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SELF-MADE CITIES - new study from UNECE


     UNECE study assesses informal urban growth in the region, which affects over 50 million people

     Geneva, 18 June 2009 - The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) today released Self-Made Cities, the first comprehensive study of the phenomenon of informal settlements in the region.

     Self-Made Cities estimates that more than 50 million people, in over 15 countries, live in informal settlements in the UNECE region as a whole. The phenomenon is not new; some of these settlements in Western Europe date back to the 1960s. In Italy, for instance, the industrial recovery during the two decades after the Second World War resulted in large internal migrations from south to north. These migrations produced numerous self-built urban villages near metropolitan areas such as Milan, where the population increased by 26 per cent between 1951 and 1971. In Portugal, more than 130,000 families have lived in shanty towns in the metropolitan areas of Lisbon and Porto since the 1970s.

     Other settlements in the post-socialist countries of the former Yugoslavia were formed in the 1970s and 1980s, and their number further increased as a consequence of the ethnic conflict of the 1990s. Klauderica settlement, one of the fastest growing settlements in Serbia and arguably the largest in the Balkans, accommodates an estimated 50,000 people, among them refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. In the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, informal settlements are home to 11 per cent of the population in the 14 largest cities.

     In the Caucasus, life in informal settlements adds to the hardship of displaced persons and refugees. In Armenia, about 40,000 families are without permanent shelter, most of them refugees or victims of the 1988 earthquake. About 40 per cent live in temporary structures such as domics, small caravans set up in public places. In Azerbaijan, there are close to 1 million internally displaced people and refugees. Over 1,722 households have not been permanently settled some 14 years after the conflict that first caused these people to leave their homes.

      In Central Asia, where the phenomenon has a much more recent origin and is connected to the transition to market economies during the early 1990s, the number of affected persons is as compelling as for the other cases. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, 150,000 to 200,000 people have migrated to Bishkek from the provinces in the past five years. Osh, the country’s second largest city, has seen a similar influx resulting in informal substandard housing on the outskirts.

     Self-made Cities, jointly developed by two UNECE bodies, the Committee on Housing and Land Management and the Working Party on Land Administration, addresses the question of informal settlements as a multi-faceted challenge that calls for urgent policy action. Residents in informal settlements cannot fulfil certain basic human needs and the nature of the residences present big obstacles to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals in many countries. In Central and Eastern Europe, for instance, Albania and Romania stand out, as half of the housing in those countries lacks piped water. In other countries, only a very limited share of the housing has bath or shower facilities (Uzbekistan, 13.3 per cent; Bosnia and Herzegovina, 22 per cent; Kyrgyzstan, 24 per cent; and the Republic of Moldova and Turkmenistan, 30 per cent).

     The full text of the study is available at:

     Background Information

    An informal settlement is a residential formation where housing has been constructed without the required legal permit for use of the land or outside any urban development plan. In general, residents of informal settlements lack the legal rights to the land and the house where they live and become vulnerable to eviction. In addition, because of their improvised nature, units often lack basic facilities such as running water and sanitation, which creates further challenges to public authorities.

     Types of Informal Settlements
     Self-made Cities analyses the various causes of formation of informal settlements, which include the following: regional migrations that are the result of rapid urbanization, war, and natural disasters; poverty and the lack of low-cost housing; excessive regulations by administrative authorities; inappropriate planning and inadequate land administration tools.

     Based on the qualitative analysis of a variety of case studies, Self-made Cities recognizes five types of informal settlements:

     * (1) Upgraded squatter settlements: this type of settlements usually starts as a squatter settlement and evolves into established neighbourhoods. They often have earned de facto legality. In some cases, governments have provided some infrastructure and the residences could evolve into viable rental and homeownership markets.

     * (2) Illegal subdivisions: this type of settlements is usually built on unauthorized land, without planning and/or building permits. Residents sometimes have titles over the land and the quality of settlements is not necessarily poor. Such settlements are illegal because they violate land-use planning, may have low infrastructure standards, and may not meet building-safety standards. However, they are often tolerated and may become incorporated into master plans over the long run.

     * (3) Settlements for vulnerable groups of refugees and internally-displaced persons: this type of settlement is usually established with the government’s permission as a temporary response to a crisis. Such settlements are usually found in urban peripheries, pockets of marginal land, or close to refugee centres. The living conditions are poor, while displaced groups face significant obstacles preventing their return home or local integration.

     * (4) Substandard inner-city housing: this type includes overcrowded, dilapidated housing without adequate facilities in city centres or densely urbanized areas. These areas were originally developed and planned, but had gradually lost their attractiveness and quality over time, as a result of systematic underinvestment. Security of tenure may not be a problem, but the safety and quality of housing warrant concern.

     * (5) Squatter settlements: this type of settlements is established by people who have illegally occupied an area of land and built their homes in slums using self-help methods. They often result from rapid influxes of people to cities and urban areas. The quality of housing is the lowest among all other types; slums often lack running water and sanitation. In some cases, residents face serious risks when the terrain is insecure. In addition residents often face segregation and social exclusion.


      Policy Guidelines
     Self-made Cities acknowledges that each of the five situations described above calls for careful attention to contextual factors when determining adequate public policy responses to progressively reduce the number of informal settlements. However, it also suggests some general guidelines to be taken into account at the time of designing public policy:

      * (1) Focus on the socio-cultural context. It is advisable to complete an analysis and establish a comprehensive understanding of the factors that have caused informal settlements in a particular context of a country/territory, as there are no “one-size-fit-all” solutions. The development of social capital should be promoted. It is also advisable for governments to change their negative attitude toward informal settlements, which are often stigmatized as “distressed” places. Instead, it is useful to focus on the relations established in such informal settlements and build on the existing strengths of people residing in such areas.

      * (2) Address social inequality. Informal settlements are manifestations of social inequality. Therefore, effective responses should integrate a range of social support measures and should prioritize the needs of the most disadvantaged people in the most disadvantaged regions. A proactive housing national policy is needed: the State should commit itself to ensuring equal access to housing for all and prioritize helping the most vulnerable groups. Special attention should be devoted to facilitate easier access to housing financing and to eliminate unreasonable regulations and urban plans.

      * (3) Find innovative and multifaceted solutions. In order to reach that goal, it is recommendable to clearly define short, intermediate, and long-term objectives based on the specific national context; Adopt cross-sector approaches to the policymaking process; learn from other countries’ experiences; involve a larger community of experts who can develop progressive solutions; and finally design effective and reflective systems of monitoring and evaluating the implementation and the results.

      * (4) Take into account good practice in land management. Understanding the multidimensional nature of the housing problem for a given informal settlement is key to defining solutions. Land reforms, land policies, and land management are fundamental to achieving housing objectives. Land administration and planning should be well coordinated. There is a need to develop supportive institutions and an integrated cadastre system for land management and property rights registration. Governments should engage in proactive policies that create secure and equitable land rights, thereby reducing asset-wealth disparities. This includes distinguishing between social needs and market demands, but also ensuring that people have equitable access to and different choices of land rights.

      For more information, please contact:

Ms. Paola Deda
Secretary to the Committee on Housing and Land Management
UNECE secretariat
Tel: +41 (0)22 917 2553

Ariel Ivanier
Secretary to the Working Party on Land Administration
UNECE secretariat
Tel: + 41 (0)22 917 3517


Ref: ECE/ENV/09/P14

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