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The COVID-19 pandemic has put informal settlements, and the policy failures that they represent, back in the spotlight. Immediate strategies to combat the virus in slums have been deployed throughout Latin America, which includes five of the countries—Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina—that have suffered the most COVID-19-related deaths per capita. However, the strong regional impact from COVID-19 calls for differentiated governance and policy response.
Slums at the front line of COVID-19
With 80 percent of Latin Americans living in cities, massive urbanization in the last two decades has been one of the most important and challenging trends in Latin America, which is the most urbanized region on the planet. One of the issues with such rapid growth is that when cities expand, they can become too expensive, forcing existing residents and new arrivals (mainly from the countryside) who cannot afford the increased economic value of the area, to move into informal settlements. Commonly referred to as slums—or favelas in Brazil—these settlements are poorly planned, densely populated, and heavily neglected parts of cities where living conditions are extremely harsh and unequal, mainly because governments are unable to provide adequate urban services and basic infrastructure, like housing and transport networks, to meet the demands for the growing population. These blighted areas are also home to the most vulnerable people during the COVID-19 crisis, as infection rates tend to be higher due to pre-existing structural and social conditions: lack of access to water, sanitation, emergency services, poor nutrition, pre-existing health conditions, and overcrowding. In this sense, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the vulnerability of 113 million people—almost one in four—Latin Americans who live in slums.
The economic impact of the pandemic is also far more devastating for slum dwellers. With a regional informality rate of 54 percent, people living in slums generally live hand-to-mouth and depend on informal jobs that require contact with others and lacking the economic resources to cope with imposed lockdowns. Not to mention, Latin America’s economic recovery is still highly vulnerable to additional economic shocks. State and local budgets are running record deficits, and the economic and health fallout brought on by the pandemic will almost certainly slow down urban development and the ability to finance and invest in housing programs on the needed scale.
Trends in slum upgrading and COVID-19 lessons
The number of actors and elements involved in informal settlements reveals the complexity of slum upgrading processes, which often challenge traditional public policy practices. Moreover, government strategies towards informal settlement policy have varied enormously over time. However, in the last decade, the slum upgrading paradigm has consolidated through the gradual improvement of existing housing, basic urban services, and infrastructure, including water reticulation, sanitation, drainage, and electricity.
Additionally, new pressures from the COVID-19 crisis have accelerated some of the most innovative urban development trends in countries with extensive urban upgrading programs (i.e., Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, and Bolivia), providing lessons for local and national governments in Latin America as they launch recovery efforts by informing policy, not only in the short-term but also in the long-term. These are some of the trends:
Communities at the center. The most important aspect of regional slum upgrading programs is the central role they assign to the participation and collective action of a variety of stakeholders in the design of slum upgrading. Cases of the participatory slum upgrading process where the government supports community-led programs—such as the one implemented in the city of Buenos Aires—show that citizen participation and democratization of decision-making contribute to the improvement of governance and ownership, key to delivering long-term sustainable programs and, more importantly, the definitive integration of the informal settlements into their respective cities, in order to solve the urban divide. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that community organization is especially important in the context of a crisis. Community-led initiatives for the distribution of food and the monitoring of health conditions in the slums, such as Lima’s organized soup kitchens and the associations of favela residents in Brazil hiring their own doctors to fight COVID-19, are just a few of the many cases that demonstrate how grassroots initiatives can build resilient neighborhoods.
Integrated approach. Traditional slum upgrading programs have usually targeted homeownership. However, such single intervention plans to improve the living standards of the urban poor have not substantially improved the main socioeconomic outcomes of slum dwellers, which is why more holistic programs have evolved in the last decade. This integrated approach where infrastructure improvements (i.e., housing, street paving, water, electricity, and sewage) are also backed by strong socio-cultural and economic development programs, such as access to health and education, job creation, and skill development training, tends to be more effective. Barrio 31 in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro’s Favela Barrio, and PRIMED in Medellín, Colombia are prime examples of well-known, successful programs where the government is investing not only in infrastructure but also in human capital and local economic development. Moreover, the ties between public agencies and neighborhood groups have proved to be particularly crucial during crises. In southern Buenos Aires, an integrated response in Villa 20—an informal urban settlement—between the local government and grassroots organizations reduced the spread of COVID-19 by increasing the level of community willingness to participate in social distancing, food distribution, and testing.
High-tech tools for innovative and inexpensive slum transformation projects. One of the most important trends that seems to be taking off during the post-pandemic recovery is the increasing reliance on inexpensive technology solutions for informal settlement challenges. Construction technology has an important role in these projects as an enabler for low-cost housing, such as prefabricated housing in Lima and solar power in Brazil’s favelas and Buenos Aires’s slums, since it provides a cheap and clean alternative to traditional electricity. At the same time, the incorporation of information and communication technologies that stimulate effective government are making possible the implementation of collaborative planning and citizen participation. In Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, they are already promoting citizen involvement through an open-source platform that increases collaboration between government agencies and citizens.
Heightened attention to data and indicators. One of the greatest challenges for slum programs is the lack of information. Insufficient data has traditionally hindered adequate planning and assistance for slums. Available geospatial tools using technologies such as earth observation, remote sensing, drones, and artificial intelligence can help to locate, quantify, and characterize homes and neighborhoods that need upgrading. Moreover, evidence-based decision-making and real-time monitoring of slums are becoming easier due to increased communication through technologies like social media. For instance, a World Bank mapping tool using artificial intelligence, satellites, and three-dimensional imaging is helping cities to identify areas that have a high risk of spreading the virus. In this sense, local data has proven essential in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, as it has been turned into knowledge that can help response strategies in real-time. For instance, in Rio de Janeiro, an app provides real-time information on the virus’s spread in favelas, supplementing the often limited and inaccurate data that city authorities generally have on these settlements. Inexpensive ways of gathering information are very valuable for informing policy—not only in crises—but also to set strategic goals and help governments optimize their infrastructure expansion. When considering current rising poverty rates, with an estimated 17 million people having fallen into poverty during the pandemic, according to the IMF, it is undeniable that information on the needs and risks of informal settlements is essential to solving the challenges of urban dwellers and to better understand the state of urbanization in the region.
Building better: Networked cities
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that if policies are to be successful in improving people’s lives in the slums, it is essential that informal settlements are perceived as an integral part of a city. The lessons learned through programs such as the ones developed in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Medellín showcase a new paradigm in which policymakers better understand informal settlements: not as islands but as part of the city’s network.
Networks can be physical, such as improving transport and street networks in a slum; they can be socioeconomic, such as the variety of relationships between the residents of a city and the networks that enable flows of goods and services; as well as political through democratic participation and decision-making between slum dwellers and the government. Networks within slum communities, and networks between slum and non-slum communities, interact and overlap with each other. In this sense, one of the most important lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic is that networks that are leveraged through bottom-up policies are crucial assets not just for disaster planning and management but also for urban management.
This view of informal settlements as part of cities will transform how we perceive and design both slums and cities by informing and implementing better policies that, not only integrate these settlements into their respective cities by installing basic infrastructure, but also by improving access to education, healthcare, childcare, and employment opportunities. The importance of utilizing a framework that understands the vulnerabilities and interconnected issues within slums has been underscored by the challenges associated with COVID-19 and is pushing policymakers to reimagine slums by putting communities at the center of their efforts—aided by technological advances—so that the design of long-term policies generates healthy, resilient, and integrated cities for all of their inhabitants.
Inés de Marcos is former Director of the Ministry of Human Development of the City of Buenos Aires. She has also served at the National Congress of Argentina, at the Ministry of Education, and at the Buenos Aires Housing Ministry responsible for the City of Buenos Aires slum upgrading program. Inés holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Sciences and International Affairs from the Catholic University of Argentina. As a Fulbright Scholar, she received a Master’s degree in Public Policy from Georgetown University. Her areas of expertise include education and social policy in Latin America.
Twitter: @inesdemarcos | Instagram: @inesdemarcos