The Nordic Africa Institute

Research at a glance

Weighing social and environmental justice

Young person entering a shack/house

Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, is Africa's largest informal settlement. Photo: Eks-i zîbâ

Date • 26 Apr 2018

Should we prioritise social justice or natural ecosystems when upgrading informal settlements? NAI guest researcher Olumuyiwa Adegun is developing a framework that balances both values.

Adegun became interested in informal settlements and ‘slum upgrading’ as an undergraduate student in architecture in his home country Nigeria. This interest led him to Johannesburg, South Africa, where he conducted research on informal settlements for a master’s degree in housing, before continuing with a PhD that considered interventions in three informal communities in Johannesburg.

“You have to understand, everywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa informal settlements are symptoms of inequality. Making interventions to improve the quality of living in the settlements is a step towards addressing these inequalities,” Adegun says.

He adds that informal settlements are characterised by dwellings built from flimsy materials, and poor and inadequate services.

“It’s poverty manifested,” Adegun says.

He says that the list of pressing issues is endless: participation, inclusion, socio-economic empowerment, poverty alleviation…

Governments or the inhabitants themselves make interventions to improve the quality of the physical environment – and people’s lives – either by building new houses or by making improvements to existing dwellings.

Olumuyiwa Adegun. Photo: Mattias Sköld

Growing eco-awareness

In recent years, designers and planners have started to consider environmental impact when working on projects in informal settlements, as part of a global trend of increasing environmental awareness.

The concept of a ‘just sustainability’ has developed out of the need to combine the values of social justice and ecological balance. With his research, Adegun is aiming to take the concept further and develop a set of indicators for decision makers.

“It looks difficult, but I think we need to start and see how best we can guide informal settlement intervention in African cities.”

Adegun bases his research on two case studies in Johannesburg and two in Nairobi, Kenya: Kibera and Huruma. He describes Kibera as a typical top-down case, where the government has been developing new low-rise apartments, clearing the existing dwellings. In contrast, Huruma is a bottom-up case, where community members themselves make improvements to existing structures with support from civil society organisations.

“Those are the two dominant ends of intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa: you either leave people where they are or move them to new housing.”

Each place is different

Adegun says that his work aims to provide guidance in both cases. Given that every settlement is different, it is necessary to look at individual circumstances.

Moving people might cut them off from social networks and livelihoods. However, if a settlement is located in a precarious area – for example, in wetlands – then it might be harmful to the environment to keep the settlement where it is.

Adegun stresses the need for what he calls ‘context-sensitive solutions’, taking into consideration peoples’ relationship with the natural environment.

“You have to weigh all aspects and make necessary trade-offs. We have to look at the quality of life of the people and the quality of the environment, to make sure that there is both social justice and environmental justice.”

TEXT: Mattias Sköld