ARCHIVES: This is legacy content from before Sustainable Cities Collective was relaunched as Smart Cities Dive in early 2017. Some information, such as publication dates or images, may not have migrated over. For the latest in smart city news, check out the new Smart Cities Dive site or sign up for our daily newsletter.

Favelas Can Teach Us About Future Cities – Sir David King

The UK Foreign Secretary's Special Representative for Climate Change, Sir David King, is tonight to tell colleagues dealing with urban innovation that shantytowns, favelas and mediaeval towns have much to teach us about how cities should be organised.

Rocinha favela Brazil

Favela at Rocinha, Bazil. Credit: Alicia Nijdam.

He will be speaking as chairman of the Future Cities Catapult initiative in London, where he will say that low carbon cities can't be developed without a much greater understanding of how major urban areas work in practice, especially when they are constructed or adapted by residents to meet their own needs in a self-organised fashion.

The private event is organised by the environment charity Ashden. Speaking to a British newspaper beforehand Sir David says that we have much to learn from the kind of "self-organised urban development" that produced South American favelas: "It's quite important that we don't turn the advantages of a bottom-up [urban development] process into a top-down one."

Sir David of course still believes that modern urban design has plenty of good ideas. But his views contrast sharply with those expressed in a recent McKinsey report, A blueprint for addressing the global affordable housing challenge, which pronounced that the world needs to find $650 billion a year to provide affordable housing for the world's growing urban population.

With land, it put the total cost at $16 trillion. These conclusions seem to be based only on consideration of top-down solutions, and comprise a manifesto for developers to provide scaled-up solutions – a thinly-disguised plea to governments and investors to channel money to these developers.

The report recommended taking advantage of economies of scale, thereby implying the bulldozing of existing settlements or farmland and the rolling out of identical, factory-made estates across the world's surface, no doubt dependent upon cars to get around. This is old-fashioned thinking.

It's refreshing then to hear Sir David King recognise the value of informal solutions. People in self-made settlements value their own communities and do not want to see them destroyed for the sake of what others see as better-standard infrastructure, when, with a helping hand, they can themselves transform their own neighbourhoods.

When I visited favelas in São Paulo and Curitiba I saw this process first-hand. At first, when the settlements began, structures would be flimsy. Then, as the favela grew up, wooden and corrugated iron walls and roofs would be replaced with bricks and concrete, with further stories added in a kind of process of self-gentrification.

The modifications were enabled not just by scavenging but by the inhabitants creating their own jobs and their own income to enable them to improve their living conditions, something which everybody everywhere aspires to do.

From this type of thing, made using found materials (Credit: Pixabay):

 informal settlement made from found materials

To this, using more permanent and secure materials to construct larger buildings (Pavão-Pavãozinho favela, Credit: P?teris):

 sophisticated favela in Brazil

Sir David King also understands other aspects of sustainable and resilient cities. He recognises the value of public space, pedestrian and cycle connectivity, public transport and housing which have "transformed living conditions in Bogotá and Lima".

"Infrastructure is seen as separate units. We must, in the future, see cities as networks of systems," he says.

He runs a Future Cities project called Sensing London that is collecting environmental data from four "living laboratory" sites in the capital.

Information on air pollution is being matched other data to see whether a virtual 'asthma-guard' can be developed to alert asthma sufferers where it may be unsafe to walk in the city.

Last month Future Cities Catapult launched the Future Cities Standards Institute to "drive the development of a coherent standardisation work programme". Work is initially concentrated on standards for smart cities and data management. BSI is developing three standards in this area: PAS 180 on smart cities terminologyPAS 181 a smart cities framework, and PAS 182 a smart cities data concept model, as well as PD 8101 around planning of future city developments and PD 8100 'Overview of smart cities' which will be published by end of the year.

Personally I would like also to see another standard, an ISO for ecological footprinting. There are already ISOs for related topics such as energy management, greenhouse gas emissions and life-cycle analysis which can be applied at different scales. The existence of an ISO permits training and verification to an independently accredited standard, with transparent methodology. Accreditation could be given to countries, cities, companies, products, households.

But the key point from Sir David's talk is that smart cities are not only about data but about tackling the wisdom of those who live in a place and have made it their own. Large scale interventions are also energy intensive, with a larger ecological footprint. DIY solutions, aided by city authorities for reasons of infrastructure and health and safety, can be much more low carbon. Sir David is absolutely right. It's the essence of low impact development, as we call it in the UK.