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Architecture & Design 211/697

The City Professor Max Page


Informal Settlement La Paz – Bolivia Philipp Vargas


I have chosen informal settlement as a topic for me because of my personal experience I gained while I was living in La Paz – Bolivia. The city of La Paz, as many others cities all around the world, are defined by a highly segregated community according to their income, class, and race. This city I learned to love is basically divided in an economically wealthy core with an efficient infrastructure and a modest offer of employment, and then surrounded in its north part by a vast area of informal settlement populated by lower class of laborer or very impoverished people. Parts of these areas can be considered as slums. In contrast, the southern part of La Paz is exclusively settled by wealthy or rich, manly white, citizens, who use to live in mansions build on wide properties, far away from the dense city context. Using my personal and partly subjective impressions of a city like La Paz, I am trying to figure out what informal settlement means for a city and its citizens, using information’s and case studies of other cities based on the same topic. I am interested in the factors that lead to informal settlement and the conditions that rise out of those structures. I am curious to know in which ways parts of informal structures are dependent of the city’s core they surround and reverse. I wonder how small scale invasions in those structures can effect and improve large areas. I am specially referring me to the MoMA exhibition “Small scale big change” from January 3, 2011.


Cities who are affected by informal settlements, usually struggle with an over exponential growth of urbanization. Those cities are incapable of handling with the upcoming need of housing and reinforce that way the growth of informal settlements. Informal settlements often lag of appropriate infrastructure, providing a poor range of sanitation, food storage facilities and drinking water quality. Cooking and heating facilities are mainly basic and result in a considerable exposure of outdoor and indoor pollution. Access to health and other services are often limited, overcrowding contributes to stress, violence and creates tension, which reinforces even more the negative attributes of that area or community. Especially children during prenatal period and after birth are affected by these conditions. Child mortality rates provide a general indicator for the conditions of certain settlements. In general informal settlements are hard to indentify and even harder to put in figures due to that many inhabitants are not registered or officially recognized. The definition of informal settlement is always context specific but some general attributes use to apply. Either a informal settlement is a group of housing build on land which is not legally claimed by its occupants, or a unplanned settlement or area in which housing is not in compliance with current planning and building regulations. |1|

One of the most considerable consequences of the rapid urbanization is its impact on communities, cities, economies and policies. Most of future and actual cities growth will take part in informal settlements. These settlements can also be referred as squatter settlements, shanty town or slums. They are dense housing structures, self constructed under conditions of informal or traditional land tenure. Informal housing is characterized by a dense proliferation of small, make-shift shelters, built from diverse materials. At the present time around a billion people live in slum conditions, until 2020 a number of 1.4 billion is expected. That means that at the present time around 7% of the global population lives under slum conditions, not taking in count the immense number of slum inhabitants that have not been monitored. The monitoring of slums is part of the Millennium Development Goal 7 to ensure environmental sustainability. Recently the use of geo-spatial technology at a city level helped to identify and classify informal settlements and their growth > see figure 1&2. |2|

|1| World Health Organization, People living in informal settlements, 1999 |2| ISFEREA - Geo-Spatial Information Analysis for Global Security and Stability - Š European Union, 1995-2010

Figure 01 Average size of built-up structures in Nairobi (Kenya) using image decomposition by multiscale derivative of morphological profile (DMP): Slum (left), business district (middle), residential district (right).

Figure 02 Anisotropy analysis of built-up structures in Nairobi (Kenya) using directional morphological filtering of shadowed areas: Slum (left), business district (middle), residential district (right)


I hope to find a way, to support my idea that informal settlements can be a sustainable and worth living spaces, providing the opportunity to settle and succeed in an urban context, even for some of the poorest citizens. I want to figure out if those settlements can be considered not only as an issue or a mislead development, but more as an opportunity for their inhabitants as much as for the city itself.

Case Study: La Paz Defining the cities areas: La Paz is located 11,975ft above the sea with a population of 877,363 in the city and 2,364,235 people in the urban area. The City of La Paz lies in a valley of the Andes created by the river Choqueyapu. The City itself can be subdivided in the core - a wealthy economic Centre, defined by high-rise office towers, upper class housing and international firm representations as well as embassies. Not anymore part of the City La Paz but part of La Paz urban area is the City of El Alto. El Alto lies on a plateau on the hillside of the Andes. EL Alto is a mainly impoverished area and characterized my single story brick housings. The population is almost Indigent and defined by natives culture and habits. La Paz and El Alto are highly connected and influence each other in many ways. This connection is already obvious, as the only Airport to access La Paz, lays in El Alto. However, this connectivity and exchange of sources is not always positive and often result in rival, which makes it difficult to find common solutions for La Paz and EL Alto as well. I want to introduce a third area that is not defined by governmental borders but by geological conditions. It lies between El Alto and La Paz. This area is located on the hills between the cities valley and the high plateau. It shoes the highest number of informal settlements and the biggest constructive and social issues of La Paz.

In this satellite picture analysis shows the grown structure pattern of the city’s core. This area corresponded to area C in figure 03.

In this analysis we see the patterns of area A. It shows a very structures and gridded planning.

This picture shows area B. It is my mainly focused side, because of its lag of structure and density that can be recognized in area A and C.

Figure 03

As shown in figure 03, The City El Alto is defined by the space A. It is the most populated and widespread part of the urban area of La Paz. B defines the intermediate hiss side space between La Paz and El Alto. It is also part of the cities connection to the airport located in EL Alto. This area is mostly affected by natural catastrophes and shows the highest number of illegal build housing structures. These building mostly don´t acknowledge the geological factors, as ground materials and natural influences like heavy rain or earthquakes in their construction, which makes them very vulnerable to any influence. This area can be defined as informal settlements and is going to be my main focus. Part C defines the city’s Core, which is due to is limited space very dense. Most governmental investments go to this area, which has created a wealthy and economically strong environment. The cores side is defined by generally modern high-rise tower skyline as seen in figure 04.

The area D is topographically similar to area B but is mainly populated by white people, living in single house buildings on vast terrains. They don´t suffer the same conditions as part B as they hold the cities main wealth and have the resources and knowledge to build in conditions that adapt the environment and topography. In summary the cities economical and build patterns can be defined from West to East. From an impoverished widespread, low-dense housing area. To the topographically formed, dense and relatively wealthy City core with extreme amounts of mixed uses and main job offers as well as most commercial activity. Until an again low dense very wealthy housing area in the far East, that in many ways seems disconnected from the city s context.

Figure 04

One of the main factors that influence all of those areas equally is traffic. Similar to many cities in developing countries, the number of cars per capita is rising steadily, which at a certain point is not supportable by the cities structures any more. Because of that issue, a new governmental instrument has been introduced three years ago. That agency is in charge of analyzing the cities risks and geological conditions. They develop urban master plans and realize projects with the support of the Majors founds. The biggest projects realized in the last years was three bridges called “Los Mellisos� connecting East and West parts of the city’s core across a deep valley. See Figure 05. In addition, a large number have been planned but not jet realized, but because of the legal structures and political tensions between La Paz and EL Alto, all of those development and planning by these institution take place in La Paz.

Figure 05

To actually improve the whole urban area of La Paz a transportation system would be necessary, capable to connect both cities, deal with the extreme topography between them and possibly at the same time improve the conditions of the sector B, which lays in between and mainly suffers underdevelopment in that sector. At this point, I would like to introduce the project “Metro Cable” by Urban-Think Tank, build 2007 to 2010 in Caracas, Venezuela, which shows many parallels to the situation I talked about. It is a cable lift that brings people from the hillside down to the City Centre. See figure 06. It makes the city more pedestrian friendly and allows people to access the city in a shorter time period. This development has two big positive factors. First, It brings people faster and easier in City, the place where they daily work and have to commute to anyway. This reinforces the Citi’s economic productivity because the commuters are less tired, as if they had to walk up and down the hills as before and that way they have more time for their daily work. The second positive side effect is that if people are provided with a public transport system, independent from roads, they might not tend to buy a car and by that way prevent further overcrowding, or at least give the city’s infrastructure more time to react. However, the most outstanding point about this project is actually not the cable, but the stations. The stations are not just a traveling hub, but also introduce an additional function. These could be schools, recreation or any other activity that generate an additional value to the side and improve the whole area. This gives the project a special challenge. Because of the limited number of stations, these must not just be well placed in terms of transportation but must also be placed in a logic manner in order to provide the highest affectivity of the additional function.

Figure 06

Figure 07

Another serious issue about La Paz informal housing development is on one hand their legal circumstances and the manner thy are developed. The point why I am talking about Informal settlement and not about slums is that the land these housings are built on are actually owned by the person or family that lives on them. In contrast to many slums these legal issue about ownership does not apply to most of the housing developed in La Paz. However, the problem is that specially in area B, but elsewhere too, these developments do not have the governmental permission to be built. They either where build against to the building code of that particular side or, and which is the most important factor, are not permitted to build because of the way that they would be build. The geological and natural environment, especially in those zones between hill and valley, require a certain building typologies and side analysis, which is not affordable for the poorest. These conditions lead to situations in which after a strong storm or a smaller earthquake entire blocks or parts of the hill would just slide down and kill many inhabitants of that area. Nevertheless, even already knowing about those risks other people would later build on the same spot in the exact same way. This means that there is no actual learning process involved, what can be reduced to the lag of knowledge and the missing resources. At this point, I would recommend involving strongly the governmental or private knowledge and resource to improve that situation. As soon as this area gets more attention and actually would produce a source of income, it would be an automatic process to generate affordable, sustainable and safe housing. Benefiting nor just the ones that inhabit that spaces but also the one who build it.

To give that point a picture I would like to introduce the project “Quinta Monroy Housing� by Elemental between 2003-2005 in Iquique Chile. This concept introduces social housing as an investment instead of seen it as a spend. The idea is to pick a terrain in an area that naturally will increase its value, just because of natural development of growth. I would take minimal public founds to provide social housing on an already build site, in order to replace the ineffective structures. To do so a certain amount of families would be asked to work together with the building company or institution to provide their land in order to rebuild their housing. It would be given back after construction is finished, and they would actually own that building legally. The company managed to work closely with the inhabitants and local engineers to mainly fulfill the owner’s wishes and deserves. For instance, the new development recognized the existing community structures and arranged floor plans in a manner to create shared patios. In addition to introduce more security by reducing the patios entrance to one, that can easily be controlled by the inhabitants. See figure 08. Here again we have an outstanding project that solves several problems at the same time it introduces a secure livable space that can be seen as a future opportunity and financial opportunity for its owners, as they end up having valuable belongings that raise its value over time and can be resold with benefit.

Figure 08

That means that space is created the is legal and actually will endure years in contrast to the structures that would be whipped away every jeer by natural influences. Also recognized culture and future development and is not forcing to be the ultimate solution. For instance are these housings developed in a manner that they allow future additions and modifications on an individual base. In figure 09, we see the building right after being finished, but in figure 10, we can see the inhabited space, modified and adapted to the individual need of every family.

Figure 09

Figure 10

Conclusion To actually get involved in improvements that affect human living conditions and help local economy to a healthy growth it is in first place important to recognize which areas do actually need to be newly overthought and to understand the local factors and needs. From my point of view, I am spectating the situation from a distant angle and it would actually require me to physically be at that place to truly understand the consequences and conditions. I am aware that it would require a deeper investigation and local contact to actually proof my thoughts to be appropriate or at least to be an opportunity. Feed by my pool of information I could introduce two examples that possibly could be applied to my chosen area (area B). In addition, possibly fit to similar locations. The reason why I have chosen this projects is their sensibility. These projects do not just try to apply known patterns into a very special area, ignoring all local influences. However, these projects do not just improve on a simple and effective base, but add an extra value, which makes it desirable to associate with this developments. This is actually a challenge if we think of those places to be one the most ignored and undervalued areas of an entire City.

Literature references

Defining the topic World Health Organization, People living in informal settlements, 1999 ISFEREA - Geo-Spatial Information Analysis for Global Security and Stability - Š European Union, 1995-2010

Case studies The World Bank, Kabul Urban Policy Notes, Series n.2, 2004 FIG Working Week, a Model for Solving Informal Settlement Issues in Developing Countries, Athens – Greece, May 22-27, 2004 Environment and Urbanization, A shelter of their own: informal settlement expansion in Greater Cairo and government Responses, Vol. 10 No. 1, El-Haram 12111 Giza - Egypt, April 1998

Dr. Yohannes Gebremedhin/USAID/LTERA, Preliminary Assessment of Informal Settlements in Kabul City, March 24th, 2005

Edesio Fernandes, Informal settlements in Syria: a general framework for understanding and confronting the phenomenon, Damascus, September 4th 2008

FIG Working Week Wafula Nabutola, Upgrading Informal Settlements – Kenya: Rural & Urban, Kenya, May 22-27, 2004

Gita Goven, Green Urbanism - Kosovo informal settlement upgrade Case Study, Cape Town - South Africa Mark hunter, informal settlements as spaces of health inequality: the changing economic and spatial roots of the aids pandemic, from apartheid to neoliberalism, centre for civil society research report no.44, 2006

Mark Napier, Informal settlement integration, the environment and sustainable Livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa

Fernanda Magalhaes Rojas, Facing the Challenges of Informal Settlements in Urban Centers: The Re-urbanization of Manaus – Brazil, Eduardo

Michael Barry and Heinz Rüther, Data Collection Techniques for Informal Settlement Upgrades in Cape Town, South Africa, URISA Journal, Vol. 17 No. 1, 2005

Books Diana Mitlin and David Satterthwaite, Empowering Squatter Citizen, Earthscan, London, 2004 Petro Garau/Elliot D. Scalar/Gabriella Y. Carolini, UM Millennium Project – A home in the city, Earthscan, London, 2005 Umlazi & Kenville, cities without slums situation analysis of informal settlements in South Africa, Nairobi, 2007

Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, VERSO, London/New York, 2006

Edésio Fernandes, Regularization of Informal Settlements in Latin America, Policy Focus Report Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2010

UNO Habitat, State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011, Earthscan, London/Washington DC, 2008

James Holston, Insurgent citizenship, Princeton University Press, UK, 2008

James Holston, The modernist city, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1989


Informal Settlement