Living on the slope

by Professor Caroline Knowles

5 Sep 2018

Cities & Infrastructure programme highlights

In cities across Latin America, low-income populations often have little option but to build their own makeshift housing in what are referred to as informal settlements or slums. Sometimes these are on city peripheries; sometimes they are more centrally placed in small pockets of land. With city land unevenly distributed in favour of wealthier citizens, the poor are forced onto marginal land that is often unsuited to residential building, and at worst, may pose all kinds of risks to inhabitants.

This is the case in low-income settlements in the east of the Colombian city of Medellín (El Pacífico and Carpinelo 2) and the Brazilian city of São Paulo (Vila Nova Esperança). These areas are the focus of the multi-disciplinary research project, Co-production of landslide risk management strategies through development of community-based infrastructure in Latin American cities, directed by Harry Smith at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. Settlements are built on steep land, at risk of frequent landslides and flooding. Working with the untapped resources of local community knowledge and labour, the research team is finding ways to mitigate these sometimes-fatal risks.

Rerouting the floods to avoid landslides

Last year, the team worked with the community of Pinares de Oriente, convincing them not to cut vertically into the slope, in order to reduce the risk of landslides, and to work on the drainage of surface water. Starting with the main municipal drain at the bottom of the slope and working up the hill, the community rerouted the floodwater that used to wash through their houses into a series of drainage channels. They also developed effective systems of monitoring and alerting people to the possibilities of landslides using WhatsApp. The funding from the British Academy has allowed them to work on adapting this approach to the different contexts of El Pacífico, Carpinelo 2 and Vila Nova Esperança.

Participatory mapping in Carpinelo 2

Participatory mapping in Carpinelo 2

Between a landslide and an eviction order

It is not easy for the inhabitants of these settlements to act in ways that draw attention to their situation, as they live between landslides and floods on the one hand and the threat of eviction orders on the other. In formal terms, they occupy the land illegally and can be evicted at any time. Informally, the municipality is prepared to negotiate with them ‘in the meantime’ while their circumstances are under review. This truce may be one of the soft impacts of the research, catching the attention of the authorities and perhaps leading to addressing the risky circumstances in which the community lives.

Scaling up and sharing expertise

The research has what we might call convening power too. The São Paulo research team, which combines three engineers and a geography PhD student from the University of São Paulo, were recently joined by an architect, two geologists, an engineer, and a geographer from two prestigious research institutions which advise the state government and who are not even part of the official project team but want to lend their expertise.

The lessons of the research travel beyond the local communities concerned. The team is co-operating with the community in preparing a manual on flood and landslide mitigation that can be scaled up and used in protecting other informal settlements, in cities across Latin America and beyond. Community leaders and local researchers from both cities are in regular contact with each other and sharing good practice. Trust and social links are being built within and between communities; sometimes this takes an unexpected turn, as in providing drainage solutions for a community football pitch. 

Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London and Director of the British Academy's Cities & Infrastructure programme. Caroline writes about migration and circulation of material objects – some of the social forces constituting globalisation. She is particularly interested in cities, having done research in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Fuzhou, Addis Ababa, Kuwait City and Seoul.

The Co-production of landslide risk management strategies through development of community-based infrastructure in Latin American cities research team comprises geoscientists, engineers, architects, geologists, urbanists and geographers: Harry Smith (PI) from Heriot-Watt University; María Soledad García Ferrari from the University of Edinburgh; Gabriela Maluf Medero and Helena Rivera, Heriot-Watt; Françoise Coupé, Humberto Caballero, Mónica Mejía and Wilmar Castro from the National University of Colombia at Medellín; Carlos Montoya as consultant architect and Carlos Velásquez as community liaison in Medellín; and from São Paulo University Alex Abiko, Tazio Guilherme, Karolyne Ferreira and Fernando Marinho, together with Alessandra Corsi and Marcela Penha from the Institute for Technological Research of São Paulo State, and Pedro Leal, Christina Boggi and Paulo Fernandes da Silva from the Institute of Geology of São Paulo State.


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