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Connecting researchers, planners and communities to collaboratively upgrade urban slum communities in India and South Africa.

Connecting researchers, planners and communities to collaboratively upgrade urban slum communities in India and South Africa.

Photo of Luis Bettencourt

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Luis commented on OpenReblock

Our pleasure - Please also make sure to see the attachment.

The questions really helped us discuss and clarify design features and functionalities of OpenReblock !!

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Luis commented on OpenReblock

A1: We have discussed this issue with local communities and NGOs members as part of our prototyping plan exercise:
Many slums in Mumbai are very dense, already have permanent structures and several stories. Government policy is prioritizing the introduction of improved sanitation in these neighborhoods. We discussed the uses of OpenReblock with SPARC (local NGO) and with Mumbai City Ward Engineers. Both found it useful in analyzing the intricate spatial structure of slums and revealing where accesses could be introduced. They stressed that analyses are most useful in 3D, integrating the height of buildings and their structural quality. They also emphasized that the priority in terms of policy are shared toilet blocks. They suggested using OpenReblock to find shortest paths to existing sewer lines for strategic future planning.
In Greater Cape Town, most slums are part of suburban townships. These are less dense and established than in Mumbai but present other problems: most households have their own shack and are less tightly interdependent socially. Most slum areas are prone to flooding as they stand on sandy low-lying ground so considerations of drainage are very important for neighborhood resilience.

By comparing and contrasting these two use cases we derived a number of design requirements for OpenReblock to be co-designed and tested by our users in local communities and NGOs (see attachment). We see the main challenge as being able to create design that makes the use of OpenReblock very easy and accessible for slum communities and NGOs to use.
From the beginning a wide range of local actors, technical and organizational, within communities and SDI NGOs are involved in the process. As SDI does in all its other activities, two or three cities and countries start exploring a new process and gradually others visit them and pressure for refinement and adaptation to serve their own processes. The work of OpenReblock is the next stage of a process, following on the heels of our recent work creating a base data gathering system and digitalizing that data over maps.

A2: The reblocking process already exists and is well exercised as a practice in community organization. Both SPARC (SDI’s Indian Federation) and CORC (SDI’s South African Federation) have performed reblocking processes a large number of times. The OpenReblock project builds on these existing processes. Our digital and physical tools complement and facilitate this personal and interactive process, which can otherwise be very slow, laborious and contentious as hard trade-offs are involved. The planned uses of technology and data fit in strategic places of this process where uncertainty, technical difficulty or coordination become crucial to create a common view and an evolvable practical plan.

We already have open-source data collection and mapping tools that can be used in offline environments. These are already used by SDI Federations and thus are a seamless part of OpenReblock. Once the mapping and data collection is done, the users connect to the internet to upload the data so that we can run the reblocking algorithm that suggests optimal access configurations (this is, at the moment, too processor-intensive to do offline). Users will then be able to download and print out the resulting maps for offline use, so they can share them with the community for discussion. Thus, we believe that we have a robust and well-integrated work flow for the idea and that additional elements can be added in modular ways. 

A3: The primary benefit of OpenReblock is to the local slum community. All SDI efforts are community-led and prioritize the needs of the community ahead of other objectives. The process simply does not work if people do not feel they will derive sufficient benefits for themselves: They will walk away. The reality is that while lots of data is now being collected, it is always a challenge for it to be utilized in the context of slums. Creating visual digital images for a dialogue within the City and between communities is not a process in place and so communities generating this data, getting internal agreements within their members and presenting it to cities is an area of focus of great value to SDI affiliates. It’s a digitalized visual manifestation of what they do presently.

While these advantages accrue to slum communities, it is also important to realize that a virtuous cycle of resilient development is created by the reblocking process that benefits local governments and other people in the city. By facilitating the introduction of services in the home and regularizing land tenure, Cities relieve the burden of maintaining public services that often break down from intense use and that do not generate revenue. Billing of services to households and businesses provides a sustainable economic model for their expansion and real estate taxes allow the City to improve, but also forces it to become more accountable.

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Luis commented on OpenReblock

Hi Giok P CHUA, Thanks for your comment.
I advise the government of Singapore on urban issues and have had the pleasure to spend time at the Center for Liveable Cities (CLC), who are charged with documenting the historic urban development of Singapore and its Public Housing program, in particular. Singapore has achieved the amazing feat of eliminating slums by housing most of its population in good public housing (> 80% presently) since 1965 and of having done it quickly and integrating all parts of its citizen population. I am a student of this housing model and have asked several people at the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the CLC how their model could be applied, for example, in Brazil or Kenya or India. The answer I got was that they though that the political and cultural structures of Singapore are very unique and very difficult to replicate in any other nation, especially typical developing nations. I hope to continue to study this issue.   But another problem -- much discussed also in Singapore now - is the loss of history and identity that relocating people onto new tower blocks also creates, in opposition to gradual neighborhood development. This issue has been discussed in many famous analyses in planning and architecture, by leading thinkers such as Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford and others: it is much more desirable to create the conditions for neighborhoods to evolve and improve than to build them anew quickly as tower blocks that won't last beyond a few decades. The problem is that we have not known - in planning - how to help neighborhoods evolve fast enough that typical issues of slums can be solved quickly and in holistic ways that help people develop and be resilient. Our proposal - and the body of research that frames it - please check out out research at http://www.santafe.edu/research/informal-settlements/ - will do just that. It starts from a new understanding of cities, slum neighborhoods and human development, to propose an integrated solution for resilient human development in place. It is a bottom up solution, where the integration is provided by new coordination mechanisms, facilitated by design, technology and data as well as community organization and a new shared sense of need and possibility by communities and local governments. We think that this is the only way to create cities for people, by people that will be pleasant and nurturing places to live for many centuries to come.