Slum, Unplanned Settlement or Organic Growth?

7132F416-1942-410A-B990-ABBCC35DDAA5These are some observations from a trip to Lima in August, around the way that cities grow. These are only based on personal experience of the city, conversations with the Lima-nites I was with at the time and stories from the main stream media.

Driving around the city there appear to be a lot of self-built houses. There are much less in the centre of the city and the old town, but everywhere else they are almost always present.

They tend to be around 2-4 storeys tall, and are often (but not always) roughly finished concrete and terracotta. Some have reinforcing bars left exposed at roof level. Almost all are covered in a web of wires and cables that supply electricity and telecoms. Many look questionable in terms of structural integrity, which raises questions around whether they should be categorised as a slum by UN definition – however this is not the focus of this piece.


So why might Lima be like this?

Firstly, a lot of Lima, is self-built. Most cement is sold on the domestic market to individuals building their own houses, rather than large contractors delivering big projects.

This culture of self-build has been driven by the lack of public sector social housing and the lack of personal finance mechanisms available, where mortgages have only been realistically available relatively recently. This means that families have built houses a little at a time, extending properties in stages when they have money.

Through talking to people in the city, there is a widely adopted housing model where two to three generations live in the same house. The house may have been built as one or two storeys initially, with the potential for the children to extend it later when they start working (which explains the reinforcing bars sticking out of the roof). It’s not clear whether this is a widely adopted traditional model, or a model followed by a lower-income demographic.

Lima is also in an area of higher natural risk. It is in a seismic zone, with earthquakes of magnitude 6.0 and above occurring almost every 20 years (1940 8.2, 1966 8.1, 1974 8.1, 1993 6.0, 2013 7.0). A largely self-built city must be at greater risk of damage when hit by an earthquake, because consistently applying, or even communicating, building standards is difficult. However, it may also be able to re-build itself more quickly as lots of people have the skills to re-build their own houses. There are obviously questions around the provision and reinstatement of infrastructure needed at a city-wide level.

On the way to the airport, driving along a road that was lined with self built houses, the thought occured that what can be seen in Lima is the process of organic city growth that is difficult to see in more “developed” countries.

The approach to building bit by bit continues once the rough construction is in place. Some houses have been fully rendered and painted, although it is still possible to see it has happened in stages. Some houses have been partially rendered, and some not at all.

Over time, once the structure of the house is in place, many go through a process of beautification. In another twenty years’ time, maybe the roughly finished blockwork houses will be the exception rather than the rule.



This provides a really interesting example, and some questions around the way that cities are built in so-called developed countries.

The lack of personal finance available in Peru has meant that Lima has a large amount of development at a very small-scale. Development is at the scale of the individual building, or floor of a building, albeit within a wider network of streets (which may or may not have utilities). Each individual building fulfils the primary role of providing accommodation, rather than generating financial value (although once the building is there and tenure secure, it is possible to raise money against it).

This contrasts with more typical development in Europe, the US and the Middle East, where a smaller amount of development happens but on a larger scale. In this model, the infrastructure and the buildings are often delivered at the same time which creates high costs and requires high returns. This process is matched to a funding model where wealthy international buyers are able invest as a financial asset and often leave properties vacant. There are lots of questions around the processes behind this type of development, the way in which this development is designed, and its impacts.

So cities like Lima may look less clean, tidy or finished, than those in the developed world (and it is true that the slum condition of some areas is no small problem to address), but it is interesting that the financing mechanisms, or possible lack of them, has potentially created cities that are succesful in a different way.

These processes deserve to be looked at it in more detail as they might help provide a more suitable development model. If the development model of a large amount of small-scale building could be matched to the parallel delivery of universal access to infrastructure it would seem to combine the best of both worlds.

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