Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Slums, Titles and the World's Simplest Zoning Code

Although from the perspective of a resident of the United States, Canada, Western Europe or a handful of other countries, the organic pattern of city growth might seem to be a historical bygone, visible only in those portions of cities developed before the late 17th century, the last 50 years have in fact produced the greatest wave of emergent urbanism in human history.  This growth, reflected in the so-called slums of South and Central America, Africa and Asia, utterly dwarfs in scale any formally-planned public housing built during that time, and currently houses between 1 and 1.4 billion people worldwide.

"Slum" (Rio De Janeiro) and below ...
These settlements, built with virtually no guidance or oversight, produce urban environments of extraordinary complexity, beside which even the most carefully designed project can seem simplistic by comparison.  Although they are not always beautiful in a conventional sense, their astonishing variety makes them a favorite of photographers with an artist's eye and appreciation for the visual interest of a basic built form repeated in endless irregular variations across a dramatic landscape, much like the Italian Cinqueterre or the towns of the Aegean islands. 
... international tourist destination (Riomaggiore).

A New York times article, writing about the Mumbai slum that was the setting for the film "Slumdog Millionaire," describes how the visual complexity of these places is matched by their economic complexity and the resourcefulness of their inhabitants -- an inventiveness that recalls Jane Jacobs' observations in The Economy of Cities:
"Understanding such a place solely by the generic term “slum” ignores its complexity and dynamism. Dharavi’s messy appearance is nothing but an expression of intense social and economic processes at work. Most homes double as work spaces: when morning comes, mattresses are folded, and tens of thousands of units form a decentralized production network rivaling the most ruthless of Chinese sweatshops in efficiency. Mixed-use habitats have often shaped urban histories. Look at large parts of Tokyo. Its low-rise, high-density mixed-use cityscape and intricate street network have emerged through a similar Dharaviesque logic. The only difference is that people’s involvement in local development in Tokyo was seen as legitimate."
The traditional response to such settlements by city and national governments, still common today, is to evict the inhabitants and demolish the structures. Uprooting the community in this fashion destroyed the energy and scarce resources that the residents had put into their dwellings, disrupted social and economic networks, while the construction of new public housing, intended to host at least some of the displaced residents, redirected government revenue that might have been used to improve the existing settlement to building an inadequate number of units which were poorly suited for people's social and economic needs

More recently, in acknowledgment of the counterproductiveness of demolition, various South American governments, notably Mexico and Peru, have begun issuing formal titles to the possessors of slum properties.  The stated purpose of this approach, advocated by economist Hernando de Soto and endorsed by none other than Milton Friedman, is to increase tenure security and to permit the land to be used as security for business loans. 

So far, although titling of properties has led to an average 25 percent increase in land values, the promised access to capital has largely failed to materialize.  Further, the awarding of formal titles has often served as an invitation to outside real estate interests to enter the market, futher inflating prices and potentially driving out the very people whose tenure the titling program was purportedly designed to protect.  In Mumbai, this process took the form of large apartment towers sprouting in the low-rise Dharavi slum, adding height without necessarily increasing density (in any event population density in these areas appears to be exceptionally high even in the absence of buildings over three stories).

An alternative approach, adopted mainly in the Brazilian city of Recife, has been to provide tenure security not with titles, but by recognition of the community's claim to the land, combined with the implementation of what is perhaps the simplest zoning code to be found anywhere in the world: 1) a two-story height limit; and 2) a maximum lot size of 150 square meters (1,615 square feet).  Informal exchanges of property, without deed recording or title transfer, continue unhindered, reducing transaction costs and encouraging an extremely flexible urbanism where boundaries and structures rapidly adapt to changing needs. 

Mathieu Helie argues that the remarkable organic form of these slums is dependent on this openness -- an attempt to make them conform to a particular notion of property rights (that of individual freehold ownership by way of titles, deed recording and plat maps) is to deprive it of the flexibility that allowed it to take shape in the first place:
"After praising slums for their ability to generate economic opportunities, they are denounced [by a City Journal article] for not fitting into the conventional model of property rights. Yet it is precisely the use of more natural methods of property allocation that gives slums their organic morphology. ...

"Just like we can’t make the organic morphology of slums fit into the modern rules of property ownership, we can’t make traditionally emergent cities through the current planning system. (All efforts to produce traditional neighborhoods have so far produced only imitations of them.) ..."
The question of how to produce such traditional or emergent environments in a developed country in the present day is one which people such as Christopher Alexander have devoted their careers to, but answers, in practice, remain elusive.  The example of places like Recife does suggest the answer could be simpler than ever imagined.

Sources and Additional Reading:
Urban Land Tenure Options: Titles or Rights?
Regularization of Informal Settlements in Latin America
Secure Tenure in Latin America and the Caribbean
The Role of Urban Slum Titling in Slum Improvement


  1. Typically, what makes these places a "slum," besides the low income aspect, is problems with public utilities. What if you had a place like this with fully modern water, sewage, electricity, and garbage collection, and at least a little attention paid to basic public works (for example, some sort of pavement on the roads, adequate drainage, a few public parks, and so forth).

    I think the Don Muang district near the airport in Bangkok is an interesting neighborhood. It has a layout similar to these "slums," and incomes are not high, but the basic utility infrastructure is good and the end result is quite clean and pleasant.

    Historically, especially in the U.S., the provision of modern utilities has been accompanied by a 19th or 20th Century Hypertrophic layout, so we now assume that they go together. However, especially in Asian cities, they have kept the old layout but added the modern utilities. Most of the streets of Tokyo weren't even paved in 1950.

  2. Nathan: I ought to have mentioned, infrastructure upgrades frequently accompany these titling or "regularization" initiatives. Nonetheless even in the absence of state action the slums seem to naturally improve over time -- the opposite of the planned neighborhood which starts out fully provisioned and gradually decays. The Rio slum pictured may have started out as a collection of ramshackle huts but today is mainly built of concrete and block-and-mortar.

    I do wonder, though, whether it's possible to reconcile an emergent design process with immediate access to basic utilities. Laying out power lines, water mains and sewers before development arrives is essentially a speculative process requiring existing rights-of-way (i.e. a planned street network), whereas the growth of the slums, though incremental and non-speculative, defies predictability.

  3. I don't know about the favelas in Recife, but in Rio many buildings are higher than two floors. Squatters build 1-2 floors for themselves, and then sell air rights to other squatters, who then build subsequent floors.

    The maximum lot size is also an issue, though at least in Recife it's high enough to not turn the middle class off. In Mumbai, the government's attempt at regularization includes a stringent floor area limit (I believe 38 square meters per apartment), and this ensures that squatters who are evicted for urban renewal can only get access to substandard housing.

    By the way, have you read Robert Neuwirth's book Shadow Cities? It does not go into Recife, but it does go into Rio and Mumbai, and talk about how the property model there is different from the one favored by Western capitalists.

  4. Alon: have not read it, but will add it to the reading list. The idea in Recife that a government can secure property rights not only by monopolizing a system of titling and recording but also by simply providing a blank slate upon which a variety of property ownership models can coexist is to me one of most interesting aspects of this whole topic.

  5. Something else to ponder: there is enormous variation in what is called a "slum". Johannesburg's Soweto, Brazilian favelas, and Turkish gecekondular tend to be significantly more well-built than Kibera, say.

    Actually, the more well-built organic "slums" tend to be about as well built as an American dingbat...and a whole lot more urban to boot.

  6. Nathan Lewis:
    Typically, what makes these places a "slum," besides the low income aspect, is problems with public utilities. What if you had a place like this with fully modern water, sewage, electricity, and garbage collection, and at least a little attention paid to basic public works (for example, some sort of pavement on the roads, adequate drainage, a few public parks, and so forth).
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    How would that be implemented while providing the flexible ownership described here?

    Physically you need to define lots, and provide service to each one.

    Financially you need someone undertaking to pay for services delivered.

  7. Steve -- good point. There is no bright line between a "slum" and a "proper (but organic) neighborhood," but more of a gradual continuum. The non slum-labeled neighborhoods around Dharavi share its organic form but may simply represent a later stage of growth and development. The newest "slum" dwellings in Rio appear to be of approximately the same quality as that of the regional vernacular (reinforced concrete skeleton enclosed with clay block), and compare quite favorably with some of what is to be found in the outlying planned neighborhoods.

  8. You should really think of it as a 2*2 grid, with planned vs. organic an independent dimension from formal vs. informal. New York, Paris, and many other industrial cities are planned and formal; Tokyo and London and organic and formal; the favelas are organic and informal. But the fourth square in the grid used to exist as well: in the 19th century, much of New York consisted of squatter settlements, often right along the street grid, all of which were demolished.

    This is one of the topics discussed in Neuwirth's book, which dedicates an entire chapter to New York. Neuwirth points out that it was especially easy to evict squatters in the US, because under common law it is very difficult to establish adverse possession: it used to require 20 years on private land and 40 on public land, and requires the possession to actually be adverse, e.g. it's voided if the squatter ever pays rent to the legal owner. In contrast, civil law jurisdictions gave more protections to tenants, making regularization easier. Turkey represents an extreme case: due to rules carried over from the Ottoman era, tenants have more protections than owners (the equivalent of adverse possession requires only 5 years), and as a result the gecekondu settlements of Istanbul have been very easy to regularize.

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