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HOME > No.21, May 2020 > Feature Story : Considering the appeal of cities through informal settlements

Considering the appeal of cities through informal settlements

Haruka Ono

Urban planning specialist Dr. Haruka Ono, lecturer in Architecture and Civil Engineering at Toyohashi University of Technology, specializes in the study of informal settlements, the kind of sprawling residential areas found outside of cities in places such as Africa and India. Informal settlements are organically occurring urban developments that exist beyond public frameworks such as urban planning laws and land systems. In particular, the crowded informal settlements in Africa and India are an intake hub for rapidly growing urban populations. This contributes to the creation of slums. On the other hand, due to unique rules and residential practices, some aspects of these settlements can actually be more appealing than existing intentionally-built cities. Dr. Ono is continuing fieldwork with students to discover the main factors of their appeal.

Interview and report by Madoka Tainaka

From backpacking to fieldwork

As an elementary school student, Dr. Ono was interested in the issues of global conflict and poverty, and she dreamed of finding a job where she could help people around the world.

Determined to see what was actually going on around the world with her own eyes, she took time off from university and spent two to three years backpacking through Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and South America. Among these, the region that impacted her most was Africa.

"I was bewildered by the cultural differences in the way that Africans and Asians managed personal distance compared with people in Asia. As a result, I could not communicate well. Something felt cold,” says Dr. Ono. “What shocked me was the way that people were living in modern cities, which were built by European nations in the colonial era. Being built over a century ago, they were deteriorating and not very lively. I think this is partially due to the local religions and culture being oppressed under colonial rule. This was the first time I began to think about the true identity of Africa," she says.

Informal settlement of Nairobi
Informal settlement of Nairobi

Once Dr. Ono eventually began working as a researcher in urban planning, she focused her attention on the informal settlements sprawling around the fringes of modernized cities. These illegally inhabited and dense slum areas developed without any planning.

"Historically, informal settlements have been targeted as being in need of improvement. However, after going into them, I found them to be quite attractive spaces, with close connections between people and a uniquely African identity. In Japan, development has progressed through urban planning, but I don’t find the new cities to be very appealing. I therefore investigated how the residents of informal settlements thought about creating their space and rules, and I considered how to apply my findings to future urban planning," she says.

Moderate government intervention and land ownership are key

In the Rwandan capital of Kigali, 79% of the population lives in informal settlements. While the government works to resettle and improve the area, residents living in the informal settlements are putting up their own capital and working to improve their living environment.

Informal settlement of Kigali and road paved by residents
Informal settlement of Kigali and road paved by residents

“The key is moderate government intervention,” says Dr. Ono. “Residents are granted a certain amount of land ownership even on illegally acquired land, which they can then use as collateral for loans. In addition, ownership creates an attachment to the land, which helps encourage behavior to improve and retain its value as an asset. As a result, residents are working together, paving brick roads in front of their homes, and improving drainage ditches to protect buildings from severe seasonal rain. This is possible due to government budgets that residents can freely determine how to use as well as a unique relationship of trust where individual capital is concentrated in community leaders,” she says.

The success of these developments is a tribute to the spirit of the Rwandan people. In spite of having to overcome the tragic 1994 genocide, the current prime minister’s bold leadership has served as a foundation for the nation’s future. In this vision, Rwanda aims to become the Singapore of Africa, with a powerful government pushing cutting edge environmental initiatives and taking proactive advantage of IT.

Galvanized iron homes in Nairobi
Galvanized iron homes in Nairobi

On the other hand, in Nairobi, the capital city of another African nation, Kenya, things seem quite different. In Nairobi’s informal settlements, residents on illegally acquired land have built simple two-story homes from galvanized iron and are operating thriving businesses by renting out the rooms. Since costs can be recouped within two to three years and no taxes are paid, the operators can become wealthy.

"Ultimately, those who can acquire land become rich while the actual residents are impoverished. With profit as the only goal, these cities lack any appeal,” says Dr. Ono. “In considering these differences, I have developed an interest in the way land ownership works in different places. While the balance between land ownership and use varies by country, land ownership rights are extremely strong in Japan. Comparatively, in informal settlements, the recognition of land ownership is loose," says Dr. Ono.

Traditional leaders who guarantee land ownership in Lusaka
Traditional leaders who guarantee land ownership in Lusaka

In many cases in Africa, even without an official registry, land ownership is secured through some sort of authority. A neighborhood association head, elder, politician, or another local leader will write up a simple document to recognize ownership. When an issue arises, the leaders mediate.

"Some people are given approval from up to five regional leaders. In other words, an individual’s property rights are common knowledge shared in the community," says Dr. Ono. "This loose ownership structure fosters a sense of mutual support in the community and is thought to make possible the effective use of public space such as squares and help secure traffic at community boundaries.

Women doing laundry while chatting in a public space
Women doing laundry while chatting in a public space

“Of course, at the same time, there are so many different configurations among informal settlements that it is difficult to determine any universal factors that can make a city more appealing. While these cities are not equipped with hard infrastructure like sewerage and public transportation, they have become new urban testing grounds using IT and should provide hints for strategies to create cities in the future,” says Ono.

Applying the knowledge and experience gained through this research to develop toyohashi

Currently, while conducting concurrent fieldwork overseas, Dr. Ono is a member of the Toyohashi “Machinaka” Conference, which works to manage the local area in front of Toyohashi Station. Serving as an expert, Dr. Ono is involved with developing a vision alongside students and young employees at local businesses.

TUT students presenting an advanced reconstruction plan proposal to the pubic
TUT students presenting an advanced reconstruction plan proposal to the public

"Toyohashi is at risk of suffering significant damage from a large earthquake along the Nankai Trough. Advanced reconstruction initiatives are underway to address this. We have created an advanced reconstruction plan and secured required land for construction and temporary housing. Deliberations are moving forward on whether to rebuild on land damaged by a tsunami or to relocate, before such a disaster strikes," Dr. Ono says.

With the ongoing demands of day-to-day work, considering post-earthquake situations ahead of time is difficult. As such, Dr. Ono says it is crucial for universities to objectively show what can happen and then propose necessary measures based on scientific knowledge. That is why, when working in the community, she is committed to maintaining a neutral position as a university member.

Dr. Ono and the galvanized iron row house in Nairobi where she lived for six months for 'participant observation'

The fieldwork technique of 'participant observation' has been helpful in this regard. "Participant observation is a study method used in cultural anthropology. While living as a member of the society, you allow your activities to be understood by the locals, and upon receiving clear consent regarding the purpose of your study, you observe and listen to the residents. In order to carry this out properly, maintaining appropriate personal distance is crucial. The most important thing is showing respect to the subjects as human beings before being a researcher. Without getting too involved, I am careful never to lose sight of my position as a researcher and so to maintain an objective perspective."

With her unique research results and methods, we hope Dr. Ono can bring further innovations to the somewhat uniform and unappealing new urban environments in Japan.

Reference (Japanese only) (Japanese only)

Reporter's Note

Dr. Ono has visited some 90 countries, starting first with an overseas homestay experience as a middle school student, followed by backpacking during university and finally her extensive fieldwork.

"Of course, I want to help society through my research, but my foremost interest is coming into contact with the unknown. That is why I cannot stop conducting fieldwork. I actually have yet to visit most European and North American countries. In the future, I hope to study European and American cities as well," she says in regard to her forthcoming prospects.

This interview took place at the end of February via web conference, at the outset of the spread of the coronavirus in Japan. At that time, there was little understanding of the severity of the situation that was about to unfold. We hope the situation will be resolved as soon as possible and pray for the day when we can freely travel across the world once again.

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Researcher Profile

Dr. Takanobu Inoue

Dr. Haruka Ono

Dr. Haruka Ono received her M.S. and PhD degree in 2012 and 2016 respectively from University of Tokyo, Japan. She was project assistant professor in 2016 and project associate professor in 2017 at Ehime University. Since She started her career at Toyohashi University of Technology in 2017, had been involved in Urban and Regional Planning. She is currently a lecturer at the Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering, Toyohashi University of Technology.

Reporter Profile

Madoka Tainaka

Madoka Tainaka is a freelance editor, writer and interpreter. She graduated in Law from Chuo University, Japan. She served as a chief editor of "Nature Interface" magazine, a committee for the promotion of Information and Science Technology at MEXT (Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology).