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Approaches to the Upgrading of Informal Settlements

Isandla Institute | 2019-04-02 | 664 views

There are a number of approaches to informal settlement upgrading, such as in situ upgrading, reblocking, and superblocking. A look at the characteristics of each allows for a better understanding of their respective benefits, as well as highlighting the necessity for community participation from the planning stage to ensure the sustainability of these upgrading approaches.

In Situ Upgrading of Monwabisi Park

Monwabisi Park is one of the five informal settlements where the City of Cape Town embarked on a pilot programme for in situ upgrading in 2010. The upgrading process in these areas was participatory in nature, with the first step being the establishment of steering committees. The committees were tasked with identifying community assets and issues that retard the development of the areas, which necessitated training on how to conduct participatory surveys. The results of these formed the basis for community action plans (CAPs) for each settlement.

The settlements received considerable infrastructural upgrades, including improvements to water and sanitation services, the transportation network and other public infrastructure.. A holistic development strategy tailor-made to each settlement was developed.

Monwabisi Park is a good example of participatory in situ upgrading of an informal settlement achieved by means of co-production or partnership between the relevant stakeholders, namely the Monwabisi Park residents, the City of Cape Town and an intermediary, Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU). The City partnered with the community in this process.

The upgrading of Monwabisi Park was not only characterised by infrastructure development (both on- and off-the-grid) but also sought to address socio-economic issues [1]. Positive impacts included 7 Emthonjenis (public spaces around water standpipes); 2 kickabout fields; a community facility; improved access to early childhood development (ECD) (from 19% to 53% within 3 years); gender-based violence support; legal aid; business creation support; the establishment of neighbourhood watches; a representative leadership forum; and more than 30 small-scale projects to improve social cohesion via a Social Development Fund amongst others. The City also distributed occupation certificates to Monwabisi residents- a significant step towards security of tenure [2].

Reblocking in Ruimsig, Johannesburg

Ruimsig informal settlement is located on the West Rand of the Johannesburg metropolitan area. The local community, inspired by the success of the Sheffield Road and Joe Slovo settlements in Cape Town, decided to do reblocking in their settlement with the support of the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) [3].

Reblocking refers to reconfiguring informal shack settlements to enable safer and less congested environments as well as easier access for emergency vehicles. The benefits of reblocking include a reduction in congestion and densities to create safer areas for children to play, and so that shacks can be improved and basic services upgraded. The project was completed in two phases. The first was undertaken in 2011 with the reblocking of 38 shacks from the flood-prone wetlands area, and the second phase involved the reblocking of 96 shacks which commenced in 2012.

The process began with community mobilisation and enumeration. This was followed by mapping of the settlement undertaken jointly by University of Johannesburg students and community members, through an agreement between the university and the community [4]. The information gathered through this process was used to inform the design for a new spatial arrangement for laying out settlement blocks. It was imperative for the shack dwellers to play a major role in the upgrading process as they would be the ones living with the consequences of the process.

The support of the City of Johannesburg was instrumental in the process. The total project was budgeted at R341 000, of which the community contributed 16% of the funds. Reblocking brought a renewed sense of belonging and dignity to the residents.


Superblocking is a method of upgrading an expansive informal settlement, which involves increasing access by sectioning off the settlement into blocks, taking into account the existing movement routes, pathways and desire lines through the informal settlement.

The street layout enables new addresses and street names, with residents acquiring a form of collective and incremental tenure arrangement i.e. administrative and legal recognition. At a later stage these blocks can be further sub-divided or reblocked. Additionally, individual title can be provided with time.

Superblocking enables shared and individual service infrastructure to be installed. The City of Cape Town successfully superblocked Monwabisi Park in 2007 and is currently in the process of superblocking Sweet Home Farm and Imizamo Yethu informal settlements [5].


From the examples above, one can tell that informal settlement upgrading is multifaceted. It involves:
* The provision of access to basic services and the improvement of standards of service delivery for both off-grid and on-grid infrastructure.
* The provision of security of tenure. This can be done incrementally from administrative recognition of communities or individuals to leasehold or free hold tenure.
* Incremental upgrading of housing structures.

Independent of which upgrading approach or combination of approaches is envisaged for a particular settlement, community participation from the planning stage is crucial for the sustainability of the upgrading approach, interventions and facilities. If communities take part in the process, dignity is restored and facilities are better maintained (Refer to the documentary “Negotiating Space”, produced by the Isandla Institute). Furthermore, municipalities should, wherever possible, leverage intermediaries working in communities for technical support in order to increase effectiveness and efficiency in the upgrading process. Doing so potentially increases the scale and effectiveness of upgrading across the municipality.

1. Zack, T., Hamilton, R., Cachucho, E. & Suttner, S. 2013. Promoting Caring Cities – the Case of South Africa’s Metropoles. South African Cities Network. p. 28.
2. Harrison, K. & Rosa, S. 2017. Promoting Safety and Violence Prevention Through Informal Settlement Upgrading - Lessons from different informal settlement interventions for practitioners and policy makers. African Centre for Cities (ACC), Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU). Inclusive Violence and Crime Prevention Programme (VCP) and Isandla Institute.
3. Bolnick, A. 2012. Chapter 5: Transforming Minds and Setting Precedents: Blocking-out at Ruimsig Informal Settlement. State of Local Government. Community Organisation Resource Centre and Ikhayalami. Available at:
4. National Upgrading Support Programme. 2015. Training Manual: Introduction to Informal Settlement Upgrading Section 8: Layout and Infrastructure. Available at:
5. Ibid.

Written by Martha Hungwe, Isandla Institute

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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