Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Lessons from Informal Settlements: A 'Peripheral' Problem with Self-Organising Solutions

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Lessons from Informal Settlements: A 'Peripheral' Problem with Self-Organising Solutions

Article excerpt


There are many definitions of informal settlements and they tend to involve contexts in which planning laws and/or property rights have been violated. Informal settlements are mostly the result of human pressure in cities, both because they are economically attractive and because people try to escape poor rural areas. The United Nations estimated that in 2003 one billion people lived in informal settlements worldwide, and they have been growing by 10 per cent a year ever since. They are generally concentrated in southern parts of the globe, but are also present in Europe (UNECE, 2009). Over the last half-century, waves of informal settlements have occurred in Portugal, Spain and Italy (see Portas, 1988; Busquets, 1999; Indovina, 1990).

Informal settlements form a substantial part of urban areas and have been largely neglected by planning institutions. In most cases, informal settlements were the result of non-responsive, top-down, rigid and centrally planned measures (Silva and Farrall, 2014). To support current and future shifts in policy-making, United Nations bodies have given priority to finding new intervention models based on self-organisation, bottom-up processes and partnerships. As part of this reorientation, learning lessons from previous experience is considered relevant for finding more suitable ways to deal with these settlements (UNECE, 2009). Plans play a crucial role within intervention models. This represents an opportunity to discuss planning responsiveness in the context of the informal city.

Poor planning responsiveness is the subject of much debate, involving citizens, planners and politicians. The debate generally concerns the mismatch between plans and land (use), with little interaction between city plans and city communities (Oliva, 2002). Such situations lead to society lacking confidence in planning institutions, which eventually undermines the guiding function of the norms and rules produced by these institutions as these are simply taken less seriously. In response to this mismatch, normative and collaborative models, as well as the role of planners in the planning processes, have been discussed by planners extensively (Tewdwr-Jones and Allmendiger, 1998; Innes and Booher, 2015), expressing what we will address as three 'spatial planning dilemmas'.

The first dilemma regards the tension between rigid and flexible norms and rules. The former is concerned with guaranteeing equal treatment of citizens in the eyes of the law, while the latter relates to the need for responding to individual circumstances and contexts of constant change (Hillier, 2011). The second dilemma is based on a dichotomy between top-down and bottom-up decision-making. Some see bottomup decision-making as the future of local planning (e.g. Gallent, 2013), while others underline ambiguities and tensions in those processes (Carpenter, 2014). The third and final dilemma is based on a dichotomy between the planner's role as leader and as co-worker. This dilemma relates to a more general discussion on whether planners work for communities or planners work with communities (Isserman, 1985; Klosterman, 2013). The distinguished spatial planning dilemmas can also be found in informal settlements. First, the users behind non-planned occupations tend not to obey the rules; often these are asked to be more flexible. Second, bottom-up movements are seen as informal settlements' response to top-down planning rules. Finally, within this context, the planner's role is usually questioned by the user of non-planned occupations. All in all, informal settlements and planning institutions coexist in permanent confrontation, which results in conflicts in, and obstacles to, planning processes.

This paper aims to explore the relationship between informal settlements and planning institutions, using complexity theory. This suggests that the top levels of planning institutions are affected by interactions that start with the self-organisation of small landowners and eventually lead to co-evolutionary process between informal settlements and formal planning institutions. …

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