Informal settlements: looking at the bigger picture

Posted on May 09, 2016

'I have lived in an informal settlement. I have visited a number of settlements. I have seen how poverty can strip my fellow humans of dignity.'

These are the words of Dr Emmanuel Nkambule, who has used his past experiences to improve the lives of others. He wants to change the lives of residents in informal settlements all over South Africa through creative architecture.

Dr Nkambule is a lecturer at the University of Pretoria in the Department of Architecture, where he teaches in accordance with the philosophy espoused by the Department's slogan: 'Envisioning sustainable communities by cultivating social economies'.

He was inspired to study architecture by the ingenuity he saw among those living in informal settlements. 'One day in 1996, I was standing at the door of our rented mud room watching pedestrians walking in the street. I made a decision to study architecture so that I might one day improve the lives of people living in informal settlements. I imagined different forms of houses that might make my settlement look better and improve safety for all the residents. I was inspired by the humanity, intelligence and inventiveness of informal-settlement dwellers, who defy even the most oppressive legislation created by the various regimes, to establish their own means of survival. This gave me hope.'

For his PhD research, Dr Nkambule sought to improve the living conditions in informal settlements by visually studying the structure of the settlement and its many physical and social layers. He hoped to develop a method by which architects and urban designers could help to solve socio-economic problems in poverty-stricken informal settlements.

His research was stimulated by his desire to 'address the problem of poor living conditions and perpetual poverty in informal settlements through architectural design.' He says: 'I feel that as a designer I can be a pragmatic visionary and restore hope through that vision.'

To test his 'visual methodology' in the real world, Dr Nkambule tried it out in Khutsong Section informal settlement, located in Ivory Park Township in Midrand, Johannesburg. He found that his methodology works well for showing the spatial character of the settlement and the social networks in it. The results show the many layers that make up informal settlements on a map, which can help in the planning of interventions to improve the lives of those living there. If an architect or urban designer wishes to understand the underlying structure and social economy of an informal settlement, Dr Nkambule's methodology is perfectly suited to the job.

Looking to the future, Dr Nkambule wants to apply his work in other informal settlements and extend it to rural settings. 'In urban areas, I want to understand and create systems for ''the lost identity'', ''the homeless'', ''the non-belonging'': the informal settlement dweller. In rural areas, I want to create spaces and environments for residents, local social groups and other community networks that will improve their socio-economic conditions,' he says.

This young researcher hopes his work will help restore dignity to the growing populations of informal settlements.

 

- Author ScienceLink
Published by Ansa Heyl

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