A few weeks ago, some of us went to visit an informal settlement. As a Growth and Structure of Cities major with an interest in the ways that cities can be used to expand the economic and political choices of individuals, this trip was especially exciting to me. First, I should start with a definition of informal settlements. Informal settlements are difficult to define but (importantly) different from slums, ghettos and generally impoverished neighborhoods or towns. One of the most prolific definitions has been offered by a document on the subject published in 2006 by UN-HABITAT (an arm of the UN focusing on issues of urbanization):
“i), residential areas where a group of housing units has been constructed on land to which the occupant have no legal claim, or which they occupy illegally; ii), unplanned settlements and areas where housing is not in compliance with current planning and building regulations (unauthorized housing).”
It is important to note that this definition is offered immediately after a definition of slum:
“housing areas that were once respectable or even desirable, but which have since deteriorated, as the original dwellers have moved to new and better areas of cities. The condition of the old houses has then declined, and the units have been progressively sub-divided and rented out to lower-income groups.”
In defining these two terms, the authors of the UN report touched upon something important: not all informal settlements are slums. One of the original subjects that I had hoped to explore in my time in Indonesia was the ways that residents of informal settlements, who in many cases could be defined as lower middle-class or middle class, use political organizing to lobby for official status and true land ownership rights. Accompanied by the folks at Arsitek Komunitas (Community of Architects), we toured and met residents of an informal settlement and learned of their attempts to maintain some semblance of legal tenure over the land they had built their homes and lives on. In some ways, the things that we heard about were to be expected: the residents of the informal settlements described complying with fickle government land-use regulations, investing in homes and infrastructure (as well as accepting infrastructure from government programs to improve sanitation, roads etc. in Indonesia’s informal settlements), and attempting to make their communities more hospitable, stable, and appealing.
But many of the things that the community undertook went beyond the obvious in physical community development. One of the more exciting programs undertaken by the residents of the community was the intensive mapping of the neighborhood in an attempt to both understand what land is “owned” by whom (in the absence of governmentally defined plots) as well as outlines of infrastructural problems still to be tackled (like flooding from the nearby river). While projects attempting to map out informal settlements are nothing new (here’s a rather famous example from Kenya’s famous Kibera settlement), I have never seen one that so intentionally places community development at the micro level as such a paramount goal.
More than simply mapping neighborhoods for the sake of having a map, the goal of the cartography is both a means and an end. Once the maps have been created, the communities use them to understand problem areas in the community and plan for future improvements. In many cases, these improvements involve community centers designed by the professionally trained architects at Arsitek Kommunitas, one of which is pictured at left. The centrality of community centers in the work of many of Arsitek Komunitas’ projects speaks volumes to the goals of the program. More than just an attempt to map out and improve the built structures of a community, the residents and Arsitek Komunitas hope to improve and build-upon the social structures of a community.
This goal of community-making manifests itself in the extremely collaborative nature of the maps, which are drawn by the women of each community targeted, and also in the process of betterment following the mapping process that stresses the importance of community planning and input in physical changes in neighborhoods. In many ways, this sort
of community-driven planning is only possible at an extremely local level. But cities are increasingly developing on a regional, national, and even international level. The work of Arsitek Komunitas begs questions on how we not only respond to the particular needs of diverse informal settlements, but also how we incorporate these places, and the people in them, into large-scale plans for urban development. In some cases local government wants squatters off of informal settlements because the land is valuable or elites see them as unsightly or threatening to “stable” neighborhoods nearby, arguments that are hauntingly reminiscent of the attitudes of mid-century planners in America and Europe who evicted ten of thousands of people from areas that were declared slums on dubious grounds only to house them in substandard towers miles from, and devoid of the social infrastructure of, their original neighborhoods. At the same time, many squatter settlements are in areas that, for the sake of the city as a whole, should not be sett
led either because of flooding or other undesirable features. In many cases, arguments about the undesirability of land that squatters occupy are red herrings: the land is subdivided and built upon quickly after the squatters are evicted.
The work of Arsitek Komunitas to build neighborhood infrastructure, both social and physical, is astounding. I only wonder what can be done to make the work of organizations working at the local level to assimilate into the plans of regional and national governments. One of the first concessions that any local government would have make for collaboration would be full land tenure, and that seems unlikely. So until then, the work to empower communities themselves seems a sufficient stop-gate measure.