Informal Settlements

May 2010

Informal Settlements - the illegal city of Kibera

May 14, 2010 3:32 AM
Emma Engleson

Informal Settlements and the illegal city of Kibera

Emma Engleson

Nairobi, Kenya

Today more people live in urban areas than ever before. This also indicates that our cities are changing rapidly and will continue to do so. A resilient city is flexible and adaptable to changing conditions, both in terms of social, economical and physical development.

There are two main growing urbanities in the world today, the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical is mainly taking place in cities in Asia and consist of high-rise buildings. The horizontal occurs in the global south and consists informal settlements, where 1 billion of the world’s population live.

Definition of informal settlements:

“1. Areas where groups of housing units have been constructed on land that the occupants have no legal claim to, or occupy illegally;

2. Unplanned settlements and areas where housing is not in compliance with current planning and building regulations (unauthorized housing).”

Glossary of Environment Statistics, Studies in Methods, Series F, No. 67, United Nations, New York, 1997.

Informal settlements becomes a melting pot for socially exposed people, living in neighbourhoods with insufficient infrastructure, such as water and sanitation. This leads to severe health issues.

These areas do not only stand for problems, they also have a freedom where people can express themselves and affect their surroundings, in a direct way.

The informal settlements are where most of the economical poverty in the city is located. People strive to live in the cities for economical reasons, cities are icons for development. In the Southern part of the globe, cities do not have the same economical resources as the Western countries. The cities can not supply the population with formal employment.

A secure income lets people invest in the city, both financially, socially and physically.

Kibera is one of the largest informal settlements in the world, with an estimated population from half to 1 million on an area of 2.5 square kilometres. It is located 5 kilometres south-west of central Nairobi in Kenya.

The segregation in Nairobi today can be traced back to when Kenya was a British colony. Though the colonial time racial segregation was implemented through planning and regulations. Today it is determined by land value, and the areas that where attractive during the last century are still the most popular.

Kibera is next to a river in a slope, therefore it is exposed to flooding during the rainy season. This is a typical location for informal settlements which often develop on land that is expensive to exploit.

Even though Kibera might seem unorganized, that is not the case. Informal settlements are often very organized, but not according to the official planning system.

Kibera is divided in to villages, and these have different characteristics. There is a fine pattern for residential and commercial areas. And this is mirrored in land value inside Kibera. Some parts of Kibera is more exposed to flooding and have stepper slopes that are harder to build in, hence the lower land value. Areas close to crowded streets have higher value, because they can be used for commerce that is income-generating.

Most of the inhabitants of Kibera rent their houses. The owners of the houses are often people from the elite in Kenya or persons that have been living in Kibera for a long time.

Because Kibera is illegal the goverment does not supply the area with sufficient infrastructure. Today there are many organisations implementing different projects in Kibera especially in water and sanitation issues. But water and sanitation are still the main problem for peoples health.

A more resilient strategy to deal with this area would be to take part in the existing situation and try to enhance the living standard, and emphasizing the positive habits in the neighbourhood.

Something which is positive, is that people have a strong will to improve their situation.
They have created their own infrastructure to provide basic services. Starting a business helps many people to an income when the formal employment is not enough. People have a lot of knowledge about their neighbourhood and what they do.

Main Goal:

Strengthening already existing positive conditions = entrepreneurship

Use for implementing self-generating infrastructure


Small-scale infrastructure in different layers working together to create a spatial design, using local knowledge and materials.

-Social infrastructure: designing a platform where people can convey knowledge and learn new, and with a focus on infrastructure theory and implementation.

-Economic infrastructure: Supply alternative ways to get funding. An example of this is the already existing network of Marry - go - around´s, where a group of people save money each week and then take turns in using them.

-Physical infrastructure: social + economical = physical. Implemented in phases in a neighbourhood, with the criteria to function as a trigger point to generate activity for the people neighbourhood by the people in the neighbourhood.

Using the village of Kinda as a case study for visualising the concept.

Implementing rainwater collecting tanks adjacent to commercial buildings, so that the businesses will benefit. Most of the cost will be paid by the vendors. But not only the vendors will benefit, more and easier access will also benefit surrounding households.

A system of elevated pipes distribute the water to the residential areas. The implementation skills will be taught in the area.

Strategy for pipe connections

Elevated water system

A series of these implementations will create a pattern of “water hubs” that will eventually support the area with water.

This is a strategy that can be used on different areas, with adjustment to the local context.






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