Book review: Upgrading Informal Settlements: Experiences from Asia

reviewed by Patrick Wakely

22 Aug 2023, 1:22 p.m.

Upgrading Informal Settlements book cover

Yap Kioe Sheng, Upgrading Informal Settlements: Experiences from Asia, Bangkok: White Lotus Books, 2023; 224 pp.: ISBN: 978-90-832562-6-9, ฿450.00 (pbk) [Amsterdam: AnyBook Press, 2023; 236 pp.: ISBN: 9789083256269, €17.90 (pbk)]


Urban slum and shanty upgrading

In the chronology of paradigm shifts of state intervention in a traditionally laissez-faire market in the procurement and management of low-income group urban housing in developing cities and towns of the Global South, slum and shanty upgrading superseded slum clearance policies and strategies.

The principles and practice of upgrading (improving) urban slums and peri-urban shanties evolved during the last quarter of the 20th century and have continued to change and develop more recently. This diverse and complex process is addressed in great analytical detail by Yap Kioe Sheng in his rewarding and informative book Upgrading Informal Settlements: Experiences from Asia.

The strength of the book lies in a thorough introductory historical analysis (Part I1) that, inter alia, addresses the diversity of upgrading policies and some of the political and popular opposition to them for their perceived status and image, and their costs, and in its concluding section (Part III2) that draws together the principal lessons learnt, emphasising the social and economic benefits of slum and settlement infrastructure upgrading, from experience. These analytical ‘top’ and ‘tail’ sections are supported by four interesting programme/project case studies, each from a different Asian country3 (Part II4), selected to ‘illustrate the evolution of the theory and practice of upgrading over a 50-year period (1970–2020)’.


Participation and partnership

The devolution of authority for the planning, maintenance and management of informal settlement upgrading engages community groups that are generally ill-equipped with the necessary management and planning skills to take on the responsibilities devolved to them, as discussed by Yap (p.164). They therefore require enabling supports, frequently provided by specialist NGOs, in addition to local government field-level technical and social staff. To meet these challenges a range of approaches and techniques to advance and support urban community development organisation and management have been developed, largely through pragmatic, on-the-job practice with, and by, urban low-income groups, living and working in informal settlements in towns and cities throughout the world. A consistently successful family of community mobilisation techniques – that centre upon participatory local domestic and environmental problems and collectively generated approaches to solving them and plans for local action to implement them – has developed over a period of some 50 years.

Partnerships, between municipal governments and administrations, national government line ministries and agencies, organised community groups and individual households, also introduced by Yap (p. 175), are the next stage in the development of affordable and sustainable urban housing procurement and management, including informal settlement upgrading. Partnership differs fundamentally from limited participation, which presupposes a dualistic relationship, in which development and management initiatives and processes are controlled (‘owned’) by government agencies that allow users/beneficiaries varying secondary levels of influence. Partnership, on the other hand, signifies joint control and shared ‘ownership’ with benefits and risks mutually shared by public sector agencies and beneficiary citizens (organisations).


Global climate change and pathogenic transmission

The wider understanding of the urgent need for measures to address the existential threat occasioned by global climate change and the lessons learnt from the 2021–2023 COVID-19 pandemic impose important new approaches to the planning and management of informal settlement and slum upgrading programmes and projects. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic drew attention to ‘social distancing’ and the need for people to be able to communicate and socialise safely in outdoor conditions in which pathogenic transfers are minimised, occasioning lower gross residential densities than those determined by the prevailing values of economic and financial efficiency.

In addition to environmental health considerations, increased areas of public open space and neighbourhood facilities are required: to allow for community recreation and casual social interaction between otherwise housebound people, most notably women, as well as local sports facilities to foster mental health and social conviviality, particularly of young adults and children; also to provide larger gathering-spaces to enable events related to communal activities such as collective community governance. As a contribution to the fight against global heating, where climatically and topographically possible, the planting and nurture of trees and other CO2-absorbing vegetation needs to be encouraged and supported. For example, funding and technical support to the upgrading of dwellings and services in the Oshakati Human Settlements Improvement Programme in Namibia was conditional on the planting of shade trees on each upgraded plot in low-income group housing areas as a social/climatic amenity and to lower the ambient air temperature and stabilise the desertic soil, which, coincidentally, also increased the safe capture of CO2, thereby contributing to the amelioration of global heating5 on the fringes of the Kalahari Desert (Wakely, 2018: 74–83).

Inevitably, such measures will incur higher capital costs of off-plot infrastructure works and house construction than in the past, for which many households will not be able or willing to pay. Full infrastructure costs may therefore have to be subsidised by the relevant public sector agencies and, as it is unlikely that standards of space within dwellings will be able to be governed by building-control legislation, health considerations, such as viral infections within households, should constitute a significant component of participatory support-education in slum and settlement upgrading urban housing development processes (Wakely and Matararachchi, 2021). So ubiquitous have been the hazards and risks incurred by Coronavirus that they will probably live on in urban and rural ‘folklore’, even for generations that did not experience the pandemic, as have those of preceding plagues, epidemics and recurrent geophysical disasters, thus becoming accepted as common-sense practice in the planning, management and financing of upgrading dwellings and neighbourhoods. Indeed, support for the planning and implementation of neighbourhood replanning and landscaping, solely to address the local mitigation of global heating and pathogenic transmission, may in some situations constitute the principal, if not the only, reason for investing in community-based settlement upgrading.

In summary, conscientious urban design and landscaping6 is central to the social need and use of communal open space in urban low-income housing areas and is of prime importance to both the mitigation of pathogenic transmission and the reduction of ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions. With care in the induction stages of establishing community organisations/partnerships, as discussed above, the value of communal open-air neighbourhood facilities, and their husbandry, become widely accepted by the leaders and membership of neighbourhood-based CBOs, as evidenced by the many examples referred to in Yap Kioe Sheng’s book.

Slum and informal settlement upgrading maintains a town or city’s gross housing stock, unlike the slum clearance programmes that preceded it, which depleted the housing stock, particularly of dwellings affordable to the lowest-income groups. However, upgrading does not necessarily increase the number of habitable dwellings or, per se, contribute to housing the population of a growing town or city.



1. Four chapters, pp. 1–83.

2. Two chapters, pp. 161–195.

3. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India.

4. Four chapters, pp. 84–158.

5. The cooling effect of trees comes largely from shading and transpiration, which is when water within the tree is released as vapour through the leaves. This process takes heat energy from the surrounding environment by evaporation, lowering the ambient air temperature.

6. That includes CO2-absorbing planting (trees, shrubs, grass, etc).



Wakely P (2018) Housing in Developing Cities: Experience and Lessons. New York, NY and Abingdon: Routledge. Crossref | Google Scholar

Wakely P, Matararachchi S (2021) Sustainable community governance and management of urban housing and local environment. Town Planning Review 92(4): 443–452. Crossref | Google Scholar


Related articles

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

The Slum Upgrading Myth by Herbert Werlin

Werlin examines the World Bank’s slum upgrading approach used in urban development projects during the 1970s and 1980s.

The contribution of intergroup neighbouring to community participation: Evidence from Shanghai by Zheng Wang, Fangzhu Zhang, and Fulong Wu

What kind of neighbouring might enhance participation in community activities? Using a 1420-sized household survey collected in Shanghai, this paper examines the relationship between different types of neighbouring and community participation.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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