Climate resilience building in informal settlement upgrading processes

By Jorgelina Hardoy, Instituto Internacional de Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo, IIED – América Latinai

More than half the world’s urban population lives in urban centres with less than a million inhabitants; for Africa, it is 63%; for Asia and for Latin America and the Caribbean it is 54%. These cities get far less attention than their demographic, economic and governance importance deserves – and far less attention to developing their climate change policies. One difficulty facing climate change policy and action in cities is that so much of what is needed is not considered part of climate change policies. Another is that when there is attention paid to climate action, both nationally and internationally, it usually concerns larger cities. We know far less about how intermediary cities are responding to climate change, whom they are engaging with, the types of constraints they face, etc.

We know that climate related risks are amplified for those who live in informal settlements and hazard prone areas that lack essential infrastructure and services, adequate housing and inadequate provision for adaptation. Around 1 billion people live in informal settlements, mostly in urban areas or low- and middle-income countries. Over the years, we have become aware of the important connection between addressing deficits in what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) terms ‘risk reducing’ infrastructure and services (piped water that is safe, sufficient and affordable; good-quality sanitation and electricity; all-weather access roads; storm and surface drainage and street lighting, hospitals/health care, emergency services), disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and mitigation. In many places around the world these services and infrastructure are inexistent or of poor quality. But in order to design and implement effective upgrading processes, there also needs to be better data on informal settlements and the crucial role these processes play.

In fact, informal settlement upgrading programmes developed long before we had any realistic measure of the impacts of climate change. Indeed, there is a long record of upgrading experiences in different regions. For example, upgrading is included as a programme in most Latin American countries. There are significant differences in what upgrading processes provide but, in every region, there are interesting cases and lessons to share. Studies by the Inter-American Development Bank show that in Latin America 94% of the urban housing deficit is associated with inadequate living conditions in informal settlements (lack of access to improved water and sanitation facilities, insufficient living area and housing durability, and insecure tenure). Improving all of these conditions, directly or indirectly, builds climate resilience. Moreover, given the high proportion of urban population living in small and intermediary cities[1], it is essential to support their governments and communities to jointly address climate challenges, especially through good planning and governance, applying an integral, cross-cutting approach.  

A number of informal settlement upgrading initiatives to build resilience to climate change are being driven by community organisations and/or local governments. But this is hardly the norm and the challenges informal settlements face remain huge. Those upgrading programmes that have engaged in integrated responses and incorporated environmental goals are usually complementary to the physical transformation of a neighbourhood. They seldom go a step beyond to plan ahead using a resilience lens. This would entail investing in better spatial planning, environmental services, social organisation, capacity building, connectivity, innovation in housing, infrastructure and service provision, etc., to provide for the needs these neighbourhoods will have over the coming years in a context of climate change.

To summarise, there are four ‘must haves’ for upgrading initiatives to contribute to climate resilience building. The first two should be pre-requisites in any upgrading process, the last two need to be incorporated more broadly.

  • Support grassroots organisations to ensure the initiatives are rooted in real needs and priorities.
  • Support genuine local partnerships (local governments, local communities, utilities, local universities, etc.) to ensure coherence and continuity of neighbourhood transformation processes.
  • Accelerate the incorporation of climate considerations when funding and investing in upgrading initiatives, long lasting infrastructure, and land use transformation.
  • Ensure funding that supports incorporating climate resilience in upgrading processes, including support to develop local funding sources.

i. Cities with less than a million inhabitants


[1] The findings in this blog are extracted from an upcoming paper by the IIED (David Satterthwaite and Jorgelina Hardoy)