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Blueprints for Future Homes – Low Cost Solutions for Urban Housing

Juli 3, 2011
Khuda-Ki Basti, (C) Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen Fund

Khuda-Ki Basti, (C) Jacqueline Novogratz, Acumen Fund

Everybody knows the typical images of slums. Makeshift homes constructed with whatever can be found that look like they’ll collapse when it starts to rain. Often this is just what they are. What to do about it? It’s an obvious problem but its a complicated one as well, you can not simply tear the slums down and resettle the inhabitants and as building homes does not come for free, it is often too big a challenge for the local authorities. The ideal solution would be cheap and environmentally friendly and while we are at it why not create jobs for the local population so that the project is self-sustaining? Sounds like a plan.  Here are some examples.

One approach is tried in Pakistan by the NGO Saiban. They offer slum dwellers low cost plots connected to the necessary infrastructure and a secure residental tenure. To date the project (Khuda-Ki-Basti 1 to 4) was implemented in three cities in Pakistan. The interested buyers of land have to show their sincerity and live in temporary homes for a while before they receive a plot for their future home. The management of the site helps out with technical and other support for the families. Even as the land is some distance away from the city centre it is connected to it via public transport and therefore the demand for these plots is quite high. The cost for the land is lower then the market rate to make it possible for poor families to buy land for themselves, at the same time 10% (or more) of the land of the scheme is sold at market rate for commercial purposes, subsidizing the land for the poorer families. Moreover, to avoid that owners start speculating with the land, ownership is conditional on living on-site. The scheme was started in 1987 in Hyderabad and expanded to Karachi and Lahore. Since then small cities have developed with schools, shops, parks and necessary amenities and social life.

More Info:


A similar idea was realized in Nairobi by the Pamoja Trust and others. Here an informal housing community of 270 households worked together to jointly establish secure housing rights and better homes for themselves. Land right conflicts were settled and the city made land available. To tie the community together the title for the land was transferred

Kambi Moto, (C) Homeless International

Kambi Moto, (C) Homeless International

to the community as a whole and each household received the rights for only a section of the land. If someone then wants to sell the land the title is sold back to the community. A technical team came up with several designs of how to use the limited available space (only 20,25 m²) most efficiently. The community then chose a design for the houses of three floors that can be build one after the other and are connected to sewerage, water and electricity. Loans were made available for the houses but the construction work was done by the residents themselves. Further, not all houses were built at a time as the old houses need to be torn down to make room for the new ones and this would have meant that the residents would have to live on the streets. Therefore houses were replaced step by step and the residents were able to share a house with their neighbors until the own house is finished. Thus a strong sense for community was introduced, ownership was improved and the residents now live in cleaner and safer houses…

More Info:


A different approach, not focusing that much on the land tenure but more on income generation is being applied in Brazil by the NGO Ação Moradia. People, mostly women are trained to build the houses themselves, but they also produce the bricks for the construction. The bricks factory is managed by a group of women who received technical training from the NGO and can now run the factory as a social business. The bricks are shaped in a way that the houses can be assembled fast and easy, like LEGO, reducing the costs of building a house by up to 30%. More than 65 houses have been built like this since 2003 and through the brick factory income is generated benefitting more than 50 people directly. 360 women have been trained in the methods of brick production and can use their knowledge to transfer the project to other cities.

More Info:


And finally, a project that almost sounds too good to be true. The brazilian NGO Curadores da Terra has develop a

Construction materials made of waste amalgamated with organic resins, (C) Curadores da Terra

Construction materials made of waste amalgamated with organic resins, (C) Curadores da Terra

technique to tranform waste into construction materials and energy. The energy is sold and therefore provides the main source of income of the „Clean Plant“. Besides the waste another input is necessary for the construction materials: organic resins to amalgate the waste to form „bricks“ (not actually bricks). Therefore, parts of the money from selling energy are used to plant „Ecological Habitats“. From these habitats oil for the resins, additional construction material such as bamboo and natural fertilizer is won. The construction material is then sold to poor families and offers a sustainable and affordable option to build homes. Waste pickers benefit as they are hired by the plants and earn money for the waste they collect, farmers are employed in the Ecological Habitats and skilled individuals are trained in the new construction techniques. Right now, funding is sought for the first Clean Plant, but the costs are already competitive with other waste processing/disposing alternatives and costs for construction of houses could be lowered significantly. This could be a break-through technology to provide low cost and sustainable housing for poor families all over the world.

More Info:

Transafrica – Efforts to Improve Public Transport in Africa

Juni 12, 2011

If you talk about sustainable transport in industrialized countries you will most likely discuss building a light rail system or bike lanes or you will talk about the introduction of biogas to fuel busses. What are the measures taken in Africa to improve the transportation methods? I’ll try to summarize some of the current issues discussed in several UN Habitat and UITP (International Association of Public Transport) studies and present 2 short case studies.

Walking and cycling are still the most important modes of transport for the urban citizens in African countries as many do not have access to motorized transport services and even less have a car of their own. As the infrastructure in the cities is not designed for walking and cycling these aren’t safest options of getting from A to B but don’t have the best image as they are often associated with poverty. Nonetheless in the capital of the Senegal, Dakar 71% of the trips are covered by foot.

The second important mode of transport are minibuses and motorcycle taxis. The motorized transit services are dominated by the informal sector.  The services provided are unregulated, of poor quality and safety and so expensive that the users spend 30% or more of their income only on their daily commutes. The fares may vary immensely, depending on the weather, the demand, and many other factors such as oil prices. The operators don’t have a long term strategy and they can change the services provided as they will. Moreover, the predominance of informal operators also leads to lower revenues of the formal transport sector making it more costly for the authorities to support these services and to invest in necessary infrastructure.  Another negative side-effect is the lack of experienced and qualified personnel to operate the formal transit services and to maintain the buses.

What can be done by the authorities to improve the services. The two case studies below give an example:

Case Study 1: Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi has grown very quickly and needs to adjust to the new challenges. One important issue is the high death rate in urban traffic, around 300 died every year. To combat this, stricter rules on were implemented to address the informal sector (source Trans-Africa Consortium 2010):

  • compulsory seat belts for each seating position in a passenger vehicle;
  • speed restrictions for any public transport vehicle limiting the maximum speed to 80 km/h;
  • display of the route number at the front of each vehicle in order to combat the common practice of commercial vehicles dropping the passengers ‘en route’ and changing the route

In a survey conducted after the implementation positive results were obtained. The passenger’s safety and comfort has increased significantly.

Case Study 2: Dakar, Senegal

Informally run minibuses are the dominate mode of transport in Dakar. They often offer poor quality services and the operators are only able to cover their operatic costs and not the renewal of their vehicles. The city has therefore implementat a programme to support the renewal of the fleets. The operators were approached and asked to become part of a formal transportation group (GIE). For these groups the vehicles to be used were specified and loans were granted to the operators to renew their fleet and the entire group was responsible for the repayment of the loans. To formalize the operations even more, concessions were granted to the operators which in return made them responsible to stick to the specified routes, bus stops and fares. All in all 13 GIEs were formed, increasing customer satisfaction and making the public transport sector more transparent, reliable and safe.

You can find more information and more case studies in the following 3 publications:

UITP Publication with Case Studies

UITP Survey Study

UN Habitat Study on Mobility in Africa

The Soft Cities Project in Porto – Organic Photovoltaics

Juni 7, 2011
(c) Hans Georg Roth, KVA Matx

(c) Hans Georg Roth, KVA Matx

To date solar energy is mostly found in the form of glass solar panels. A pilot project carried out in Porto, Portugal offers an alternative: Solar fibre integrated in a textile surface. The combination of textile and thin-film solar nanomaterials  has numerous advantages, the flexibilty and especially the low cost and low carbon footprint of its production. On the other hand however, they are rather inefficient, converting a maximum of 4% of incoming light to electricity but on the other hand solar power can be harvested the whole day.

In this pilot project 25,000 row houses built in the 17th to 19th centuries were included. The goal was to „provide daily energy use savings of more than 60% per household with textiles of 15 square meters, or about 10% if the typical roof area“. On average 6,5 kWh/day will be generated that can be used to power appliances or to charge motor scooters.

The „solar textiles“ are also a canopy that can be stretched by day to harvest the sun’s energy and can be packed up and stored at night.

More info can be found here:

and in „Ecological Urbanism“ edited by Mohsen Mostafavi and Gareth Doherty.

A new sustainable residential district – Hammarby Sjöstad

Juni 2, 2011
(c) Holger Ellgaard

(c) Holger Ellgaard

Sustainability is one of the key criteria for today’s urban planning. In Stockholm planners had the chance to create a whole residential district from scratch and to design it to be as environmentally friendly as possible: Hammarby Sjöstad. The first plans were drawn in the early 1990s and it will be completed by 2015 but most of it is done already. In the end it will consist of 11.000 residential units and up to 35.000 people will live and work in Hammarby Sjöstad.

From the beginning ambitious environmental goals were set: „the goal of the entire environmental programme is to halve the total environmental impact in comparison with an area built in the early 1990s“. The district was planned accordingly, but first the existing pollution had to be cleaned up. Before it became a residential district it was an industrial area that left the environment and the soil highly contaminated with toxic wastes.

So, to go more into detail what was done:

One main issue for the planners was energy: Solar panels were installed to provide energy and to heat water, accumulating waste  is used to produce electricity and heating, waste heat is extracted from the wastewater of a nearby wastewater treatment plant, and a district cooling network was established.

Another important aspect is water: One of the goals was to reduce the water consumption by 50% compared to the average to 100 litres per person and day. Further, the quality of the wastewater was to be improved for the overall environmental quality and to make the sludge that  remains after the treatment usable for agriculture and for the generation of biogas for energy production.

An interesting feature is also the garbage disposal system. After being thrown away the waste of several buildings is collected and ends up in underground tanks that are then emptied with a vacuum technology by the garbage company. Then, as mentioned, it is used to generate electricity and heating.

The goals are quite ambitious so the question is whether they have been achieved so far. A study from 2008 estimated that „the total environmental impact for buildings, building plots and zones has fallen by ca. 32-39% for emissions into the air, soil and water (environmental index) in comparison with the referent.“ Especially the buildings have become more environmentally friendly, especially due to the improved heating system and the processing of wastewater. What also helped to reduce the impacts from transport were the establishment of a light rail and ferry connections. All in all with regards to transportation the study showed that „the referent produces ca. 475 kg more carbon dioxide emissions per apartment from personal transport by car than Hammarby Sjöstad“.

Further, the conflict arises between aesthetic and environmental impacts is important. For example large windows facing the lake are great for the people living there but are not optimal from an energy saving perspective. Also some of the technologies such as the solar panels or the waste disposal system still have the potential for improvement. But even if some of the goals have not (yet) been reached the overall impact of Hammarby Sjöstad is positive and the ideas are now being exported to other similar projects worldwide.

You can find more information on Hammarby Sjöstad on the official website

More information on the evaluation:

Bangkok Drowning – How the City Struggles with the Rising Tide

Mai 27, 2011
(c) WPPilot

(c) WPPilot

The city of Bangkok has expanded massively in the past and the population increased from 2 million in 1960 to 7 million in 2009 and scientists say that it might drown within the next 100 years.

Still most parts of the city still are located above the Gulf of Thailand but other parts are already below sea level. It would be easy to blame climate change and the resulting rising overall sea levels and increased precipitation for this phenomenon but this would only cover parts of the truth. The main contributing factor is land subsidence. Bangkok is built on clay and not on bedrock. The population and especially its industries are pumping 2.5 million cubic tons of water annually, and therefore overexploiting the aquifers that are situated below this clay layer. When the water is pumped out the pore water pressure declines, the clay layer compresses and the ground surface lowers. What also factors in is the increasing pressure on the surface coming from newly constructed buildings, roads etc, compressing the clay even more.

Besides the increased risk of floods land subsidence is obviously dangerous for infrastructure as well and has already caused massive damage to roads and calls for action from the city’s authorities. Since 1985 a groundwater fee is charged that was steadily increased and the groundwater withdrawal is closely monitored and awareness raising campaigns accompany these measures. Since then the level of groundwater abstraction and the rate of land subsidence have  decreased and the implemented policies were thus judged as succesful.

Nonetheless, Bangkok still sinks and the water still rises. The city has therefore invested in dams and drainage tunnels and the future will show if these measures are enduring or if the traditional Thai knowledge of building houses on stilts will come in handy again.

Find more information here:

A short overview from the UN on the reasons of land subsidence in Bangkok (a bit outdated maybe):

A World Bank report on Bangkok’s policies to stop land subsidence:

Another World Bank report on megacities and climate change:

An AP article on Bangkok’s situation:

An article on Bangkok’s planned flood tunnels:

Parakeets in Western Europe – A New Plague?

Mai 22, 2011
(c) Andrew Testa for The New York Times

(c) Andrew Testa for The New York Times

An unlikely plague has hit London and other Western European cities: rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri). Those birds, native in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and a well-liked pet have appeared in swarms. However, this did not come as  a surprise as scientists believe that they descended from birds that have been set free by their owners.

There numbers have since increased significantly, around 2.000 were estimated to live in Amsterdam (the data is from 2006, so the figures are likely to be higher),  10.000  in Brussels (allegedly they are descendants of 50 birds that were released in 1975 by the manager of an amusement park) and 30.000 in London.

What is the problem? People like these green birds, don’t they? The have been reported to cause major crop damage in their native areas, eating fruits and cereals. In the UK they are still mostly found in urban areas, therefore besides damaging trees and eating fruits the resulting impacts are still low. However, scientists highlight that parakeets may become a pest in the future as the birds spread to rural areas.

The second problem is the competition with native species for nesting sites. This could especially hit nuthatches and starlings, the competition with woodpecker is estimated to be negligable but the number of studies to date is very low so all possible impacts are not yet understood.

What has allowed the population to expand? According to the scientists this is not clear. Many theories exist but none of them is really satisfying. More food could be available for the parakeets or predators could have disappeared. Or climate change and the resulting milder climate,  could be the reason but on the other hand the past two winters were especially cold. Or it could be that the population has reached a certain size so that it is easier for each of them to procreate. No one really knows but the phenomenon has caught the attention and will be monitored closely.

For more information: (A Belgian study on the spread of parakeets) (parakeets in Amsterdam) (NY Times article on parakeets) (The UK-based project to research the impacts of the parakeets)

Greening Congo – An example from the FAO

Mai 19, 2011
Kinshasa (C) Irene2005

Kinshasa (C) Irene2005

Urban and peri-urban agriculture is one of the main areas of interest of the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). One of the first countries they started their program in was the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The project was started in 2000 and implemented in the two biggest cities of the country: Lubumbashi and Kinshasa.

A study conducted by the FAO revealed several constraints for urban agriculture in the DRC.  The sector lacks the support from the local authorities and according policies are not in place. For farmers planting on deserted plots the insecurity of land tenure is another problem undermining the expansion of the urban agricultural activities. In many urban areas, access to water or adequate irrigation can not be taken for granted. In addition, due to lack of knowledge of necessary inputs such as fertilizer and seed, the yields of urban agriculture are relatively low and the applied methods could still be improved from an environmental perspective. Marketing opportunities are often missing, especially as the farmers are often unorganized and can therefore be taken advantage of by merchants and the access to financial capital is limited or too expensive for the small-scale operations of the single farmer.

The first step taken to improve the situation was to invest in the irrigation infrastructure. The growers are trained to maintain the infrastructure and the improvements allow them to expand their operations. Further, the prerequisites for a micro-finance scheme were developed and the farmers were educated on financial management and the loans allowed them to buy better seeds and tools. Next, covered nurseries that enable the farmers to grow seedlings during the rainy season and protected them from the cold were introduced. As planned, the incomes of the participants increased with the increased productivity of their gardens.

The second phase of the project began in 2004 and it was extended to 3 more cities. A main focus was to secure the plots through lease agreements with the authorities and the growers were encouraged to test new crops and cultivation techniques. Training and assistance to the growers was provided by farmer field schools set up during the project and to increase the effectiveness of the micro-credit scheme practical training on financial issues such as book-keeping were provided as well.

The focus of the third stage was on strengthening the demand by increasing the consumers confidence in the locally grown products. In addition capacity building for local authorities was fostered to transfer the project to other cities in the country.

In July 2010 the project was assisting 16.100 vegetable growers directly with a total area of 2.000 ha. In Lubumbashi the production has increased from 2.250 tons to about 60.000 tons. At the same time organic fertilizers and biopesticides substitute chemical fertilizer and synthetic pesticides more and more and the income of the growers has significantly increased and they are now able to save money for other purposes (e.g. education).

Please find a short presentation of the project below:

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