Dean Forbes
Strengthening urban slum upgrading and urban governance in cities in Southeast Asia

Professor Dean Forbes
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International)
Flinders University

UN Habitat estimated that in 2003 about 924 million people lived in urban slums and squatter settlements, and over half of these were in Asia.  There is continuing international concern about the plight of people living in slum communities in cities.  
It is expressed in the United Nations Millenium Development Goals, which have wide support from governments throughout the world.  

Goal 7 is to ensure environmental sustainability.  Target 11, which is associated with Goal 7, is to have achieved, by 2020, a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.

Urban poverty must primarily be addressed through strategies and policies that create an appropriate macroeconomic environment.

Slums will remain in cities as long as they are needed.  Once their incomes improve, settlement dwellers will want to move on to better housing, and will be able to afford it.  But we cannot wait for the overall macro-economic environment to improve, because the trickle-down takes far too long.

Cities must also have a commitment to improving the living conditions of residents, and creating the environment within which they can improve their incomes.  Poverty is part of a vicious cycle.  A better quality of living in urban settlements means a better urban environment; that leads to better health for residents of settlements; and that to a more productive workforce able to increase income.  There is no single place to start on breaking the poverty cycle.


The Australian Research Council awarded a group of researchers $A220,000 over the period 2005-2007 for a project entitled ‘Strengthening urban slum upgrading and urban governance in cities in Southeast Asia’.  

The project was initially lead by the Chief Investigator, Dr Basil van Horan, of the University of Queensland.  It was extended into 2008 because of the illness and untimely death of Dr van Horan in 2006. 
The project team responsible for seeing it to its completion is:
    Assoc Prof John Minnery, University of Queensland (CI)
    Prof Dean Forbes, Flinders University (CI)
    Prof Tommy Firman, Institute of Technology Bandung
    Dr Teti Argo, Institute of Technology Bandung 
    Dr Haryo Winarso, Institute of Technology Bandung
    Prof Do Hau, Hanoi Architectural University  
    Pham Thi Thu Huyen, Hanoi Architectural University
    Cynthia Veneracion, Ateneo de Manila University
    Prof Gavin Jones, National University of Singapore

The main thrust of the project is how to sustain settlement upgrading activities in particular settlements, and to spread the benefits to wider parts of the city.  

The field research draws on case study experiences in three Southeast Asian cities: Hanoi, Bandung and Manila/Quezon City.

A project meeting at the Asia Research Institute in the National University of Singapore (6-8 January 2008) took stock of progress on the project, prepared a progress report for the ARC, and determined any further actions needed to bring the project to completion.
The final meeting to discuss the findings of the studies was held in Brisbane (27-28 October 2008).  It focused on the reports from the three case study cities.


The 1950s post World War II influx of people from the rural areas into cities in poor countries throughout the world exacerbated a trend that had existed throughout the colonial period.  Indigenous populations, particularly the poorer, who were the majority, concentrated in cities in generally poorly serviced areas.  They built their own shelters from available materials, often on land over which they had no formal rights, and frequently clustered in communities with others from their rural area or village.

Over time, these concentrations of people had acquired various names:
•    squatter settlements
•    shanty towns 
•    slums
In Spanish they were called favelas, and in Hindi bustees. 

Local and municipal governments frequently had a very negative view of these fast-growing and apparently uncontrolled settlements.  They were regarded as blights on the landscape which must be eliminated if the city was to modernise.  The residents were generally regarded as peripheral at best, and thieves, criminals and social outcasts at worst.  

Government policy therefore tended towards bulldozing the existing settlements, and preventing new ones from growing.  To compensate, and provide housing for the poor, strategies for building low-cost housing were developed.

From the early 1970s studies began to point out that conventional low-cost housing programmes financed by organisations such as the United Nations had failed to cope with housing shortages in towns and cities in developing countries.  The problem was they simply could not keep pace with demand, nor provide the residents with housing in locations that could enable them to find the job opportunities they could in the squatter settlements.

It coincided with research studies that supported taking a more favourable attitude to squatter settlements.  Urban squatters, it was argued, were neither marginal to the city economy or society.  They were more likely to be employed than established city residents, and by earning incomes help to stimulate consumption.  Moreover they generally blended in with the community and only resorted to political activity to secure their position in the city.

As a consequence, by the early 1970s the integration of squatter settlements into the urban fabric came to be viewed in a much more positive light.  Squatter settlements became increasingly to be seen as a source of labour for the city.  The squatter settlements also harboured small-scale business and industries involved in ‘recuperative production’.  Residents were also consumers, and demanded little in the way of urban services (especially housing).  

Moreover, squatter communities were willing to embrace self-help development strategies to improve the environment within their settlements.

National and city housing authorities in many cities therefore came routinely to include activities to support self-help activities in squatter settlements, developing programs under a variety of names.  These included: 
•    squatter upgrading, 
•    sites and services, 
•    zonal improvement, 
•    core housing development, 
•    building material loans, 
•    urban community development
Even the World Bank, that alleged cold-hearted bastion of flinty economists began to invest millions in sites and services projects all over the world in an effort to improve the living conditions of the poor.

Of course, self-help had been a feature, indeed the essence, of the squatter settlement prior to intervention.  The authorities simply formalised the principle, made a small financial contribution, and re-labelled the process.  

The prime interest of governments in self-help schemes was that they were far cheaper means of improving housing provision and standards because they mobilised the squatter's own labour.

The two most important components of the self-help housing policies are squatter upgrading and sites and services planning.  

Squatter upgrading programs generally concentrate on improving the infrastructure of existing squatter settlements.  This done by
    building pathways, 
    improving water supplies, 
     improving sewerage and drainage, 
     installing garbage collection facilities, 
     solving land tenure problems where this is possible, 
     occasionally aiding in home rebuilding.

Sites and services programs concentrate on providing serviced land for low-income housing estates, often with the intention of catching the overspill of people from squatter settlement up-grading projects.  The land is provided inexpensively through sites and services programs.  Only minimal services are provided, such as water, sanitation facilities, basic roads and pathways.  To ensure the poor are able to make use of the land available, there are generally few or no restrictions applied to the type of dwelling that can be initially built on the site.  Often, however, there are incentives to upgrade the standard of the dwelling after it is occupied.

During the 1970s the World Bank was one of the most active supporters of these kinds of projects.  Between 1972 and 1981 it loaned $US2.0 billion for urban projects.  It loaned $US942 million, or 47% of its urban projects portfolio, for the basic needs shelter projects of the kind outlined above (Cohen 1983: 10-11).

The World Bank has also monitored self-help programs to assess their effectiveness.  The Seventh Sites and Services Project Evaluation Conference was held in Washington in 1980.  Among the most important questions asked was `who are the beneficiaries' of the projects?  

Concerns were expressed about the behaviour of petty capitalists and landlords in upgraded settlements.  It was reported that they bought up the properties of poor families or evict poor tenants from improved areas, forcing the poorest groups to move into other settlements not yet up-graded and often away from their employment.

Nevertheless supporters of these programs argued they were moving in the right direction.  They claim the programs reached the target groups. The high recoverability of loans meant the programs were replicable.  That is, they were self sustaining.  Moreover, project economic rates of return exceeded reasonable estimates of the opportunity costs of capital in the countries involved (e.g. 5 sites and services projects monitored during 1981 gave an internal rate of return of 17.9%: Cohen 1983: 45).  

As a result, self-help projects it was concluded, were both equitable and efficient, a rare double achievement (Linn 1983).


In revisiting slums and squatter settlements in Southeast Asia the project was looking to understand how settlements were being managed in Bandung, Hanoi and Manila/Quezon City, and what lessons can be learned for the future. 

The Bandung study centred on six slum upgrading programs:
     A UNEP program that ran from 1978-80
     Two Bandung Urban Development Program projects (1981-86 and 1986-89)
     A Urban Revitalization and Housing Development project (1990)
     A Community Based Housing Development program (1994)
     An Urban Poverty Alleviation Program (1999-present)

Researchers in the Hanoi study focused on three concentrations of ‘informal housing’:
     Neighbourhood No 9, Chuong Dong Ward, in Hoan Kiem District
     Area No 13, Tuong Mai Ward, Hoang Mai District
     Thank Cong rubbish dump, Trung Liet Ward, Dong Da District

The focus of the Philippines study was five poor communities in Quezon City, part of the Metro Manila Development Area (MMDA):
     Sitio Dormitory in Barangay Nagkaisang Nayon
     Pamana Village in Barangay Santa Lucia
     Sitio Nino in Barangay Greater Fairview
     Golden Shower in Barangay Payatas
     Brookside-3 Village in Barangay Bagang Silangan

Cities Alliance: Cities Without Slums

United Nations Human Settlements Programme 2003 The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, Earthscan, London. 
Keivani, Ramin and Edmundo Werna 2001 “Refocusing the housing debate in developing countries from a pluralist perspective” Habitat International, 25, 191-208.

Laquian, Aprodicio 2005 Beyond Metropolis: The Planning and Governance of Asia’s Mega-Urban Regions, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington DC and The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Minnery, John 2007 “Stars and their supporting cast: state, market and community as actors in urban governance” Urban Policy and Research, 25:3, 325-345.

Pugh, Cedric 1997 “Poverty and progress? Reflections on housing and urban policies in developing countries, 1976- 96“ Urban Studies 34:10, 1547-1595.

Werlin, Herbert 1999  “The slum upgrading myth” Urban Studies, 36:9, 1523-1534.