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Strategies of participatory upgrading and the promotion of a social compact

Isandla Institute | 2021-08-04 | 244 views

It is now widely acknowledged that evictions and demolitions are highly inappropriate responses to informal housing. In a break with the past, policymakers in South Africa and elsewhere have largely moved away from the language of ‘slum eradication’ to an acceptance that informal settlements are here to stay. This is encouraging, and demonstrates a recognition that neither South Africa’s public housing programme nor the formal housing market are managing to keep pace with the demand for affordable housing. If informal settlements cannot be eradicated, then the question now becomes: how can informal settlements be upgraded in a way that improves the dignity, safety and livelihoods of their residents?

The shift towards informal settlement upgrading in South Africa has been accompanied by the development of a progressive policy environment. Not only is upgrading being prioritised over eradication, but the discourse of participation, community involvement in planning and decision-making processes, and active citizenship is also present in public policy. In short, our policies call for a community-centred approach to development rather than a continuation of the current top-down, target driven methods.

There is great value in participatory upgrading. People who live in an area are likely to more fully understand the challenges that it faces. Their knowledge of the area and the people who live there can play a crucial role in ensuring that aspects of upgrading that are missed by purely technical approaches are also considered and included. Upgrading projects involving genuine participation from residents respond more closely to local needs and contexts. Importantly, upgrading projects also gain legitimacy if they are conducted in collaboration with communities that are directly affected. If people have a meaningful stake in both the process and outcomes of upgrading, they are more likely to invest their time, energy and resources in ensuring that it takes place successfully.

Unfortunately, practice has not kept pace with policy and genuinely participatory informal settlement upgrading has only taken place on a modest scale. The process of participatory upgrading is challenging, and government institutions and officials have struggled to carry it out. Similarly, informal settlement upgrading relies on collaboration and coordination between different spheres of government – something that has been sorely lacking and is clearly very challenging to achieve. Another key issue, and one picked up in an earlier Planning for Informality blog, is that government indicators of success still focus largely on the number of homes delivered or sites upgraded, with little attention being paid to the process of policy implementation and the broader effects that it has. Measuring (and monetising) performance purely in relation to numerical targets stands in the way of iterative, meaningful community engagement processes.

The fact that participatory upgrading has only been implemented at a limited scale does not mean that it should be abandoned. If anything, the success of the participatory upgrading initiatives that have taken place suggest that significantly more capacity and priority should be afforded to the approach.

The importance of trust and a social compact

If participatory upgrading is ever to be successfully rolled out at scale, questions of mutual trust, transparency and accountability will have to be brought to the fore. Truly participatory upgrading takes time and relies on a careful balancing of competing pressures. Many people and institutions, some of whom have diverting interests, need to collaborate to bring upgrading to fruition. Maintaining good relationships is crucial, as the withdrawal of any of the partners can lead to long delays, project failure or even protest action. And like in many other aspects of our lives, the basis of good relationships between different partners is trust.

Residents and officials need to have access to the same information, and communities should have a clear say in difficult decisions that require trade-offs. It can no longer be the case that officials and consultants take important decisions on behalf of the people who will be directly affected by them. Assuming that residents are not capable of weighing up different options and choosing between them reflects an approach to urban planning that has long been critiqued for its paternalism. Excluding residents from decisions also means that blame and mistrust are more likely to emerge when things do not go according to plan. Of particular importance is clear communication about timelines and allocation policies – both of which are frequently strong sites of contention.

It is also important to highlight that the social compact between residents and officials is not unidirectional. Participatory upgrading is more likely to be successful in communities that are organised, informed and engaged. By proactively gathering information about policies, plans, strategies and timeframes, residents can improve their position in the upgrading process. Similarly, residents can gather settlement-level information, and then use this to inform how upgrading takes place. Above all, both residents and officials need to treat each other with mutual respect and do everything in their power to engender trust. After all, participatory upgrading relies on a functional social compact, which in turn relies to a large degree on trust.



Slum upgrading remains the most financially and socially appropriate approach to addressing the challenge of existing slums. UN Habitat (A Practical Guide to Designing, Planning, and Executing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programmes 2015 (PDF), page 15)

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