Book review: Atlas of Informal Settlement: Understanding Self-Organized Urban Design

reviewed by Faiza Moatasim

24 Apr 2024, 2:44 p.m.

Atlas of Informal Settlement book cover

Based on: Kim Dovey, Matthijs van Oostrum, and Tanzil Shafique, et al., Atlas of Informal Settlement: Understanding Self-Organized Urban Design, London: Bloomsbury, 2023; 304 pp.: ISBN: 9781350295049, £75.00 (hbk); ISBN: 9781350295032, £24.99 (pbk)


Despite structuring most of the urban world today, informal spaces have received little attention in dominant architecture and urban design discourse and practice, which continue to privilege the creative genius of professional designers in contrast to the agency of marginalised communities. In addition to structural biases, there are also pragmatic reasons for these disciplinary blind spots: informal settlements are not easy to detect and record because they are often in flux, structurally diverse and adaptable. Can we represent incrementally developed and ever-changing informal spaces to understand the principles of self-organised urban design? Written by authors with a background in architecture and urban design, the Atlas of Informal Settlement: Understanding Self-Organized Urban Design is an impressive, first-of-its-kind mapping project that fills in this lacuna by presenting the forms and logic of informal settlements. The atlas presents maps and visual analyses of diverse urban arrangements that organise 51 informal communities in 33 cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America in a single volume. With over a billion people living and working in informal settlements, this book offers an important understanding of how self-organised spaces take shape over time and how we may utilise and anticipate the productive capacities of informal settlements to guide future urban growth.

To trace histories of informal places that are constantly evolving and for which there are no archives or records, the authors of the Atlas of Informal Settlement used Google Earth aerial imagery and Street Views, which became first available around the year 2000. Using aerial photographs as base data, the authors plotted selected communities (by hand and mouse) to help train themselves to discover informal settlement patterns as part of the mapping process. They used digital imagery and views to identify plot lines, building sizes and heights, street widths and public spaces. To supplement their analysis of the mapped settlements, the authors used newspaper articles and scholarly research as well as insights from their own extensive work on informal settlements.

Parts A and B of the atlas introduce the main frameworks that inform its theory and methods. The authors use the concept of the informal settlement as a verb based on John F.C. Turner’s influential ideas about housing as a process rather than a product, and the practice of understanding cities as relational based on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s assemblage theory. They employed these theoretical frameworks to uncover the ‘morphogenesis’– the evolution of urban form – of selected informal communities at a global scale. Morphogenesis is not merely a study of the formal features of an informal settlement; it presents a deeper understanding of how the design infrastructure of an informal community ‘works or fails to work’ (p. 18). It also reveals how the state responds to communities settled informally by upgrading, tolerating or evicting them. The authors acknowledge the importance of political and economic issues such as poverty, livelihoods, human rights and land tenure in the spatial logic of informal urban design. However, they explain that their emphasis on settlement form is to show how morphogenic perspectives supplement our understanding of urban poverty by revealing important socio-spatial interconnections and productive relations between human and non-human elements. Part C of the atlas presents maps of the selected informal settlements – drawn and analysed on different scales ranging from 30 × 30 km to 1ha – to show their evolution both within their broader regional contexts and at their neighbourhood level. In addition to multi-scalar maps, each case study also presents multi-temporal images in a panel of three – a triptych – to show the three evolving stages (the beginning, middle and late) of the same area.

What do maps tell us that cannot be represented through ethnographic narratives and statistical data? At a fundamental level, tracing the morphogenic change of informal settlements helps visualise their histories and evolution patterns. It is a way of knowing a city, as the authors state, that is irreducible to words and numbers (p. 28). Part D of the book extracts the unifying trends and logic that emerge from morphogenic analyses of 51 self-organised settlements. The authors discuss the generative process of informal settlements based on: (i) how they respond to their site conditions, physical features, and constraints; (ii) how they grow, shrink or disappear over time; (iii) how access networks emerge and connect spaces within and outside informal settlements; and (iv) how accretive regimes of building and overbuilding shape urban form. These generative features highlight informal self-organised settlements as spaces of possibility that produce affordable housing and infrastructure and organise formal urban growth. This understanding is critical for formulating effective approaches to improve existing substandard settlement conditions and to develop cities in the future.

The book offers three takeaways – overdeveloping, upgrading, and organising – that provide important lessons not only for informal urban design but also for the making of cities in general. Firstly, overdeveloping is an undesirable material condition that emerges when construction in a self-organised settlement escalates at the expense of reduced airflow, natural light and public open spaces. As land becomes unavailable, people start erecting multi-story buildings and intruding in public lanes and over streets. Overcrowding is an important concept to highlight that no self-organised settlement can continue to grow indefinitely and that residents must work towards developing socially acceptable building codes to avoid depletion of their common resources. Secondly, upgrading is normatively associated with the actions of official and institutional actors and involves the installation of infrastructure like water supply, sewerage system, electricity, health and educational facilities in informal settlements. The authors argue that residents of informal settlements are constantly upgrading their homes and communities as they incrementally improve them over time using their own resources and without external support. However, this community-led upgrading is often unrecognised because it does not meet the normative conception of the term, which is associated with the actions of governments, NGOs and international development organisations in informal settlements. Finally, because self-organised settlements mostly indicate the organising power and agency of their community members, it is important to harness and support the capabilities of local residents while ensuring that the informal land development processes are not coopted by land mafia and pirate developers.

The authors conclude the book by asserting the relevance of self-organised urban design to formal planning paradigms. They argue that informal urban design has much to teach designers today as slogans in contemporary urban design thinking like walkability, creativity and low-carbon emissions are inherent features of informal settlements. The atlas thus promises to offer architecture and urban design students and practitioners useful lessons in self-organised urban design to help them practically embrace informality as a design framework. Moreover, this book makes important contributions from design-related fields to existing sociological and anthropological studies on informal urbanism by asserting the relevance of topography, access networks and incremental processes in the sustenance of informal communities. The Atlas of Informal Settlement demonstrates mapping as an important analytical tool to reveal socio-spatial interconnections at a global urban scale and creates a pathway for future inter- and multi-disciplinary research that brings together morphogenic, economic and political perspectives to fully capture the complexity of self-organised urbanism.


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Life between buildings from a street view image: What do big data analytics reveal about neighbourhood organisational vitality? by Mingshu Wang and Floris Vermeulen

Open access article from Wang and Vermeulen uses big data from images captured by Google Street View to analyse how the built environment impacts the survival rate of neighbourhood-based social organisations in Amsterdam.

Towards a multi-scalar reading of informality in Delft, South Africa: Weaving the ‘everyday’ with wider structural tracings by Liza Rose Cirolia and Suraya Scheba

Everyday practices and structural logics: a multi-scalar reading of informality in Delft, South Africa.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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