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Recognition of Slum Dwellers is Essential for Urban Development in Nairobi, Kenya

Houses in Kibera Slum, Nairobi, Kenya

Access to safe, sanitary, affordable housing and basic infrastructure is a basic human right. In colonial Africa, Africans were limited to living in segregated, poorly planned areas. After independence, in cities like Accra, (Ghana), Lusaka (Zambia), and Harare (Zimbabwe) rich Africans moved to European and Asian residential areas, while the poor (and increasing urban migrants) were in the crowded former reserves.

This is no exception in Nairobi, Kenya where the increased urban populace has caused a major challenge to the authorities to keep up with the demand for affordable housing. This has led to the proliferation of informal settlements. Today,over 50% of the population live in dense, unsanitary and insecure neighbourhoods, better known as slums.

Many African urban legislation is based on the 1947 UK Town and Country Planning act, where the legitimacy of informal settlements is not considered. As a result, mass evictions and demolitions have occurred over the years leading to rebuilding of structures or relocation of residents. Slumlords and politically connected individuals take advantage by settling people on public land and unused private land.

Kids playing on a railway track in Mukuru Slum, Nairobi, Kenya

The late 1980s saw a reduction demolitions after calls by pro-poor activists and politicians pushing for better rights for the poor. The settlements were also seen to provide some form of housing, thus making up for what the authorities were unable to provide. Recent demolitions have mainly occurred on road reserves or high risk security areas like airports. In November 2011, Mitumba slums and Maasai Village were demolished as they had been erected on airport reserve land. There have also been some demolitions in Kibera slum to make way for a road.

But what exactly can be the solution to the "slum problem?"

Slum dwellers need recognition as equal citizens with rights. These include the right to basic amenities like clean water, garbage collection, sewers and lighting -while children ought to receive quality education and healthcare.

Slum upgrading faces various challenges like affordability to purchase and maintain new homes, high standards of infrastructure and administrative efficiency. Land tenure needs to be secured as absentee landlords have hampered many upgrading projects. Projects like the Nyayo Highrise housing failed after the houses were occupied by middle class residents.

The massive failure of the Pruitt Igoe housing scheme in St. Louis, Missouri, showed that a slum is more than a housing problem and requires integrated solutions. This was a 57-acre array of 11-story slab blocks which, less than 20 years after they were completed, were destroyed by controlled implosion. The blocks were notorious for violence, vandalism, chaos and squalor. Emergency services would have missiles hurled at them when they went there.

More recently a Collaborative Plan for Informal Settlement Upgrading was developed for Mathare Slums in Nairobi, as a project between The University of Nairobi, University of California, Berkeley, and slum based organizations. The importance of the slum dwellers in this was critical as it brought about realistic and reasonable need-based solutions to the challenges slum residents face. The Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP) between the Government of Kenya and United Nations Centre for Human Settlement (Habitat) has also made several strides in improving the living conditions in Kenya's largest slum, Kibera.

Part of Kibera Slum, Nairobi, Kenya

Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba once stated that "In Curitiba we have slums, the only difference is the respect by the people due to the quality of services that are provided." By creating pedestrian spaces, bicycle ways and open public spaces in various slums in Bogota, Enrique Penalosa was also able to reduce crime drastically. Inclusion and participation are critical in any Slum Programme. Importance and recognition given to those in the informal settlements goes a long way in creating a sense of ownership to proposals -and thus sustainability.

Africa and the developing world are experiencing rapid and uncontrolled urban growth amid high levels of poverty. In Nairobi more than half the population lives on 18% of the land area. In Dhaka (Bangladesh) 70% of the population are on 20% of the land while in Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) 2/3 of the population live on 1/5 of the land.

What should be done to reduce the growth of informal settlements? How should cities recognize informal settlements and deal with them in a sustainable manner? Are there informal settlements in your community?

Credits: Images by Constant Cap and Moses Muthaka. Data linked to sources.