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Man’s struggle for shelter is as long as history itself. Shelter was a response to many human needs such as protection from hostile weather conditions, security, privacy but also community building, signs of power and wealth.

Traditionally when a man takes a new wife, [...] The buildings are then erected by a men and rendered and decorated by the women who are to occupy. The wall paintings are bold, and within limits, excitingly varied from house to house, so that each woman’s domain is physically and stylistically delineated.
[Kahn, 1973, p6]

In the sub-Saharan Africa different architectural traditions derive mostly from various lifestyles of the local communities. For example nomadic cattlemen, tribe of Masai, living in the East Africa over centuries has developed housing solutions suiting the best their community needs. They designed their villages with the single most import though in their minds: protection and care for their animals. All the houses are easy to dismantle and carry to the new location when cattle needs new pastures. Around the whole village there is a thorn-bush fence protecting both people and cattle from wild animals and enemies. Each of the huts is a little fortress in itself; low entrance and long corridor slow down any new comer and give time for the inhabitants to protect themselves with machete always kept besides the sleeping area. The main building materials are the ones available on the spot, and that is mud and cattle’s dung.

However, this way of building is not useful in the city environment. Due to major migration from rural to urban areas the challenge of providing proper and cheap housing in big quantities is obvious. The outskirts of cities have become borderlands, or no-man land - they are neither cities nor villages.


The demand for housing in the developing world is growing with an exponential rate. It is estimated that if we do nothing about the housing crisis that is about to happen, in 20 years one of three people will live in conditions equal to refugee camps.

These increasing housing demands are closely linked with the world’s population growth and the demographic changes. Additionally, many people are flee ing from the rural areas in the developing world to seek survival in the rising mega cities, contributing to growing urbanisation level.

In 1970 earth’s population was 3 billion. More than four decades later the population is 6.5 billion. This exponential growth has been possible due to increased food production and improved health care conditions.

Therefore, in the future cities is it more likely to have major slum areas, and not necessarily shiny and glittery Manhattan islands with its sky-scrapers. This challenge is pointed out in the UN-habitat report, emphasizing that:

“We recognize the imperative need to improve the quality of human settlements, which profoundly affects the daily lives and well-being of our peoples. There is a sense of great opportunity and hope that a new world can be built, in which economic development, social development and environmental protection as interdependent and mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development can be realized through solidarity and cooperation within and between countries and through effective partnerships at all levels. International cooperation and universal solidarity, guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and in a spirit of partnership, are crucial to improving the quality of life of the peoples of the world”. [UN-HABITAT, 2003]


Fears that the world is overpopulated are not necessarily recent worries. Already in the XVIII century British scholar Thomas Malthus was warning against steep population growth and its consequences [Malthus, 1798]. Nowadays these concerns have been also gathering pace, caused both by the continued rise in the number of people and by threat of climate change. According to an environmental group WWF, the world’s population will require an extra planet in 20 years’ time if it continues to exploit resources as it does now. According to the Institute for Security Studies “the world population is expected to increase from 6.4 billion in 2005 to 7.9 billion in 2025 (23.4%). Population growth will be particularly strong in developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (+43 to 48.4%)” [Gnesotto & Grevi, 2006].

This estimated growth will have huge implications in the developing countries. Particularly this will put a high pressure on the already overpopulated cities, causing further growth of slums. In many ways this population growth can be perceived as similar to the demographic changes taking place in western countries under the industrial revolution.

“In the industrializing countries of the 19th century, urban poverty grew to unprecedented levels. Recent evidence suggest that, with early industrialization, urban mortality and morbidity rates actually increased in England, only declining in the late 19th century when local governments became more responsive to the needs of the urban poor. It was in the 20th century, however, that government spending came to account for an appreciable share of economic activity, even in market economies.” [Martine, McGranaham. Montgomery, Fernandez-Castilla. 2008, p78]

This quotation shows that a high population growth in cities throughout history has been causing health challenges. Therefore, if this problems are expected to be solved, a coordinated political action is necessary. Faced with new challenges due to pollution and urbanisation these new demographic changes are expected, in certain regions, to have a massive impact on the age structure of the population. This is already seen in South Africa with a growing Aids epidemic and a substantial decrease in the populations’ life expectancy.

In other words, the demographic changes today are a result of the new industrial revolution spreading to every corner of the world, combined with the high-tech revolution giving possibilities for higher life quality for more people than ever before. This is beneficiary for many but it is clear that a big group of the worlds population has been forced not to take part in this development.


The idea what is a low cost housing in itself might vary considerably among people depending on their economical stand. In the countries of the so called North low cost housing targeted to the poorest group of society is already considered when households provide up to 30% of the house value and the rest is borrowed from banks or mortgage institutions [Oladapo 2002]. In developing countries no more than 20% of the population has income which might be considered as sufficient to afford a house and it is the most wealthy part of the population. The poorest in the countries of the South has mostly very limited income and thus no possibilities to obtain loans. Therefore as Laquian argues:

Basic housing for the urban poor in developing countries might not be a house at all: it could be a piece of ground with a faucet and a pit latrine; it could be a basic house core with four walls and a
roof; there could even be one room attached to a privy and a wet kitchen. Basic housing, however, is rarely a house, almost never a finished house. A finished house is something the urban poor can no longer afford unless they build it themselves. When they do so it may not be counted as part of the housing stock, it would most likely be classified as nonacceptable slum or squatter housing, illegal, and therefore, nonexistent. The irony, of course, is that one-third to one half of urban households in developing countries now live in such dwellings.
[Laquian, 1983]

This sheds a light on the whole question of slums. Edgar Pieterse in his book City Futures [Pieterse, 2008] proposes the logic of conceptual inversion. This term refers to fundamentally different approach towards the basic concept of the city and place of slums in it. The mainstream view on cities suggests that cities, like wild animals, go often out of control and the challenge lies in keeping them in order. It is a desire to move away from chaotic city structures into well planned agglomeration. This path of reasoning implies, not always explicitly, faith in rational planning and need for interventions in order to fulfil plans.

This practise might lead to legitimization of various forms of control over the society. Through careless interventions, regulations, orders and preventions government risks destroying informal social networks and even the whole communities. Yet conceptual inversion suggests that there might be another way of urbanisation. It calls for greater appreciation of local dynamics and cultural sensitivities. Nigel Coates notes that:

(...) city should be a place of experience before the formal stylistic or functional qualities of buildings. In it, architecture – or its own broad version of it – is a vehicle for a looser and more open framework that stimulates the space in each of us (...)
[Pieterse, 2008, 110]

This logic implies that each of us is both active player and passive receiver in city dynamics, we influence and are influenced. In contrast to the mainstream approach, the focus is shifted from policy of fulfilling needs into policy focused on abilities, opportunities and capabilities. Therefore the ultimate question is not how to avoid slums at the first place but how to include them in a bigger city matrix. The goal is not to erase slums but to raise quality of living therefore assure dignified live. It is also significant to realize:

(...) how the complexity of human nature is expressed in the creation, experience and remaking of
space as an incessant series of manoeuvres to make life worthwhile and meaningful, even if the desire that dominates is to (...) buy a cold beer at the local drinking hole where the woman of your dreams works as a cleaner...
[Pieterse, 2008, 111]


A shack, which is the predominant building type among the low cost constructions in the majority of
city slums, constitutes an interesting case in the sustainable construction discussion. Looking at a shack from the construction point of view, one may argue that it blends together two opposites. Most of the times it is self-built shelter from the materials like re-used parts and resources available locally. In this sense it is an example of perfect use of recycling method in the construction processes. Because of its relative simplicity it is easy to decompose and reassemble again and as Irurah [Irurah, no date, p4] notes “its production, operation processes and layout also provide opportunities for the development of cohesive communities and settlement structures which
have proved difficult to replicate through formal upgrading and new formal settlement development.”
Informal settlements are also characterized by high level of spatial diversity while very often subsidized low-cost housing initiatives tend to have uniform and anonymous character.

On the other hand, in many aspects of the shack’s construction lack of sustainability is more than evident. Shelters are inadequate for their purposes; they are overcrowded and densely built, often lack of proper ventilation and air quality, they do not provide basic services like water, waste disposal, electricity. Because slums are per definition informal settlements, they do not posses in-built community services centres such as kindergartens, schools, hospitals etc.


Charles Abrams in his influental book, Man’s struggle for shelter in an Urbanizing World [Abrams, 1966] presents six cases that describe the variety of squatters:

1. Owned squatter
Although the building is privately owned, the land is not - shacks are erected on any vacant parcel. The owner squatter is the most common type.

2. Rental squatter
The poorest class rents place to live from squatter owners. This practise is common among new- comers to the city.

3. Former tenant
The person renting a squatter stopped paying rent, but the landlord fears to intervene.

4. Landlord
Landlords in slum many times posses a variety of squatters and rent them out with a major profit margin.

5. Business
People use sqatters as a ‘no-rent’ comercial properties. Here they can have a business without paying rent or taxes.

6. Floating squatter
This refers to people living on old boats or floating housing constructions. These can be sailed into city’s harbours and serve as the family house and workshop.

The United Nations Human Settlements Program [UN-HABITAT, 2003] identifies the following key elements for improving slum settlements:

Access to safe water - sufficient amount of safe water at affordable price without exploitation of
women and children.

Access to sanitation - availability of sanitation/toilet system.

Secure tenure - right to be protected by the State against forced evictions.

Durability of housing - a structure which is built on a safe ground, protecting it’s inhabitants from the extreme weather conditions.

Sufficient living area
- when not more than two people share the same room.