A brief introduction to partnership-based upgrading

by James Tayler

By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

There is not and will never be a one-size-fits-all approach to upgrading informal settlements. Every settlement has its own technical issues such as land ownership, land quality, and shack organization. Every settlement also has its own social issues such as history, communal organization, and labor. SDI has found, through practice, that there are a series of steps by which government and communities, working together, can engage the uniqueness of each settlement, and find ways to upgrade settlements that are sustainable and scalable.

Upgrading through partnership with communities can seem difficult. But the alternative is worse. Officials in almost every municipality in the country can tell at least one story of an upgrade that was refused because there was not enough buy-in to the project on the part of the community. The challenge is to identify and encourage the proliferation of community organizations and networks that can facilitate the following protocols for producing partnership-based informal settlement upgrades. Through partnership, municipal officials can strengthen their cities and towns to be forward thinking, people-centered, and productive places to work, play, and live.

Defining upgrading: Informal settlement upgrading is not simply “site and service,” or the provision of full services minus a top-structure. Upgrading is any intervention that improves the physical properties of a settlement that enhances the lives of its inhabitants. This can either start with or should lead to security of tenure. Therefore, upgrading can many anything from drainage installation, to communal toilets, to the blocking out of shacks, to lighting, to community facilities such as halls or schools or gymnasia, to incremental housing improvements (either individually or in any configuration), etc.

Enumeration: Communities and human settlements can only be upgraded by building on the local knowledge and capacities that exist within a given settlement. Through the practice of enumeration, communities count themselves, develop a detailed socio-economic profile of the settlement, and begin setting developmental priorities. Communities use the enumeration to confirm the identified need for upgrading and to create space for dialogue around planning for the future of the settlement.

Partnership with municipal government is built through the sanctioning of the enumeration by the municipality, including an agreement to incorporate the information gathered into the municipal planning process. Sometimes, local officials may question the validity of statistics gathered by communities. SDI has experienced many cases where communities and officials work together to verify information, so that everyone is satisfied as to their legitimacy. At the end of the day, communities must own the process by which information is collected. This also builds capacity for participatory planning rooted in the information gathered from an enumeration.

Savings: When communities have a stake in the development they are able to sustain it. Experience has proven that when communities contribute actual financial resources to upgrading their settlements, they become active participants in the process. SDI’s experience is that a contribution amounting to approximately 10% of the cost of the upgrading builds ownership and trust within the communities to implement and manage the financial and social aspects of any project.

City-wide networks of communities: Social problems are sure to arise in an informal settlement upgrading project. Upgrading means change, and any process of change is bound to kick up dust. It is important for municipalities to work with networks of poor communities that can serve as interlocutors. These community-based actors can help support a community as it goes through the inevitable challenges of an upgrading process. They can help support the establishment of savings schemes, and the practice of community-led enumerations, as well as help develop practical capacity to work with technical professionals. Network leaders can also support the municipality to engage a community on a sustainable basis. Finally, these networks can facilitate the exchange of learning from one upgrade to many other settlements, so that the capacity for the implementation of future projects is greater.