still relatively rare.

We also know that there are some situations where clearance and relocation is indeed necessary, because of real dangers to health or risks from natural disasters. In such situations relocation action plans should be negotiated withthe affected communioties.

One message is the need for solidarity, both within the informal settlement and between slum dwellers everywhere. When the crisis comes, those facing forced eviction are powerless unless they have support from others. With the adoption of Goal 11 and the target on affordable housing, the time is overdue when the planning profession should engage anew with the slum issue, dialogue with Shack/Slum Dwellers International and advocate and practice policies that prioritise the needs of the slum dwellers, rather than just act as facilitators for the demands of the market.   

 

Comments

From Izhar Ul Haq:

Yes slums are there to stay till development attains a certain level. And as you rightly quoted John Turner, slums are part of solution, not part of problem. But there are issues; as and when slums are upgraded, property values shoot up. With the provision of services such as water supply, sewerage, electrification etc, people of middle income group want to move in. The original residents are too happy to sell their property at a far higher price than they originally paid (or not paid). They sell and form another informal settlement further away, because their priorities are different; better housing is not their top priority. So the process continues.
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