Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Upgrading Informal Settlements in South Africa: A Partnership-Based Approach

Liza Rose Cirolia, Tristan Görgens, Mirjam van Donk, Warren Smit, Scott Drimie

UCT Press



Upgrading Informal Settlements in South Africa is a collaborative effort of the Isandla Institute, the African Centre for Cities, and others. It shows a range of perspectives from officials, practitioners, academics and activists on the understanding and practice of informal settlement upgrading (page 12). In contrast to the many books in this field that draw on Latin America and Asia, this edited book brings to the fore the experiences of South Africa, paying special attention to the “messy, political and conflicted nature of upgrading practice” (page 10). Arguably the greatest strength of this book is the varying perspectives and conflicting views within it (pages 10 and 479). It offers no silver bullet, but endorses and demonstrates the potential of an incremental and participatory upgrading process that is in situ as much as possible (pages 21, 470 and 477).

Editors Liza Rose Cirolia, Tristan Görgens, Mirjam van Donk, Warren Smit and Scott Drimie introduce South Africa as a good example of a country that has shifted from the eradication of informal settlements to an upgrading agenda (page 5). Yet in contrast, they highlight that its approach has been very different to elsewhere in the world by focusing on physical upgrading, title deeds and a rollover upgrading approach (where the majority of residents are displaced; page 36). However, an examination of the history of informal settlement upgrading in South Africa shows that this is relevant to both the global agenda and local policy and practice (page 3). And the editors stay true to this opening declaration as throughout the book linkages and reflections are made between the two.

Section One, “Grappling with Informality and Upgrading: The City Scale” (Chapters 3–8), “explores how the complex social, political and material dynamics underpinning the upgrading imperative play out in different cities and settlements” (page 50). It purposefully highlights the creative and problematic practices that emerge as actors grapple with the challenge of informality. It also offers an opportunity to study the different typologies of informal housing in South African cities.

Section Two, “Partnerships, Actors and Capabilities” (Chapters 9–16), endorses the view of upgrading as primarily a development process, comprising both social and technical aspects, which builds transformative and sustainable urban spaces. It clearly states that there is a need to shift from a state-centric development paradigm to one that is “demand-driven, supply-negotiated” (page 176). A common thread running through its chapters is that partnerships offer a new paradigm for upgrading, as well as a vehicle for sustained multi-stakeholder decision-making and more shared power relationships (page 179).

Section Three, “Tools, Instruments and Methodologies” (Chapters 17–21), traces emergent trends that provide “opportunities to think differently about available upgrading options”, describing “novel instruments or methodologies that could be employed to pursue a more incremental approach to participatory informal settlement upgrading” (page 324). This section clearly calls for the state to shift its role from developer to facilitator, and the tools it presents are those that could assist this process. It also frequently discusses the importance of integration systems across and between government departments and spheres (page 326).

In light of critiques and limitations of the incremental upgrading of informal settlements, Section Four, “Implications for Urban Transformation” (Chapters 22–25), discusses how upgrading can relate to broader urban transformation agendas (pages 13 and 409). It concludes that upgrading is part of achieving social and economic development for cities and therefore must be integrated into policies and strategies towards these aims. Common strands throughout this section include (1) a need for upgrading interventions to go beyond physical interventions to include social, economic and political interventions, and (2) a need for informal settlement upgrading to shift from ad hoc reactive interventions to strategic interventions that contribute to a fundamental transformation of cities and towns (page 411).

This book offers diverse opinions and experiences, but all aim towards the same end. The editors hope that this will “encourage practitioners, activists, communities, officials, academics and others to engage more deeply, critically and reflectively with the complexities of informal settlement upgrading” (pages 3–4).


Book note prepared by Hannah Keren Lee

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