User-driven housing construction: lessons from Cairo

Since the 1970s, the concept of self-help in housing has become a strong theoretical foundation and a practical and functional basis for public interventions in upgrading slum areas. By the mid-1980s, over 50% of the World Bank’s urban projects were sites and services schemes that encouraged people to build their own dwellings on land provided by the state and equipped with basic infrastructure. However, its definition has led to different interpretations. In general, self-help practices withdrew the notion of ‘user control’ over the construction process, which led to their failure in achieving the concept’s original objective: allowing integrated community participation and the creation of autonomy in housing environments.

Today, a set of practical questions about the self-help approach still remains unanswered. What is the user’s role and responsibilities? In which phases of the housing project does he participate? What is the role of the expert and the state? The following documentary was produced to address these fundamental questions by referring to the popular housing production modes in Cairo. The city’s informal development has been and continues to be the dominant mode of urbanization, housing over 12 million people. So what can this strong dynamic of user-driven construction in Cairo tell us about self-help housing?

Video: Self-Built informal housing in Cairo: a user driven approach from urbaMonde on Vimeo.

The documentary (see video above) shows a testimony of two owner-builder families living in Cairo’s informal settlements – in Manshiyet Naseer and in Qalyubia – describing the process by which they built their homes. Their testimonies and the remarks by professor and architect Dr. Dina Shehayeb indicates the practical elements of self-help and challenges of housing autonomy. In fact, they demonstrate that diverse actors, processes and social systems are implied in the project management, they influence each other and their combinations include a variety of participation processes. Three principles of housing autonomy emerge from this self-built process.

First, participation in housing implies user control over the entire project. The beneficiary must have a significant decision-making power over design, planning, financing, and management of the project. The autonomy that the owner-builder benefits from exists and prevails due to his capacity to articulate essential resources such as land, local construction materials, financial and human capital, expertise and building tools.

Second, housing must be seen as a process rather than a product. Its values lie in the interaction between the actors, their activities and the house. In the informal sector, the organizational design – that implies the user’s coordination between these three elements – is allowed by the existence of a decentralized market of housing components and resources. Its market has a large network of independent actors and suppliers that offer a necessary variety of construction means. This multiplicity of choice creates the opportunity for the user to combine different options and respond to his specific needs through collective arrangements. The role of social networks and know-how transfer is also important in strengthening individual capacities and diversifies the user’s lines of action. These networks allow a freedom of action and choice, which is fundamental to an autonomous housing system. In addition, the informal housing financing modes are essential. As we question their role and the ways in which they benefit the development of the economy, we note that they are the ones financing the small and medium sized enterprises, particularly in the construction sector.

Third, a self-help housing strategy implies a change of the role of planners, architects and the state. The application of user control to the assembly of the housing components and its management means a greater dependence on the user’s capacity to negotiate land prices and the process of acquiring and transferring property rights, accessing tools and materials, financial resources, and architectural expertise. These resources are a function of law and its administration, which are controlled by the central authority. The self-help approach to housing isn’t a combination of the formal and informal as it used to be understood, but rather a combination between two inter-linked and open systems in which the state and professionals assist people’s activities in planning, designing, building and managing housing projects. This co-responsible model demonstrates that the housing production environment has a complex role in identity formation and determines the strengthening, (or inversely), the weakening of the community’s capacity to meaningfully participate to the project.

It is by these characteristics of its structure of authority and control that the informal modes of housing production in Cairo create a resilient and user-generated city. These processes identify the tendencies of emerging cities, which define the global conditions of contemporary urbanization. It is a reality that calls for the recognition of the ways people are already participating in the formation of their living environments and the need to use these emerging processes to engage with ‘informality’ from a planning and architectural perspective. This implies a dramatic change in the approach to the phenomenon. Overcoming its legalistic approach and understanding the organizational potential to promote requires a shift from a top-down planning system to a heterogeneous system of multiple networks in the construction sector, which includes artisans, entrepreneurs, technologies, and financial mechanisms. In fact, housing should be thought in its integral complexity, by identifying and prioritizing its interdependent tendencies and avoiding a sectorial approach, which mostly ignores and fragments them.


Article originally published by Cairobserver.

Iman Salama is a designer and urban planner who is pursuing her PhD in Geography at the University of Geneva on the socio-spatial dimensions of the incremental development process of popular neighborhoods in Cairo.

Main image: screenshot from documentary, ‘Self-Built informal housing in Cairo : a user driven approach.’

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