Integrating Informal Communities

Medellín is making housing safer and building a culture of inclusion

Medellín is collaborating with slum residents on housing retrofits to improve their living conditions, better incorporate them into the rest of the city, and mitigate the city’s exposure to the risk of landslides and earthquakes.

Rapid urbanization has led to an explosion of informal settlements across the world, especially in the Global South. Today roughly one billion people live in such communities, often called slums. With over 90% of global urban growth occurring in developing countries, and 70 million more people being added to cities in those regions each year, the population of informal communities is expected to soar.

The UN defines slum households as having one or more of five “deprivations,” including lacking sufficient access to water, sanitation, living space, land tenure, and structurally sound dwellings. Informal settlements are frequently associated with high rates of crime, disease, and extreme poverty. And yet they are often also remarkable examples of community ingenuity and resilience, with residents working collaboratively to supply basic services, including sewage, waste collection, education, and housing to support the needs of their families and neighbors.

Medellín, Colombia

While Medellín is often hailed for its amazing resurgence, it still struggles with informal communities and other legacies of its tumultuous past. In 1988, Time Magazine called it “the most dangerous city in the world,” with its sprawling slums central to that designation. From 1951 to 1973, Medellín tripled in size, to over one million people.

That population growth coincided with other chronic stresses, such as poverty, poor planning, and insufficient infrastructure. These factors drove the most vulnerable residents to build illegal houses on the precarious hillsides around the city, prone to landslides and far removed from the commercial center of the valley floor and the basic services offered by the city. The drug trade filled this vacuum, and soon controlled much of the city. In 1991, 6,349 people in Medellín were murdered — 17 people per day.

Since 1991, the homicide rate has decreased by 95%. Between 2002 and today, the poverty rate fell by 22.5%. Medellín achieved this via a concerted effort by numerous groups within and beyond the city government that together systematically considered Medellín’s challenges — crime, poverty, lack of social services, disparate communities, lack of opportunity — as interconnected. Most notably, the city built an innovative public transportation system that connected disenfranchised communities to the rest of the city, dramatically reducing commute time and congestion, boosting social cohesion, and offering greater economic opportunities. The city was truly a pioneer of urban resilience.

However, the city still contends with the informal communities surrounding the city, which continue to expand despite their risk of landslides. Medellín today has turned away from past policies that focused only on slum clearance, and toward more humane and ultimately practical investments in upgrading and formally incorporating the communities. As part of its resilience work with 100RC, Medellín acknowledged that the security of these communities is inextricable from the city’s overall ability to thrive. The city is therefore pursuing programs that support better home construction while also strengthening residents’ capacity and investment in their communities. In conjunction with 100RC´s Platform Partner Build Change, an organization that supports cities’ efforts to improve building safety through seismic retrofits, Medellín is taking concrete steps to secure its slums by reducing their vulnerability to earthquakes and landslides, and developing local skills.

In seeking to address this challenge, the partners realized that the path to a solution required making changes at the national level. Therefore, Medellín´s Resilience Office worked with Build Change to create a manual that establishes the technical procedures and guidelines for retrofitting houses for earthquake resilience throughout Colombia. The National Association of Seismic 3 1 Engineering approved those guidelines, thereby allowing them to be applied nationally and adopted by any municipality.

The Medellín Secretariat of Planning not only approved the guidelines for the city, but also provided financing to pilot the retrofits on 50 homes. The city is now working with the World Bank to secure the resources to expand that pilot to thousands of hillside households in the coming years. The seismic retrofits program empowers communities themselves to complete the work, in order to bolster the local economy, improve community risk management and awareness, and foster a greater sense of community ownership among homeowners and local builders. Build Change is now training local builders in the communities alongside of the city’s engineers and contractors in the necessary building techniques and methods to evaluate and retrofit the houses.

In the long term, the program is designed to educate and empower homeowners in Medellín’s slums and connect them to federal government subsidies that were created following a major earthquake in the 1990s (available for up to 21x minimum wage or approximately US$7,000) to carry out seismic retrofits. Currently, the subsidies are well-known only as a way to carry out kitchen or bathroom upgrades and cosmetic improvements, but when paired with community outreach and incentives they offer a path to accelerating these important risk reduction efforts for informal settlements.

Along with the multiple benefits accrued to the families in each retrofitted home, a critical mass of retrofits will lower the risk to the city as a whole of facing significant economic losses and causalities as a result of a major seismic event or landslide.

Across the Network: Informal Communities

Many of 100RC’s member cities have large populations of informal communities. Including Dakar, Durban, Lagos, Medellín, Mexico City, Porto Alegre, Quito, Rio de Janeiro, Santa Fe, Surat, and more.

  • BANGKOK has a large population of vulnerable migrant workers who face poverty, dangerous working conditions, high risks for disease, and informal living situations, as well as significant exposure to flooding. The city’s Resilience Strategy includes initiatives that will assess the current state of migrants’ housing and workplace conditions, and spur official enforcement of existing codes and standards where employers or landlords are failing to comply.
  • DA NANG is at a high risk of severe tropical storms and flooding, and less than half of the city’s residents live in what are classified as permanent homes. The city’s Resilience Strategy includes multiple actions that partner with the community to source finance and improve the technical capacity of local builders to retrofit such homes to be more resistant to severe storms, and to ensure that new homes are built according to best practices. Da Nang is also looking to pilot an insurance mechanism for disaster resilient housing, pending the introduction of new national legislation to promote the development of a residential housing catastrophe insurance market.
  • PORTO ALEGRE has begun its resilience work by streamlining the process required to regularize land ownership rights for slum dwellers and to make additional land available for housing development. The city is now pairing this legislative work with public information campaigns, so that residents can better understand the laws and how to exercise their rights within them.
  • SANTA FE has a substantial number of families living in informal settlements in untenable flood plains, and has been working to resettle them to less risky areas for nearly a decade. Through their resilience work, they identified gaps in previous resettlement efforts around community input and the provision of a wider range of social support services to the resettled families. For example, they found that many of the households in need of resettlement are headed by young mothers, who have struggled to finish their studies and find employment while also caring for their children. Therefore, the city now assigns a social worker to each family, who helps with skills training and job qualifications. Santa Fe is also setting up new city-run kindergartens to assist with childcare needs. Thanks to this recognition of the interdependencies between housing, education, crime, and families, these and other new tools and methodologies for greater inclusivity and service provision will be incorporated into resettlement programs going forward.