How informal settlements are being transformed into dignified spaces

by Walter Fieuw and Yolande Hendler

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There is a growing recognition that new way of delivering services in informal settlements are needed. Such new approaches should be aimed at building community capacity through participatory planning, design and implementation of services. Informal settlements are characterised by very different shapes and sizes, ranging from smaller inner city settlements located in residential neighborhoods, to large sprawling settlements on the periphery of cities. Different approaches are needed to effectively transform these settlements into more dignified living spaces, and working with communities is paramount to succeeding in upgrading initiatives. The re-blocking of Kuku Town is an example of alternative ways of thinking through quality of place, safety and security through improved settlement layouts, and better located services.

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Kuku Town informal settlement is located on little triangle of open land at the end of 14th Street, Kensington and close to Kentemade train station. Kuku Town consists of 21 households, making up a community of about 50 people. The relatively small settlement is conveniently located, close to jobs and social amenities.

Kuku Town community leaders were engaged by the Informal Settlement Network, a social movement of community based organisations located in informal settlements working to create a platform of the urban poor, who supported the community in building a partnership with the City of Cape Town. Read more about the initiatives preceding the re-blocking project implementation.


“Blocking-out” and “re-blocking” are interchangeable terms the ISN and support NGOs Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) and iKhayalami use to refer to the reconfiguration and repositioning of shacks in very dense informal settlements in accordance to a community-drafted spatial framework. The aim is to better utilize the spaces in informal settlements to allow for better service provision. Moreover, re-blocking is done in “clusters” identified by the community, and after implementation, “courtyard” are created to ensure a safer environment for woman and children via neighborhood watches (all shacks face the courtyard), productive places (such as washing lines, food gardens), and generally provides space for local government to install better services.

Successful demonstration of this alternative approach to upgrading informal settlements in settlements such as Mtshini Wam and Sheffield Road has drawn the City of Cape Town’s attention. In November 2013 Mayoral Committee Member for Human Settlements, Ms. Thandeka Gqada adopted the re-blocking policy, and stated that

We view this as a turning point in our commitment to redress and a new model of shared responsibility that can change the face of our informal settlements



The re-blocking of Kuku Town is one of 21 partnership projects between the City of Cape Town and ISN, supported by CORC and iKhayalami. On Tuesday 29 May, community leaders welcomes delegates from ISN and FEDUP, NGOs such as CORC, iKhayalami and Habitat for Humanity, and City of Cape Town officials from the Department of Human Settlements and Councilor of ward 32, Cllr. Derek America. The ceremony marked an important milestone for the community, who founded the settlement in 1985. Before the re-blocking project, there were no rational layout of the settlement, and toilets and taps were easily vandalized since they were located on the periphery of the settlement, where maintenance teams could easily reach. With the new settlement layout, toilets and taps are located in new community courtyards. The electricity connections was removed during the re-blocking project, and reconnected on completion.



Re-blocking has now been adopted as a formal City of Cape Town informal settlement upgrading strategy, and is included in the City’s IDP and Urban Settlement Development Grant (USDG) budgets for the next five years. The strength of the re-blocking process is the central participation of community members in the planning, design and implementation of their settlement upgrade. Moreover, the ISN experience in building community capacity to upgrade settlements, with support from NGOs such as CORC and iKhayalami, results in significant changes in the community.

  • No internal displacement has occurred even though spaces have been opened for community courtyards, water and sanitation service delivery, electrification, and creating primary and secondary road hierarchies;
  • Scarce spaces in informal settlements are consolidated and productivity is maximized for communal purposes (safety and security, daily domestic chores) and delivering better services
  • The process of negotiating floor sizes builds social cohesion and solidarity. Governance support is part of ISN’s mobilisation and capacity building support in communities.
  • Top-structures are improved by using high-quality Inverted Box Rib (“IBR”) galvanised steel sheets with high fire resistance ratings.
  • Social mobilization through woman’s savings schemes, enumeration, spatial mapping and design, and eventual collaboration in the implementation of this settlement-wide upgrading strategy generates internal learning (which is shared through the ISN and FEDUP), and builds stronger partnerships with the local government.

Re-blocking also opens new avenues for continued partnership development. In the case of Kuku Town, Habitat for Humanity also contributed to the project. Opening up spaces for collaboration and joint learning should primary address community needs. Unless the community is seen as central participants in the design of their settlement, the exercise remains futile, and not responsive to local conditions.

About Walter Fieuw

Walter Fieuw is a Chevening scholar completing a MSc City Planning and Real Estate Development degree at the University of Glasgow in 2015/16. In Glasgow, he is working as a Researcher at a planning consultancy Bilfinger GVA. Previously, following a short lived career in corporate finance in London, he worked as Fund Manager with the South African Alliance of Shack/ Slum Dwellers International and Programme Manager at the Greater Tygerberg Partnership in Cape Town. He is optimistic about South African cities, provided that we get the basics right and include people’s lived experiences and knowledge as building blocks.

There are 2 comments

  1. Hlulani

    This article accounts an excellent set of efforts from multiple stakeholders, from a conventional planning standpoint. But within the meanings of places, and values they embed, especially informal responses to societal pressures and economic constraints. I am impressed with the effort, but not with it’s fundamental premise: “informality” is dismantled and set aside as undignified, by cubing it the practitioners introduce dignity. But when the people are happy to be squared-in reblocking does imply dignity.

  2. Walter

    Hlulani: Your comments is well taken. The patterns of occupation and settlement in informal settlement do indeed hold a lot of meaning. Re-blocking, as described above, is inherently a community based planning effort, and opens up space for the City to deliver better services. The results speak for themselves: 3 toilet and 2 taps before, compared to 1:1 services after reblocking, i.e. 22 toilets and taps, one for each shack. The City’s policy does clearly state that the City will only engagement with communities and support NGOs if the informal settlement community decides to proceed with this approach.

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