What is incrementalism?

by James Tayler


Pictured above: Residents of the Kambimoto incremental housing development in Huruma, a slum area in Nairobi, Kenya.

By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

Top-down strategies for “eradicating slums” are seemingly always in vogue. Planners, government officials, commentators, and most non-governmental civil society actors, all aim for State-conceived, State-driven solutions to the “problems” of slums. Occasionally, we might hear about the potential of the social energy and even the density of informal settlements. But the solutions, we hear, must always come from the State.

But we can consider for a moment where these “formal” actors are headed, and from where they get their ideas. It is not the State. Governments of the Global South are quite evidently incapable of conceiving and implementing solutions without the people such policies are intended to address. The slums of the South are growing. And in the absence of effective State interventions, the poor — the world of the “informal” — are providing the vast majority of shelter solutions.

So “formal” actors — the State, planners, etc. — are getting their ideas from those who populate the world of the “informal” — the urban poor themselves. Instead of centrally-planned, greenfields housing developments, governments from South Africa to Kenya are talking about “slum upgrading” or “informal settlement upgrading.” In India, the term that most closely mirrors this is “redevelopment.” To varying degrees, policies that deploy these terms in each country are rooted in “informal” practice. Improvements in the living spaces where people already live.

But “upgrading,” while a step in the right direction towards more people-centered kinds of urban policies and planning, is often too vague. It can still mean big projects that results in the removals of many shack dwellers to new slums outside of the city to make way for improvements that often accrue only to a few of the original residents of the area. The goal of any kind of urban policy will always, at some point, mean fully-serviced and titled top-structure housing with secure tenure. Given the capacities of all the actors involved in the policies that would address that kind of goal, in addition to the magnitude of slums in most of the cities of the South, such achievements are still far off in the future.

The poor know this, and address it on a daily basis in the only way they can: incrementalism. To build incrementally is to live within one’s means, adding on and improving one’s dwelling and environment bit-by-bit. There are obstacles to this approach, namely lack of security of tenure. How can a person save to upgrade when he or she faces the constant threat of being evicted? But even without total security of tenure (i.e. full title), the poor are willing to build incrementally.

I wrote a couple months ago about the Federation incremental housing project in the Kambimoto neighborhood of Huruma in Nairobi, Kenya. There, each homeowner is building the floors of their houses day-by-day, making their own laddi bricks — an alternative egg-shell shape of bricks used for ceilings and floors for the first two floors of the houses — through exchanges with SDI-affiliated savers in India. The residents of this project do not have full title. What they do have is a memorandum of understanding with the city council approving the project. They also receive municipal services. This is just one example about how the poor are leading the way towards new understandings of tenure arrangements and how such attempts to provide security to the poor achieve great things on the ground.

The key is to enable the poor to enact the solutions they already have at their disposal, not to run over them with State-developed, new top-down plans. Even though “formal” actors are beginning to adopt the rhetoric of “upgrading,” they usually stray from its original “informal” meaning. “Informal settlement upgrading” still means programmatic, State-driven responses to urban poverty. The “informal” does not fit so easily with the strictures of the “formal.” Incrementalism gets brushed aside in favor of rhetorical slights of hand that only glance at the true intentions of “informal” solutions.

The issue of incrementalism got a high-profile mention this week in an article in the Financial Times’ latest installment of its special issues on cities. Heba Saleh reports on development plans in Cairo, where slum dwellers are getting pushed further and further out of the city, while more poor people push back into the city for jobs:

The result is that Cairo is ringed with extensive areas of densely inhabited slums, where the streets are often too narrow for cars to pass and no land has been allocated for services such as schools, hospitals, markets or parks. But affordability and proximity to jobs in the central parts of the city continue to attract people to these neighborhoods, where homeowners build cheap but sturdy housing, adding extra rooms or floors whenever they have the cash.

Laila Iskandar, a development expert who heads CID Consultants, argues that the dynamics in the slums have much to teach government planners when they lay down their schemes for the expansion of the city. “All they are thinking about is how to send people to live in the desert [around the city],” she says. “They still have a top-down European view of the city and they deny that migrants from the countryside need a style of housing that they are not planning for.”

“These people do not have lump sums to pay for flats, and mortgages are out of their reach. Rent is also too expensive for them. They need to be able to build their homes incrementally.”

In the coming months, we will explore this theme further, analyzing examples of incremental solutions, and the ways in which the “informal” world can lead the “formal” world to actionable solutions to the problems of urban poverty. Your comments are, as always, most welcome.