The Call For A Post-Informal Landscape Urbanism

“There are an estimated 200,000 informal settlements around the world. Moreover, one of every three urban dwellers currently lives in informal settlements, otherwise (and wrongly) known as ‘slums.’ What is the future of the city after the influx of informal settlements?”

There are an estimated 200,000 informal settlements around the world similar–and sometimes much worse–than La Moran, in Caracas Venezuela (pictured above).

“Post-Industrial” is widely regarded as the primary condition that appears throughout much of Landscape Urbanism literature in its attempt to reformulate contemporary city-making following the industrial booms of the past centuries. While it is important to recycle, re-use and reconsider sites of this nature, it is also important to consider other “post” conditions and projects.

Landscape Urbanism has to move on from defining what it is to what it can do; from theory to praxis, from book to built. Instead of being limited to the endless task of defining and arguing for the relevance of its initial conceptualizations, it is the job of designers to find new areas onto which this new approximation can have a successful implementation. Through this thinking, we can find other “post-” conditions, one of which has an immense sense of urgency and potential in today’s world: “Post-Informal”.

Population Growth and City Projections

Four years ago, the world reached a significant milestone: 3.3 billion human beings live in cities, making this planet’s human population predominantly urban. Yet, the importance of this milestone is not just that an ever-growing population lives in cities, but how they live in cities. One of every three urban dwellers currently lives in informal settlements, otherwise (and wrongly) known as “slums”. Informal settlements are usually characterized as poor areas that come about outside the margins of any legal urban planning, usually constructed by means of self-help housing that tap into the existing services and infrastructures of the city. This urban phenomenon should be regarded as one of the most important characteristics of modern urban development because of the impact it has on landscape, environment, social components, existing cities and infrastructure.

Listing facts and numbers about informal settlements only makes one conscious of the responsibility to design successful strategies in these areas. According to Mike Davis, author of “Planet of Slums”, there are more than 200,000 slums on earth2. Yet within this already staggering figure, the characteristics of individual cities become astonishing and somewhat hard to believe. It is estimated that no more than twenty percent of housing in Third World countries is of planned and legally constructed natureThis leaves eighty percent of housing as informal or “self-help”. It is important to take this aspect into account because of it’s magnitude and the implications it has on the context (ecological, economical, infrastructural) from which informal settlements evolve.

Informal Settlements: “Cities Within Cities”

If we zoom into specific cities of the Third World where the numbers speak of cities within cities, the magnitude of the problems encountered are nothing short of incredible. Taking New Delhias an example; it is believed that 400,000 people who migrate from rural Indiato this city every year end up in slums, meaning that by the year 2015 the slum population alone will be 10 million4, close to the population of America’s largest city. Take a second and imagine the entire population of New York City living in one giant informal settlement…this already reveals the urgency of design in these areas.

The reason why most research of informal settlements is an “after-the-fact” or “post” condition is because most of the world’s informal settlements are already established and in continuous growth. Kibera in Nairobi, Petare in Caracas, Rosinha in Rio de Jaineiro, Neza in Mexico Cityor the now Hollywood famous Dharavi in Mumbai are all informal sectors that are within already established socio-economic critical masses or abutting said metropolitan peripheries. The periphery in these cities, are already secondary “metropolitan cores” once you take into account facts such as Nairobi’s population influx, where 85% of this growth took place in informal areas5. Therefore, the new growth of these areas should be of equal focus as improving of already consolidated settlements.

“The need for shelter is more important than establishing a dialogue between what gets built and where it gets built. Yet landscape can become the incubator for disaster when it is ignored.”

Landscape in the Informal?

Landscape, in Third World cities, is usually an afterthought, a plane that gets conquered by human intervention. The need for shelter is more important than establishing a dialogue between what gets built and where it gets built. Yet landscape can become the incubator for disaster when it is ignored. In Buenos Aires, for example, informal settlements are usually found along the banks of the Reconquista River, which gets heavily polluted with open sewage and creates an immediate health hazard. Caracas’ informal settlements are infamous for their location on the steep slopes surrounding the city, where any rainfall only fills the inhabitants with fear of an impending mudslide and active fault lines only add to what many believe is a brewing perfect storm. Ajegunle in Nigeria, for example, has an estimated population of 1.5 million living in swamp land. As Mike Davis states: “Slums begin with bad geology.”6

Landscape in Third World cities is still thought of as an after thought rather than the medium from which to spring social and healthy cities.

The seemingly unstoppable tide of rural-to-urban migrants is only making these settlements more complex requiring new strategies that cater to this growth and its subsequent impacts. The Modernists, for example, focused on eradicating poverty, alienating the poor to other areas, while focusing primarily on housing solutions that only felt foreign to cities such as the examples in Caracas and Rio. Therefore, and in contrast, any Landscape Urbanism strategy should entail a “new growth order” for informal settlements, which should improve the life of exiting inhabitants by embracing incoming growth and focusing on more social aspects like public spaces, mobility, health and education7. Let’s not forget that all this growth occurs on the landscape plane, impacting what already are centers with failing infrastructure, under-achieving economies, health hazards and non-existent public spaces that would cater to the social well-being of informal dwellers.

Certainly, informal settlements accentuate the ecological and health problems of the urban poor, but they can also serve as catalysts for innovation and new urban interventions. Instead of the infamous Operation Murambasvina in Zimbabwe, where the “improvement” of these informal areas was carried out by clearing the settlement with tractors, the acceptance that these areas will only continue to grow should indicate that new urbanism strategies be deployed. For that reason, a “Post-Informal” Landscape Urbanism approach accepts the poverty and continuing growth of informal settlements. It is a matter of building upon what exists, providing an armature for a growth that stars with landscape and ends up providing all the social aspects that the informal city lacks; a new post condition of improved and healthier informal cities. Once  we accept the dignity and rights of people living in informal settlements, designers can focus on the question of how to create such interventions by bringing landscape, and not housing, into the forefront of improving conditions in a growing informal world.

Leo Robleto Costante. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Leo finished his undergraduate studies in Urban Planning at the University of Cincinnati and holds a Masters from the AA in Landscape Urbanism. He is currently finishing his second Masters in Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania after working with several firms in London, Caracas and New York.


2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums.London: Verso Publishing, 2006. eBook.
7.  Hernandez, Felipe. “(In)visibility, Poverty and Cultural Change in South American Cities.” Harvard Design Magazine. 2011: 66-75. Print.


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  1. The Call For A Post-Informal Landscape Urbanism

    Very interesting.

    As a layman I realize this is part of a larger conversation I’m not privy to, but I have to ask whether this “intervention” would include talking to the residents to see if, for example, your or my concept of public space is the same as theirs.

    The society I grew up in instilled in me a sense of land ownership such that the idea of living somewhere unless I own or have rented the property rights doesn’t even enter into my mind, and these people don’t seem to labor under that burden.

    I differentiate between private and public and perhaps they don’t. If they see all of their community as public space maybe we can learn something from them.

    The reason I ask is that I agree with you that it is right to accept these communities and the peoples’ right to live in them, but that led me wonder whether I took that position for practical or moral reasons.

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