Hands That Build Cities



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Surviving in the City

To be able to lead their everyday life, human beings need to condition their environment. They must furnish themselves with the materials necessary for separating off a domestic ambience which will afford them a certain degree of comfort. From their psychological, social and cultural reality, requirements also arise, which they will seek to satisfy in their habitat as individuals, couples, family groups or neighborhood communities. If they live in the city, they will moreover attempt to have easy access to its networks of services, and will try to remain close to urban facilities and the work opportunities they provide. Most people also hope that their dwellings will be available for reasonably long periods of time and in relatively safe places, so that their family and neighborhood life can go by without too many unexpected upheavals. These are simple concrete aspirations that we all seek to fulfill in a satisfactory dwelling. Nevertheless, many citizens, and especially the poorest, are unable to own dwellings that respond even remotely to these conditions.

It is difficult and tough for the poor to survive in today’s city. They can perhaps construct a basic lodging with the few resources they possess, as their forefathers did. But it will be harder and harder for them to find a place to build it. While they might once have risked occupying “residual” spaces, such as the banks of watercourses or steep hillsides, modern urban planning now forbids them to settle there for reasons they perhaps cannot even understand. The “safe” and legal land of the city is now occupied or reserved for other ends, or for those who can pay for it. Urban services—water, sewage, electricity, mobility—do not reach the remote or forbidden places where they have had to settle, and they can be moved out of those places at any time if they lack legal entitlement to the land they occupy.

The most widespread physical expression of a precarious human habitat is the slum. Such settlements, whose names and characteristics vary, are beset by deficiencies, whether jointly or in isolation, such as uncertain permanence, a lack of basic services, small dwellings of poor quality, and overpopulation and crowding. One out of every three inhabitants of cities in the developing world lives in a slum. The proportion of people in slums has diminished with the advance of urbanization, but the same is not true of the volume of the population living in such conditions. More and more inhabitants will have to live, or at least survive, without a minimum degree of comfort, health and safety.

From the point of view of habitation, then, the panorama is not improving but growing steadily more dramatic. Not only do the slum dwellers already living there have to be rehoused in better conditions, but allowances also have to be made for the rapid formation of new dwellings. Since efforts so far to reduce the housing shortage, or at least to prevent it from worsening, do not appear to have been especially effective, it is worth wondering whether we should accept that a dwelling is a privilege reserved for a few, while a large proportion of mankind is condemned never to have one. Or are we perhaps understanding and handling the matter wrongly?


Mass Production of Dwellings

From a conventional point of view, a significant increase in the production of dwellings has so far been the only—or at least the principal—way to confront the phenomenon of precarious habitats. Unlike other social policies, public housing has preferred to focus on what can or should be done from the supply side rather than tackling the issue on the basis of the inhabitants’ needs. Governments and construction firms agree to build massed housing, which they believe to be a suitable and definitive solution to the problem. For the purpose, they have consolidated an institutional, entrepreneurial, professional and financial apparatus “specialized” in the production of cheap dwellings, and they have instituted procedures, norms, prohibitions, permits, strategies and programs to this effect. The client—or beneficiary, if the dwelling is adjudicated or subsidized—has little choice in the matter, since it is believed that the client’s intervention would only complicate and delay a task that should be left to the specialists to accomplish.



Precarious or Informal?

Given the modest results obtained with the application of this conventional focus, we propose to open a discussion on its validity. To begin with, it does not seem right to equate precariousness with the existence of slums, or to ascertain its dimensions on the basis of the population living in these settlements. Not every aspect of precarious living is expressed by slums, which are otherwise so diverse in their potential for development that we cannot affirm that all are necessarily precarious, or will continue to be so. Further, it is debatable that such negative connotations should be ascribed to the only answer the poor have been able to give to a need that the organizations of the housing sector have been incapable of meeting. When seen from this perspective, the figure of one in three inhabitants of the cities of the south living in slums appears to highlight the formidable success of the poor in confronting their lack of habitation.

From the conventional camp, it is argued that what “informal” builders construct are not dwellings but shacks with no material value, which merely aggravates the problem. For the poor, however, the material is only one aspect of a home. They attach more importance to opportunity, since finding accommodation is not an option that can be postponed until a dwelling is given to them, but has to be solved on a day-to-day basis. They also appreciate a well-located dwelling, near sources of income or adjacent to those of family and friends, in order to have support and construct social capital. They agree on the importance of access to basic services, but will reserve the right not to have them installed in their dwellings “for the time being,” or perhaps to share them with neighbors. If we insist on the deficient materiality of informal housing, they will tell us that their home is rather small or flimsy “for the time being,” but that they will do it up in time and enlarge it as much as their possibilities allow. For them, a dwelling is “the place they are living in,” here and now, and not merely the inhabited building. By combining hard components, such as walls, floors, ceilings, courtyards and streets, with a range of “soft” components, such as proceedings, actions, experiences, opportunities, acquired knowledge and collaborations, according to their particular dreams, priorities and motivations, they create, improve and broaden their domestic environment from one day to the next.


Product and Process

The process of conditioning that goes under the misnomer of informal therefore has nothing precarious about it. It is complex, dynamic and efficient given the scant resources and the limitations within which it is accomplished. It is a process that contributes to urban sustainability because it carefully faces up to events with a view to responding to them in the best possible way. Indeed, in most slums the inhabitants attach value to dwellings the formal sector would probably ignore. A house may be cheap and badly built, but it is never worth nothing.

When dwellings are regarded from the point of view of the processes of habitation developed by their inhabitants rather than the product we obstinately try to impose on them, various routes open up that are very different from those followed by conventional social housing programs.

The generation and diffusion of knowledge and skills from within the local area is giving rise to a vibrant process of learning, and so fueling the modernizing potential demonstrated by the social production of habitat

First of all, it is possible to measure the existing shortages and deficiencies in a different way. If a dwelling is “a place where someone is living,” then there are many more dwellings than those reflected in official figures. We might venture to say that save for a few exceptions, everyone has a dwelling, even if it is no more than a few cardboard boxes in the street or a fragile shack built on a hazardous spot. We ought to recognize that the inhabitants of a city are not polarized into those who have and those who do not have a dwelling, or those who live “properly” and those who are sunk in precarious living conditions. The picture is a more complex one, full of nuances, where shortages need to be tackled with focalized and specific interventions, rather as public health policies confront the different maladies of their objective population. Above all, however, the inhabitants should no longer be regarded as mere receivers of goods and services provided by others. It must be accepted that the city is built shoulder to shoulder with them.


Social Production of Habitat

Popular movements have been accumulating valuable experience in this field for many years, and they could share the strategies and instruments now at their disposal with those urban planning and housing policies which opt to confront the problems of cities from this renewed perspective. In the 1970s, the concept of “social production of habitat” was coined in Latin America to refer to the important contribution of urban communities to city construction. After prolonged periods of exacerbated poverty and interrupted democracy in many countries, and the later introduction of models of housing subsidy based on demand that turned dwellings into goods bought and sold on the market, the social production of habitat all but disappeared from the region. New versions have emerged, however, especially in Asian and African cities, not only demonstrating great vitality but also incorporating novel perspectives and components with which to confront the enormous challenges faced by the city of the twenty-first century.

For example, it is worth singling out the way in which they have confronted the scale of the housing problems that affect a large volume of the poor inhabitants of hundreds of urban centers. These city builders have managed to transform a contingent weakness, the widespread presence of poverty and slums in cities, into a formidable advantage for political interlocution at the urban level by agglutinating themselves into community organizations that now form networks with a regional scope. They have thus acquired enough political and strategic power to be taken into account by the other players in the urban scenario. Two examples are Slum Dwellers Int (SDI), which groups communities from 478 cities in thirty-three countries, mainly in Africa, and the Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA), a regional initiative sustained by organizations from 165 cities in nineteen Asian countries. Under the auspices of powerful federations, they promote a multitude of local initiatives in which each community responds to its particular problems according to the priorities, capabilities and resources of its members. Up to now, large-scale operation has not prevented the responses from being specific to each case, something which unfortunately cannot be said for the uniform and repetitive solutions conventionally adopted for attending to large volumes of housing.


New Strategies

In a context where competition and permanent conflicts between sectors with contrary interests are an intrinsic part of urban life today, the social production of habitat suggests that other paths are there to be explored. To face up to the enormous difficulties that arise when they try to implement their projects in a potentially hostile urban atmosphere, the popular organizations have to act with firmness and determination. Even so, experience has taught them that blind confrontation can have a high cost, and that success is more likely to come with proposals in which everyone has something to gain, or at least in which the costs that have to be paid by others are reduced. Realism has led them to prefer strategies that merge actions to achieve their own objectives with components that could prove attractive to the other players, either in the government or in the private sector. They have also recognized that having financial resources at their disposal gives them the power to take decisions and allows them to negotiate better. Even when resources are generally scarce, they therefore make efforts to save regularly and build up funds that will allow their projects to be supported or cofinanced to a certain degree. They have also assumed the task of documenting their reality in order to have a relatively solid information base and so develop better proposals. It is above all the women and young people of the slums who have acquired the ability to make censuses, profiles and maps of a reality that is largely unknown to the rest of the city, mingling simple door-to-door interview methods with more complex procedures involving the electronic collation and manipulation of data.

These organizations surprise us with a strategic maturity acquired in the course of a development fraught with risks and obstacles to their purposes, a strategy that is not found in other more powerful and “qualified” players within the urban scenario. Their desire is to be not merely beneficiaries but also partners in habitat policies, ready to collaborate with the other players if this will make it easier for them to achieve their aims.

The abyss we have described between the approach to city construction of the inhabitants of popular neighborhoods and that of conventional agents partly explains why specialized training and research centers have not so far generated the knowledge and technology needed by the social builders to perfect their techniques. That is why they have had to resort to their own successes and failures, drawing ideas and practices from them in order to construct and improve their habitat. There is an incessant exchange of experiences in today’s networks, mostly through face-to-face meetings but also, thanks to the technology now available, at a distance. The generation and diffusion of knowledge and skills from within the local area is giving rise to a vibrant process of learning, and so fueling the modernizing potential demonstrated by the social production of habitat in cities of the south.

* * *

In the popular neighborhoods of our cities, an extreme precariousness of habitat affecting numerous communities tends to coexist with the sustained and sometimes heroic efforts of these groups to attenuate the effects of that precariousness and create better living conditions. Habitat policies have until now largely ignored the importance of this effort in the belief that housing and urban problems can only be adequately solved from the outside. However, the limitations of this approach, with its failure to achieve sufficient goals to cope with the general shortage of housing and urban infrastructures, suggest that the social production of habitat might profitably be restored to a central place in urban and housing development strategies. The results achieved by popular builders show that this is an effective path that could gain importance if it were given the recognition and support due to it. It remains to be seen whether housing policies will rise to the challenge and lead a process toward complementary resources and interests that will allow more equitable and sustainable cities to be built. To this end, they should start by recognizing once and for all that if the urban habitat is to be well managed, it is not the construction and real estate firms but the inhabitants who should be their main interlocutors.



A Chilean architect, she specializes in urban and housing policies. She was undersecretary of Housing and Urban Planning of the Republic of Chile. MacDonald proposes redefining the profession of the architect, whose clients, she maintains, should be the thousand million people in the developing countries who need housing solutions. She has carried out numerous research projects and consultancies for organizations and institutions such as UNESCO and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and she has published approximately thirty books and articles. Her academic record and outstanding humanistic career as an architect have earned her two National Prizes from the College of Architects and University of the Republic of Chile respectively.

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