Chapter 1: Unplanned Settlements

1.1. Unplanned Settlement Patterns

Unplanned settlements represent a viable and effective housing option for low-income populations in most developing countries. Initially, they were highly criticized for their apparent inefficiency and chaos. With time, they proved to be better adapted to the cultural and economic characteristics of their users and to provide better housing environments than those of formally planned low-income housing developments.

Their ways, their plans, their designs and their building materials are often far better suited to local needs, local incomes, local climatic conditions and local resources than the official, legal standards demanded by governments.

Usually, the housing quality in unplanned settlements is poor in their initial stages; however, as the sense of permanence increases and settlements consolidate, the first small shack is eventually replaced and improved with more adequate and durable materials. In some settlements, dwellings can reach comparable or better quality than formally produced housing.

The way unplanned settlements are defined and developed by people is the result of people's accumulated experiences and their refinement over time. This knowledge is transmitted from one group to another. The living environment of low-income populations is defined by the physical, social, political and legal characteristics of the context,and by the priorities, preferences, cultural background and available resources of the users. Due to these inherent characteristics of development, the settlement patterns in unplanned areas vary from one settlement to another even within the same region.

For this reason, extensive research has been directed to the specific settlement process as a way to understand the whole housing process. This knowledge is considered important for future interventions and planning considerations. At the settlement level, the emphasis of research has been on patterns of settlement organization, layout, evolution, and land allocation. At the individual level, the emphasis has been on the patterns of the housing process (i.e., construction management, resource allocation, shelter provision and improvement, spatial distribution of activities and land management).

Extensive literature addresses how conventionally produced housing (usually government housing), has failed in fulfilling users' needs. Erroneous assumptions and pre-conceived standards are imposed instead of recognizing the existing (not necessarily traditional) ones. Some authors have shown that formally produced housing usually worsens the housing problem of low-income groups when the existing housing patterns are ignored and not considered in the proposal. For instance, Waltz explained that western grid-iron patterns for streets and back-to-back plot layouts affected the lives of Islamic Tunisian women, both functionally and psychologically. Interconnected courtyards were essential for Islamic women under the Purdah tradition, since they represented their only social, living and working environment. In contrast, desired social status, which sometimes replaces functional and practical considerations, can also influence the adaptation of somepatterns. Martin presented a case in Ismailia and Lesotho in which grid-iron schemes were preferred over the traditional patterns of organic clusters because "that was the system applied in the better-off sections of the community."

Other authors consider that unplanned housing developments are more a political issue than a technical or design-related one, defined by government policies -- land, economic, public servicing -- and market interventions -- land and housing prices and demand. Gilbert and Ward have shown that housing, in terms of land use and provision of services, is an outcome of the interacting social, economic and political environments of each country. Within this political context, the urban poor have developed mechanisms to manipulate the political machinery in order to obtain housing and services. Since these mechanisms have become a common strategy among unplanned areas, they have been adopted as settlement patterns. Soliman, for example, explains that the invasion leaders in Egypt manipulate their political connections and social status to obtain the official recognition, and therefore servicing, of their settlements.

Settlement patterns can also be the result of the adaptation of traditional rural patterns to urban life. Bahgat explains that the agricultural land layout in some districts in Giza, Egypt, defines the street and plot layouts, since agricultural areas are illegally subdivided and transformed into housing areas. He also explains that, due to the rural background of the settlers, the dwelling design is based on traditional village buildings, but with some adaptations to the urban life.

Official housing agencies have also influenced the generation ofsome patterns through the implementation of upgrading programs. For instance, they have influenced settlers in their preference for straight streets because they are easily serviced, and in the location of the first shack at the rear part of the plot in order to leave free space for building the more permanent dwelling in the front.

The study of existing physical and cultural settlement patterns as a planning tool has been carried out by the Minimum Cost Housing Group at McGill University. The Self-Selection Process replicated the development of an unplanned settlement, considering the existing patterns of a given context.

Many housing specialists have stressed that only through users' control of the creation of their own living environment is it possible to produce built environments better adapted to the economic capacity, cultural background and particular needs of low-income populations. This approach calls for housing proposals to be based on indigenous patterns rather than on theoretically produced ones. As Payne states, the study of informal settlements may provide planning tools and "an object lesson of using land and capital to achieve acceptable and economically viable urban environment" since informal settlements "were developed to suit indigenous needs" while enabling "all social groups to benefit from urban life."

Top of page

1.2. Unplanned Settlements in Venezuela

1.2.1. Historical Background

In Venezuela, unplanned settlements sprung up after 1935, when generous oil revenues produced the phenomenon of urban expansion. It was estimated that the proportion of urban dwellers increased from 22.1% to 73.1% in the period between 1936 and 1971. In Caracas alone, theincrement was 1000% in the same period. From 1935 to 1948, recently established democratic governments allowed peasant migrations to invade land as a way of obtaining popular support. During the 1950s, the military dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez strongly opposed invasions and bulldozed many unplanned areas in order to defend government interests and private property and to fit in with the ambitious renewal plans for the city. Instead, "superbloques" (super-blocks) or high-rise buildings were constructed to be rented to the displaced families.

After the Pérez Jiménez government was overthrown, the flow of migration from the countryside increased, and new invaded areas appeared in cities. In 1959, it was estimated that 100 new shacks were being erected in Caracas each day. By 1989, the population in unplanned settlements represented 61% of the city's population.

Since then, the invasion process has been politically, socially and economically manipulated by all the parties involved in it: the state, whether as land-owner or as moderator, private land-owners, and the invaders. The democratic governments' policy toward the unplanned areas has been permissive and supportive. Permissiveness toward land invasions has been one mechanism for winning elections. During election times, invasions are more likely to happen because support from the candidates can be easily obtained. People living in squatter settlements represent 40 to 50 percent of the urban population in Venezuela, and political parties need their votes to gain power. On the other hand, the state itself has been unable to provide other forms of housing. Therefore, it allows invasions as a means of compensation. The state responds to social and political pressures by improving the invaded land.

1.2.2. The Invasion Process

In the Venezuelan context, "unplanned" is not an accurate term to refer to these settlements because the process is neither spontaneous nor improvised. In fact, in most cases it is carefully prepared before being executed. Organized groups are frequently conducted by a leader who has social or political support in the community. As Ray describes:

Although carried out with extraordinary speed which suggests spontaneity, the invasion is a calculated process carefully directed by specific leadership....the leader (or leaders) usually has the backing, either tacit or explicit, of one of the political parties governing power in the city. He is not necessarily a member of such a party, but he must be closely affiliated with it....The leader's choice of sites further illustrates that the invasions are carefully planned movements....leaders do not settle at random on just any vacant piece of land. Before moving onto a site, they learn all they can about its owner, its intended use, and, most important, the attitude of the officials toward this settlement.

In Venezuela, unplanned settlements are commonly known as barrios, and their creation process as invasiones. In these settlements, dwelling construction is in the users' hands. Houses are built, improved and extended by a process of self-help or self-management. They lack building permits and do not comply with the regulations on building standards and zoning. The buildings are officially considered to be of bad quality, and many are classified as ranchos or shacks.

1.2.3. Characteristic Invasion Settlement Patterns

Settlement patterns of Venezuelan barrios may differ from one city to another, and within the same city. Patterns also vary according to the topography of the terrain, ownership status of the land, the time the invasion occurs, and the attitude of the local government.

But almost invariably, unplanned settlements in many cities inVenezuela try to resemble and replicate patterns of formal urbanization. This effort has led the invasion leaders' using grid-iron schemes and regularly shaped plots. In sites where the land is flat, a pattern of street-and-blocks is laid out by invasion organizers, based on formally planned grid-iron patterns. This mechanism of block definition has sometimes resulted in an irregular grid pattern in the settlement, due to the terrain irregularities and natural topography. The land is divided in plots of similar size and shape, and arranged back-to-back, all plots facing at least one street. Generally, plots are allocated one per family.

On hilly areas, the invasion leader defines the limits of the site to be invaded, and families settle down according to the space available. Most of the times houses are adjacent to one another, and pedestrian paths are defined and maintained by settlers. Plots might be of irregular size and shape. Settlers do not receive any document of tenure or proof of ownership.

In invasion settlements, it is important to build the first structure, such as a house, a fence, or any other improvement, as soon as possible. By doing this, people can demonstrate occupation and control over the land. First dwelling structures are made of light materials, sometimes re-used from another house, easy to assemble and disassemble, and easy to transport. Such dwellings are provisional and is usually built in a few hours by two or three persons.

A second dwelling of better quality and made of more permanent materials is progressively built, as long as the settlement offers a certain security of non-eviction, and resources are available. The step from the first structure to the second and more durable house can be fast for some users, but can take some years for others.

Initially, the barrio is formed of only a few shacks without services, except perhaps for a clandestine connection to an electricity pole in a nearby settlement; water is usually provided by truck. However, these dwellings and settlement conditions are progressively upgraded. People begin to invest in their dwellings and settlement areas.

Services and community facilities are provided at a later stage, sometimes after many years of occupation. As the settlement acquires a more stable appearance and the dwellings begin to improve, community groups organize a petition to the local government and official service agencies in order to get the basic services: electricity, paved roads and piped water, in this order of priority. This is done either through the political links of the community members or by social pressure. The way people get services is explained by Gilbert and Healey:

The most effective tactic is to put constant pressure on the agency until action is taken....political patronage and local `fire-fighting' operations dominate the distribution system,...the water company is under constant pressure from local politicians representing poor settlements.

In unplanned settlements, most of the land is used for housing. There can be some plots for small industries and commercial activities. Some authors have also observed that part of the land is used for speculation purposes, since plot sizes are usually larger than what the settler initially required for housing. However, there is also another strand of thought that considers the value of the land in barrios as a form of financial security, since it can be a source of income at any time. For most barrio inhabitants, land is the only family patrimony.

Barrio dwellings in Venezuela are mainly used for residential activities, although some small shops or workshops for local market may be set up, especially in the front room. These additional activities are of a temporary character. As reported by some authors, barrio inhabitants are more likely to work for large companies or forgovernment agencies, instead of working for independent enterprises. In fact, barrios provide the main form of housing for the lower-middle and working class in Venezuela. According to Infante and Sánchez, the majority of the people in invasion settlements are not self-employed; most of them work in companies, as manual workers. Castells also confirms this:

Residential areas of ranchos actually show a high percentage of salaried workers (56.3%) and a low level of the famous "independent worker" typical of most Latin American postcards (13.6%).

It has also been demonstrated that those who form new invasion settlements or barrios have been living in the city for some years, where they have already obtained a certain kind of stable employment or income. People who live in a barrio have decided to do so once they have considered that there are some job opportunities in that city.

Over time, barrios have demonstrated their capacity for improving both the physical conditions of individual dwellings and the whole settlement. After a period of time, there is no apparent difference between an unplanned settlement and a planned one. As Macdonald said about the barrios in Ciudad Guayana:

While initially this (barrio house) may have been of low constructional standard and lacking basic amenities, in the long run many dwellings were rebuilt to a high standard, comparable in size and quality with urbanización (plannedand formal) housing.

In the case of invasion settlements, illegality is not an obstacle to obtain official recognition. These settlements get services and community facilities; and dwellings are improved in an incremental process as resources are available. Finally, invasion settlements are officially recognized as a part of the city.

Top of page

1.3. Background of Ciudad Guayana

The case study is located in Ciudad Guayana, a planned industrial city in the state of Bolívar, in the south-eastern part of Venezuela. Ciudad Guayana is situated at the junction of the Orinoco and Caroní Rivers. The first one provides access to the ocean, and the second one an abundance of hydroelectric power. This region has extraordinary resources: rich deposits of high-grade iron ore, gold, industrial diamonds, bauxite and aluminium laterite. Ciudad Guayana was founded in 1961 as part of the National Plan of Regional Development. It was intended to be the fusion of the old city of San Félix and the existing mining company camps. That year a development agency, the CVG (Corporación Venezolana de Guayana -- Guayana's Venezuelan Corporation), was created. The main task of the CVG was to accomplish the objectives for the development of the region and to design and coordinate the Master Plan of the new city. This plan was designed by CVG's planners, with the assistance of the Joint Center for Urban Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

The Housing Program of the Master Plan was defined in terms of the desirable level of development that should be achieved by the city, according to the projections of economic and population growth. However, migration to the city did not match the group's classification expected by planners. This expectation included professionals, private investors, small industries and diverse commercial entrepreneurs. Instead, a large rural migration came to the city, attracted by new job opportunities in the expanding industrial sector.

Since the industrialization program proposed for the region wascapital-intensive instead of labour-intensive, the heavy industry was unable to offer enough jobs to absorb all this unskilled migration. The city developed according to the pattern of a "dual economy," which is characterized by the differentiation of two economic sectors: one, a highly waged and skilled group, working in the capital-intensive industry, and the other, with low levels of skill and incomes, employed in "marginal" occupations.

1.3.1. Unplanned Settlements in Ciudad Guayana

Most of the population in Ciudad Guayana was not being served by the housing programs for two reasons. First, the programs were unable to supply housing at the rate that people were arriving to the city, and second, the programs did not meet the real needs of the people nor their real financial capacity. Therefore, low-income groups had to provide their own housing through unplanned settlements. Today, more than 60% of the urban areas are the result of land invasions.

Many housing programs have been implemented to satisfy the high demand of the massive migration. Initially, in the early 1960s, a program of unserviced plots, or "reception areas" was proposed to accommodate low-income families arriving to the city. The intention of this program was to anticipate the barrio development and to organize the settlement process in a more conventional pattern. Back-to-back plots organized into rectangular blocks were rented to applicant families. Unpaved streets, except for the main access roads, electricity, and communal water taps were initially provided. The Ministry of Sanitation implemented a program to build latrines in these settlements. Two models, with different sizes and prices, were offered. Not only were these "reception areas" insufficient to satisfy the demand, but they were also neither affordable nor easily accessible, in terms of the required application procedures. Thus, they were not occupied by new migrants nor by low-income families.

Instead, as they came to the city, new migrants located themselves in provisional housing, such as hotels, relatives' and friends' houses and rented rooms. Once they decided to stay in the city, they settled in unoccupied areas around the old eastern part of the city, San Félix. Migrants selected the east part of the city because it was close to the commercial and recreational facilities they required. Moreover, it was impossible to invade lands in the western part of the city because the CVG had bought most of the land -- almost 74% -- to guarantee the outcome of the Master Plan's projects. Control over squatting in this area was very strong. As a result, all the low-income unplanned areas were located in the eastern part. This pattern of settling was followed by most of the rural migrants, as reported by Macdonald in 1979.

In view of this reality, CVG's attitude towards barrios in Ciudad Guayana has been more supportive. Since none of the official housing programs has been able to provide adequate and affordable housing for low-income populations, barrios have been seen as a housing option for the new migrants and unemployed population. The CVG's approach has been to improve and accelerate the development process of barrios through the implementation of Upgrading Community Programs.

As long as the barrio is located neither on land reserved for another development project nor on unstable terrains, it is included in the program of "re-ordenamiento de barrios" (re-organization of barrios or re-blocking). This program is managed by the CVG's Urban Studies Office. The main objective of the program is to facilitate the eventual provision of services and the integration of the settlement to the city. Through this program, the original settlement layouts existing in barrios are changed because they are considered "chaotic and disorganized." Instead, a more conventional settlement layout is imposed. Existing streets are aligned, new streets are defined in agrid-iron scheme, block corners are standardized to allow vehicular traffic, plot size is regularized, and zoning is established in order to integrate the settlement to the city network. The "re-ordenamiento" program also provides financial assistance for the acquisition of construction materials through many housing agencies and companies' social plans for workers.

Recently, the concept of "reception areas" has been re-implemented. This basic Sites & Services can be compared to the concept of Planned Upgradable Sites. In these developments, land, public water taps and electricity are provided on a graded site. Streets are laid out in a grid-iron pattern, but only the access street is paved. Plots of approximately 9 m x 21 m (up to 200 m2) are organized back-to-back in rectangular blocks. Strategically located areas in the settlement are reserved for future community facilities, such as schools, recreational and sport areas and medical services. Housing is the user's responsibility, and provisional "sub-standard" dwellings are allowed, though some technical recommendations are given to new settlers. For instance, settlers are advised to build the provisional dwelling at the back part of the plot so the permanent dwelling can be built in front of it.

Conventional low-cost housing programs are also being implemented by official agencies, including the CVG. These programs usually provide a basic dwelling unit, in areas of 250 m2 for housing-only plots, and 500 m2 for housing-commercial plots. The dwelling types varied from detached to row houses.

Despite the efforts of both the CVG and official housing agencies to provide housing and to support upgrading processes, large groups of the population are not being assisted. There are many invasion areas where growth and upgrading processes occurred progressively at their own pace, without the influence of external elements and depending on their own capacity for communal and individual improvement.

1.3.2. Background of San José de Chirica The Site

San José de Chirica is an invasion settlement in Ciudad Guayana that has grown without any "re-blocking" program. The barrio is located south of San Félix, on the west side of Ciudad Guayana. (Fig. 1) Originally, the area was ejidal land, a tract of municipal land that is reserved for agricultural purposes. This site was included in the area that the CVG acquired for the city Master Plan. The site of the invasion is triangular with one side toward the north. It is geographically defined by an industrial development in the north, and on the east side by avenida Manuel Piar (Manuel Piar Avenue), which is a main avenue in Ciudad Guayana that connects the city with small towns in the countryside. On the west side, it is limited by a deep rain water trench that runs south down to the corner of the triangle, and separates San José from a neighbouring settlement and agricultural lands.

When the invasion began in 1978, the settlement area and its surroundings were almost unoccupied. Few industries in the north side of the settlement had just started to build their installations. Adjacent to avenida Manuel Piar were many small shops and scattered small farms.

Today, most of the land is used for housing. The plots located along avenida Manuel Piar are now consolidated as a commercial and service area for the city.

The terrain has a slight slope from the north-eastern corner to the south-western side of the site. This slope and the scarce vegetation caused erosion during the heavy rainy season, and deep ditches divided the site in north-south sections, which is the orientation of the slope. The south part of the site often flooded during the rainy season. Today, the area is densely covered with a variety of vegetation and big trees.

In 1987, the estimated population of the barrio was 1,828 inhabitants. Most of the people in San José de Chirica had been living in the city for some years before moving into the barrio. They had been living in rented houses in other barrios, or staying with friends or relatives. Almost all of them had come from rural areas, close to the city. They were mostly farmers and fishermen. Their rural background was made evident by the fact that most of them raised domestic animals for food, and some cultivated small crops in their backyards. Thisbackground helped them manage in the absence of an infrastructure, public transportation, commercial facilities and other amenities during the initial periods of the settlement, since these conditions were similar to those existing in rural areas.

The housing process in San José was totally self-managed. The first settlers either built their first dwelling by themselves, hired some skilled labour to help in specific parts of work, such as structure and installations, or contracted the entire construction work.

Since the settlement obtained official recognition (i.e., it was provided with some infrastructure and facilities) some families were able to apply for official housing programs. The Instituto Nacional de la Vivienda, (INAVI -- the National Housing Institute) provided assistance through three main programs:

- basic finished dwellings (core houses and rural dwellings), popularly known as the INAVI houses. There are two dwelling options: a two-bedroom dwelling with a built-up area of 41 m2, and a three-bedroom dwelling with a built-up area of 160 m2.

- dwelling plans and financial assistance (loans);

- financial assistance (loans), either to improve the existing dwelling or to build a new one.

In San José, more than 95% of the dwellings were built by the users, without public assistance. Other barrio families asked for financial assistance; but they defined the dwelling design, while others participated in the program of the built dwelling (core house).

Top of page
Back to top