Wetslum upgrading: emphasizing locational aspects by using floating apps

Written by Emma Meurs, on 31 March 2015

One billion people live in slums, most of them close to open water. These locations are the most vulnerable to floods and sea level rise. With support from the Flood Resilience Group of IHE Delft, PhD fellow Koen Olthuis performed an analysis of 88 slum upgrading projects from mainly the World Bank Project and Operation Database. One of the major findings was a lack of emphasis on locational aspects. An aerial analysis was performed to highlight the extremely dynamic relationship of slums with their location. Floating developments called City Apps aim to upgrade the living conditions on large scale of waterfront slums with small scale instant solutions.

The importance of location

Slums are often located near water and develop in unwanted areas that are often the backyards of the city. The locations of slums are hazardous, they are vulnerable to flooding and earthquakes, there is little space, they are dynamic and very diverse. The research team advises to develop customized programs for slums upgrading for a specific location, incorporating local wisdom of slum occupants. "Slums are currently seen as illegal entities and of temporary nature. If you start viewing them as permanent, they should be treated differently. We should accept that they are there and don’t try to work against them. Asia and Africa are explosively growing in population which gives an enormous pressure on slums", explains Prof. Chris Zevenbergen.

In order to improve the living conditions of people living in these so called wetslums, IHE Delft PhD fellow and founder of Waterstudio.NL Koen Olthuis, invented Floating City Apps. Floating City Apps is a social enterprise which aims to improve living conditions of wetslums by providing an innovative and integrated systemic solution to the problems they face.

Floating City Apps makes use of the water conditions around wetslums to help upgrade them. Locational characteristics derived from the spatial analysis are crucial to implement the Apps. And vice versa, Floating City Apps are seen to be crucial for upgrading wetslums because of their spatial aspects arising from the waterbodies. Furthermore, local knowledge should be integrated into the construction of the floating (or amphibious) foundations.

Fieldwork was done in Dhaka and Kampala by Waterstudio.NL and Cordaid as a preliminary research to investigate the possibilities of implementing a pilot in these locations. Though everyone in these areas were excited about the Apps, the lack of a suitable local NGO, a suitable project and/or funding prohibited the research team from implementing a pilot in these locations.    

Aerial analysis

An aerial analysis was performed last year to see how slums develop and evolve over time. Jiya Benni, researcher at Waterstudio.NL explains: "The analysis confirmed how slums on the edge of water expand on to the water. This can only happen when the water conditions are conducive to having settlements on water. This helped us establish that these slums, even if located on floodable areas, are more or less permanent in nature. The spatial analysis also made evident the diverse nature of these slums and their problems. This spatial aspect would’ve been overlooked in the census-based approach that’s normally taken for slums".  

The aerial analysis concludes with a plea for upgrading projects that takes the spatial aspect into consideration of the slum and the local knowledge found there. Spatial aspects consist of aspects like locational characteristics, for instance proximity to water, effect of water on these wetslums, their accessibility etc. Local knowledge in such slums can be seen in the indigenous ways in which the slum dwellers have adapted to the water conditions. Local knowledge gives a lot of input on how wetslums can be upgraded.

Pilot project in Bangladesh

"It is still too early to describe the exact impact, however the pilot in Bangladesh is starting up and should be able to provide insightful information. When I will attend the amphibious architecture conference in Bangkok this year, I would like to give a presentation and start a discussion about the project", says Chris Zevenbergen. The pilot project is proposed to be in a part of the riverine islands in North West Bangladesh called Char areas. The Communication and Education App will be used for early flood warning systems in these areas.

Tailor made approach to slums upgrading

There is a lot of data available on evolution of slums in Google Earth, which was a helpful discovery for the research team. The data can be combined for example with research that is done on flood measurements and modelling. Chris Zevenbergen: "We will provide recommendations to the World Bank to work differently with regard to slums upgrading. Not a one size fits all approach, but tailor made solutions for slums using local knowledge. I would like to set up a programme to make this happen, however investing in slums is not very attractive to donors. I hope this attitude changes, as slums are an important economy for the city. You can think of micro financing solutions for example".

"I am proud of the work that has been done so far. One paper has been produced and submitted, and hopefully soon to be published as well. A second paper is under development. It is a special topic, I am therefore very happy we are involved as IHE Delft on this very important issue. In my opinion, we should do a lot more in the near future, despite financial issues. I would like to start working on promoting the attractiveness of slums. Concrete solutions such as the City Apps developed by Koen Olthuis and partners should really help to attract financial support for further development" concludes Chris Zevenbergen.

Learn more about wet slums

About floating City Apps

Paper abstract: Slum Upgrading: Assessing the Importance of Location (paper under review for publication)