Helping Through the Haze

Singapore has made international news lately because of last week’s historic haze.  I was in Malaysia all week for a camp with my church and missed the worst thus far, however many others were not as fortunate.  During the whole week abroad many of us were glued to this website, checking the hourly PSI readings to track just how bad the situation was back in Singapore.  Most of the news stories we read while abroad were increasingly depressing as we learned that all N95 respirator masks in Singapore had been sold out with many vulnerable people, such as children and the elderly, still in need of them.

SG haze

Upon returning to Singapore late Friday afternoon, the PSI was back down below 200. Unfortunately though we have been warned that this is only a temporary breath of fresh air with more haze to be expected for quite a while.  As I began to catch up with some friends this weekend I learned that in reaction to the haze a group of helpful citizens has been mobilizing to help the most vulnerable populations by collecting and distributing N95 masks.  Although Singapore is very warm all year there is still a number of people, particularly low-income elderly residents in rental HDB flats, that live without air conditioning and therefore are very susceptible to illness from the haze.  To help these residents find a place to escape the haze there has even been some Singaporeans that have offered up air conditioned rooms in their homes for those that need it the most.

It has been amazing to see that faced with such challenges there are residents in Singapore that are willingly to go above and beyond to help their neighbors and community.  My hope is that this time will inspire more Singaporeans to be aware of how they can help those around them in need; may it be someone in a neighboring flat today or in a neighboring country tomorrow.

The best cities are not just great because of their environment or air quality, but because of the people who inhabit them.  When these people start to care for each other and the wellbeing of their city, they become more than residents, they become active citizens. Thank you to all of Singapore’s citizens that have made the choice to help through the haze.

 – Melissa

If you are in Singapore and would like to learn how you help the SG Haze Rescue group you can find information on their website or their Facebook page. You can also read more about their effort to pass out mask through my friend’s account here.

Exhibit Review: Design with the Other 90% CITIES

While I was in New York City last week I was lucky enough to catch the exhibit – Design with the Other 90%: Cities before it closed. The exhibit, by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and hosted by the UN Visitors Center, displayed 60 projects, proposals, and solutions that “address the complex issues arising from the unprecedented rise of informal settlements in emerging and developing economies.”  I found this exhibit especially inspiring because it went beyond defining the problems of rapid urbanization, and instead focused on actionable and innovative solutions that have already been carried out.  Below I have selected a few of my favorite projects:

Map of Kiberia – Kiberia, an informal settlement of about 750,000 to 1 million people in Nairobi, Kenya, was the site of a large participatory mapping project. The Map pictured was created as part of a larger crowd sourcing community mapping project using volunteers and tools from OpenStreetMap, the GroundTruth Initiative and community organizations.  The final product is a digitized map called “Voice of Kibera” which allows residents to share community information via news, videos, and SMS messages, which are added to the map using the open source Ushahidi platform.

Incremental Housing in Iquique, Chile and Nuevo Leon, Mexico – The government of Chile hired the Architectural firm Elemental to design incremental housing, on land purchased through a government subsidy as a new form of “social housing.”  Instead of using the traditional “sit and services” approach to social housing, the architects here went beyond providing the basic foundation and infrastructure necessary for families to build their own homes.  Instead the firm designed the most expensive half of the house – the structure, bathroom, kitchen and roof. Then the family completed the remaining portions of their home. Through this unique approach a variety of houses emerged.

Grassroots Mapping - Lima, Peru.  According to the exhibit, “Grassroots Mapping is an open-source, participatory approach that enables communities to create their own maps using inexpensive equipment. Residents own the resulting images and maps, which they can use to support land-title claims or to aid in upgrading efforts.”  Having participated in a community mapping project in South Africa before I know that one of the most complex elements of such a project is getting reliable aerial images of these areas.  Therefore I found the simple approach used here quite exciting.  An MIT graduate student simply used digital camera with continuous mode shooting lofted by a kite, balloon, or inflated trash bag to snap aerial images.

Even though the exhibit has since closed information about all of the urban solutions can be found on the project’s website.

- Melissa

All images are linked to their original source or taken by the author at the exhibit.

2011 Year in Review

Happy New Year Urbanist!  2011 has been an exciting year for Encountering Urbanization’s writers as we began the year as graduate students in New York City researching international urban planning and now have moved across the world to South Africa, Tanzania and Singapore for work.  Here is a recap of our ten most read posts of 2011.  We look forward to sharing many more stories with you in 2012!

10. Curitiba, Brazil: Model of Sustainability  “Curitiba won the Global Sustainable City Award 2010 and is hosting a few World Cup matches in 2014.  To prepare for this planners have realized that they need to improve the city’s infrastructure to handle the huge influx of football fans.  CNN also featured a story on Curitiba after it was awarded the Global Sustainable City Award in 2010.”

9. Visiting Navotas: The Slums of Manila  “In the third and final article of his series on Manila, the capital mega-city region of the Philippines, Australian urban planner Marcus Tudehope ventures to  Navotas, one of the seventeen cities that make of the Metro Manila region.”

8. Film: Dharavi, Slum for Sale  “A new documentary by Director Lutz Konermann portrays the story of the controversial redevelopment of Dharavi in Mumbai, India.  Dharavi, the largest slum in India and possibly the largest in the world, is home to over one million people and millions of dollars of industry. US trained developer Mukesh Mehta’s Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP) seeks to demolition the slum and build high-rise buildings that will both rehouse the existing squatters and provide extra housing to be sold at market rates that will fund the rest of the project.”

7. Singapore: Efficient vs Resilient City  “As I wait for a shuttle bus this Sunday morning to take me across the island instead of the much faster, less crowded train I can’t help but be as upset as my fellow passengers at SMRT for using Sunday morning to finish their track inspection. As I wait on the bus though and read the many opinion pieces in the paper and blogs about this planned outage it suddenly occurred to me: I would never have left my Brooklyn apartment on the weekend without first checking the MTA’s website for disruptions in the F train service.”

6. China’s First Property Tax  “While studying in Shanghai this summer I learned that many newly rich Chinese acquire property as an investment because there are very few other legal investment options that are as lucrative.   The absence of property tax also provides an incentive for hoarding property since there are no annual costs.  However this is about to change in Shanghai and Chongqing as the national government announced last week that it would allow cities for the first time to impose property taxes on homeowners in hopes of stopping speculation in the housing market and to shift a major source of government funding away from land auctions to property taxes.”

5. Comparing Urban Form  “Have you ever wondered how New York City’s urban form compares to London?  Or the ancient streets of Rome?  This comparison from Bricoleurbanism compares eight famous cities’ urban form at the same scale to the city of Mississauga, ON, revealing ‘the inherent problems of scale in trying to evolve any suburban, auto-oriented area into a more pedestrian-oriented center.'”

4. Urban Form in Shanghai vs. New York City  “After walking the massive blocks of Pudong this summer I was not that surprised when I realize that one block in Pudong was the same size as about 6 blocks in Lower Manhattan.  What is surprising though is to consider what the size of these city blocks may mean about the density of these cities if future development mirrored these sections.”

3. Ranking the World’s Mass Transit Systems  “Have you ever wondered what the best mass transit systems in the world are?  Most New Yorkers would agree that we do not have the cleanest system in the world, nor the most efficient system given recent MTA service cuts and constant construction.  However New York certainly does have the busiest and more efficient public transit system in the US…”

2. Rebuilding after Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami  “As Japanese authorities are still trying to avoid nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture while also dealing with at least 350,000 homeless citizens, it is difficult to think about plans to rebuild Japan.  However groups like Architecture for Humanity already are thinking about rebuilding efforts….”

1. Dar es Salaam: Underwater and Underreported  “If you’re reading this from outside of Tanzania, chances are you haven’t heard that large swaths of the 3-million plus city of Dar es Salaam have been underwater for several days. It’s a situation of superlatives: flash floods due to several month’s worth of rain in 72 hours, including the highest rainfall ever recorded in a single day, have caused the worst flooding the city has seen in 57 years. Thousands are homeless, much of the city has been paralyzed with damaged roads and power outages….”

Happy New Year from the Encountering Urbanization Team!

For photo and graphic sources see original articles.

Dar es Salaam: Underwater and Underreported

If you’re reading this from outside of Tanzania, chances are you haven’t heard that large swaths of the 3-million plus city of Dar es Salaam have been underwater for several days. It’s a situation of superlatives: flash floods due to several month’s worth of rain in 72 hours, including the highest rainfall ever recorded in a single day, have caused the worst flooding the city has seen in 57 years. Thousands are homeless, much of the city has been paralyzed with damaged roads and power outages. The BBC published one article, and AccuWeather posted a video, but aside from that the disaster hasn’t registered much of a peep yet outside of the country.

If the flow of information outside of Tanzania has been a mere trickle, communication within the country has its own major blockages that are already fodder for a nasty blame game.  The government blames residents that have been warned not to construct homes in low-lying areas and “lazy engineers” that have been told time and again to fix roads and bridges. Residents and researchers have warned the government about blocked drainage systems and allowing big new developments on wetlands that don’t pay attention to flood risks (see Twitter posts below, for example). The Tanzanian Meteorological Society apparently issued warnings of high rains that were ignored by everyone.

The immediate institutional response to the floods hasn’t received rave reviews either, though rescue crews have been hard at work. Here’s a stark example from a conversation between the federal disaster management authorities and a local paper yesterday:

“The director of disaster management in the Prime Minister’s Office, Mr Joseph Shiyo, said he was on leave and directed this paper to contact Ms Nyachenge Nanai, who declined to comment. ‘I’m sorry…I think the procedure is known. I cannot comment on the matter, sorry,’ she said before hanging up.

Where information has been slow or lacking from the sources you’d most expect it from, Twitter seems to be filling a void – a search for #DarFloods yielded a community of people that are active with the latest relief effort (and also a lot of questions about what the heck is happening in the city). Here’s a sampling:

General Information (note the first tweet is from the President himself)
@jmkikwete: Share and raise awareness on the situation through #DarFloods and SMS. (+255 754 777 775)

@IamNchaKALIH: 23 DEAD, about 68 injured and 4000 dar residents displaced due to floods caused by heavy downpour, the heaviest since 1954 #darfloods

Relief effort
@GillsaInt: At Mchikichini relief centre. Lot of homeless people. At least they are having dinner n water #DarFloods

@Tanganyikan: Here @AmorMtage serving food to more than 600 victims #darfloods

The Blame Game
@AfricanGenesis: You cannot neglect backbone of eco development e.g. infrastructure and yet pursue huge goals! Look at our drainage today! #darfloods

@wilbrodslaa: #darfloods: Poor drainage system. While collecting billions in tax, the city is running on one of the oldest drainage systems in East Africa.

I’ll leave you with a few images pulled from Twitter,  blogs, and a bike ride I took this evening to get a sense of the damage. A lot of people have lost everything. Please think of them during the holiday season and after.


Tanzanian forces in a rescue boat | Photo: President Kikwete's Twitter feed

Damage to the Selander Bridge and burst water pipe, near the city center | Photo: by author

Flooded homes in Dar | Photo: Zainul Mzinge

Land Rover in a very large hole | Photo: @No1YouthChannel on Twitter

Messy traffic and stranded passengers | Photo: Zainul Mzinge


Crossing Borders: The Power of an Exchange


*Cross posted from SDI blog*

Espina stands. She tells us that she is positive – that she tells women in her community she is not ashamed, and that because she takes care of herself, she does not look sick, “Do I look sick?” she asks with a coy smile on her face. She breaks into song and the woman by her side stands as they begin to dance. They are strong, empowered, have taken control of their lives and ensured that their voice is heard. Espina is right – they do not look sick. They do not look like AIDS or anything close to death. Dressed in bright East African fabrics, they are vibrant and full of life.

These women come from Zambia and are gathered in Windhoek, Namibia to meet with fellow slum/shack dwellers from across Southern Africa to exchange learning around challenges and successes in their efforts to improve living conditions for urban and rural poor throughout the region.

Yesterday they gathered in a nearby settlement called Barcelona. Under the shade of low-hanging branches, members of urban poor federations from across southern Africa gathered alongside members of the Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia (SDFN) to share knowledge and experience and find solutions to some of the struggles facing the local group here in Barcelona.

Lucia, a SDFN leader from Windhoek, described the challenges they have faced in collecting loan repayments and audit books from community members who have already obtained housing through the SDFN process.

We wait patiently for community members to gather. Slowly they appear, intrigued by the group of visitors waiting under the tree. Eventually, roughly fifteen members of the Barcelona group gather to meet with us, describing how they started their efforts in 1998, meeting on Sundays to collect and report on savings. It was in those early days that they set a goal of saving N$500 per person to put towards purchase of the land, so that someday they could own homes there.

Before long the group accomplished this goal. They purchased the land and constructed shacks on it, continuing to save money towards construction of their homes. In 2002, twenty-four of the group members had saved enough to build homes. Each contributed a down payment of N$750 and received a loan of N$15,000 for housing construction. To date, 31 of the 39 members have constructed homes in Barcelona settlement. Of these, four have paid off their housing loans and now own their homes outright.

Although the community is still participating in a group savings scheme, savings and collection of loan payments have been less regular since most members have acquired housing. It has been a challenge to keep track of owners and to keep up the momentum for savings. In addition, SDFN leaders describe difficulties they have had in obtaining audit reports to contribute to the Federation’s national reports. It seems as though the community has lost touch with the bigger picture of the Federation, and the power that they have as Federation members.

Gradually the community members opened up about some of the challenges they have faced locally. Some owners have rented their homes out to a ever-changing stream of tenants. Loan repayments are not being made by all members. The suggestion is made that tenants must be approved by the group, and members are reminded that until the houses are paid off, they are owned by the Federation. Local members are encouraged to remember their own power as members of a national federation – they can engage the police if necessary, as they are the legal owners of these homes.


A young woman speaks up. She tells the group that she is renting a room in one of the homes. She is paying towards the loan and for water, but she was unaware that the loan was acquired through the Federation or that there was a local savings scheme. She stays for the length of the meeting, taking responsibility for a bundle of savings books showing interest in becoming involved in the group.

An old lady is squatting at the front. She tells the group that she took out a loan for her home and was making her payments, but fell sick and has not been able to continue making full monthly payments, “I divide my money that I need for food, and the rest I pay towards my house, but still it is not enough,” she says. A Federation member from Swaziland suggests that perhaps she could rent a room out to increase her income. She needs help to make this work, and the group says they will help her. Another SDFN member reminds us that this is why savings schemes are so important – they maintain group unity, and keep people informed of what is happening, why individuals can or cannot make payments, and how the group can find solutions to these problems together.

Before the close of the meeting another woman raises her hand. She is very concerned about the situation in one of the houses. “A mama built this house, and then just disappeared!” she says. Apparently the mama’s son and a policeman are now living there, the policeman renting a room, and the homeowner is never seen. Repayments are not being made. It turns out her son is at the meeting. He raises his hand to speak. He tells the group that his mother is living in Khomasdal, another settlement in Windhoek. He has started paying towards the water, but has not been paying for the house. Marlene, a Federation member from the SDI Alliance in South Africa, asks him, “Do you understand that the house you are staying in does not currently belong to you, but to this Federation? Are you willing to take the necessary measures to make this house yours?” He says he is and the group decides to write up a contract right then & there, putting this agreement in writing with the hope of ensuring that loan repayments will now be made.

These solutions would not have been possible without the coming together of people from across the region, exchanging experience and ideas, and encouraging local members to open up about their experiences. This kind of exchange empowers not only the local Federation, but the visiting ones as well, as they share knowledge with others while gaining new knowledge to take back to the Federations at home.

- Ariana

An Update from the Field: Cape Town & Namibia

As some of you may know, I have had the wonderful opportunity to take up work at the Secretariat of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), “a network of community-based organizations of the urban poor in 33 countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, launched in 1996 when “federations” of the urban poor in countries such as India and South Africa agreed that a global platform could help their local initiatives develop alternatives to evictions while also impacting on the global agenda for urban development,” (SDI website). Based in Cape Town, South Africa, the work is right up my international urban planning alley, and it has been very exciting to be surrounded by people doing and breathing the work I have been writing and thinking about for so long.

Last week I had the opportunity to travel to Windhoek, Namibia for a meeting with members of urban poor federations and their supporting NGO’s from across southern Africa. It was inspiring and I learned a lot about how the work of SDI actually happens on the ground. I am currently working on an article for the SDI blog, and will surely cross-post it on here once it’s complete. But for now, I will leave you with a few photos from our visit to the Barcelona community in the settlement of Katakura just outside of Windhoek.

- Ariana

The Intersection of Advocacy and Ad Hoc Traffic Counts in Toronto

Urban planning is one of the few policy areas that invites community members to participate in the process, and offer insights and criticism on city plans. This is what drew me to the field to start with – I am really intrigued by the way community members can use the tools at their disposal to participate in planning their cities.  During my graduate degree I was introduced to other facets of planning I hadn’t previously considered, including the critical role of data.  Through an internship with New York City government and a Capstone consulting project for IBM City Forward, I’ve come to appreciate good data, and have become surprisingly sensitive (even offended!) by bad data.

As city governments around the world are trying to create more livable cities, in part through redesigning streetscapes, they need to do so in a way that values data. And if they don’t, citizens are increasingly equipped with planning methods that will call them out on it.

The “John Street Corridor Improvements,” a joint project between the City of Toronto and the local Entertainment District Business Improvement Area (BIA),  is a story that illustrates the intersection between advocacy, planning and data. The John Street project is intended to improve the pedestrian realm on a small but central street in Toronto’s Entertainment District and major cultural corridor. Despite having the worthy objectives of making John Street a pedestrian destination and more conducive to outdoor events, the case goes to show that without good data, advocates will take it upon themselves to get it right.

Left: Map of John Street study area. Right: Image of John Street | Photo credit:

A second public meeting was held on June 16, 2011 to discuss the design options that are being considered for John Street (Spacing and both have great synopses of the project), which included design elements such as sidewalk extensions, removing curbs and parking lanes, reducing the street to one traffic lane, as well as the  obligatory “do nothing” option.

One of several design options for John Street | Photo credit: Urban Toronto

Shortly before the meeting, though, local cycling advocate and all-around civic participation champion Dave Meslin pointed out some fishy figures with the City’s baseline survey:

City of Toronto's mode share data.

The numbers begged some obvious questions: First, why was the cycling count so low? Anyone who is familiar with John Street knows that the bike traffic is more substantial than the city’s 2% figure. Second, why are the counts for cycling traffic static, while the counts for other modes shift over the course of the day and throughout the week? After not getting any good answers from the City, Meslin rallied some friends and they held their own tallytwice – and found that the numbers were, as expected, completely off. The chart below compares the City’s data with what Meslin’s ad-hoc transport planners found:

The top row shows the numbers from the City's original survey, the bottom row shows the findings by Meslin's team.

Persuaded, the City of Toronto issued the following statement to Meslin and his group of volunteers:

“On the City’s behalf, I’d like to thank you for the effort that you have put in to supplementing our counts with new material gathered in the past weeks…..We agree it was inappropriate and incorrect to have used the 2% figure for weekday peak hours.”

This redesign is a smart and creative plan, and as a Torontonian who as worked, walked, biked, driven, and certainly partied on John Street I’m looking forward to a new look for the street. But integrity of baseline data is critical, no matter how well-meaning the objectives of any plan – it informs the direction of the project, and helps planners identify unique characteristics of the study area and foresee mitigation measures that may need to be explored.

For example, had the baseline study revealed unusually heavy cycling traffic on John Street that would be displaced by the new design, then perhaps the streets east and west of John should have been included in the study area and proper bike lanes installed there to catch the overflow.  Inaccurate data not only compromises the project and runs the risk of future planning issues, but it also undermines the integrity of the study and potentially the public’s trust in the project – as John Street exemplifies.

Another critical piece here is the role of advocacy in planning.  The planning process is one of the few formalized avenues for public participation.  The requisite public consultations allow members of the community to contribute to plans, and help to revise and refine urban designs.

The story of John Street Corridor Improvements and cycling advocates is a great example of how the intersection of planning and advocacy can be done in a positive way.  To be sure, the goal of the project is to improve the pedestrian realm, so perhaps bike lanes are inappropriate in this case, but I think the actions of both the city and advocate were handled in an ideal way:  Meslin engaged his peers to put the City’s data to the test, and the City responded constructively (at least the second time around). The John Street example serves as case study of positive interaction between cycling advocates and the City.

~Christine Paglialunga

Guest contributor Christine Paglialunga recently graduated from NYU Wagner’s Master of Urban Planning program.  Her interests are in community participation and advocacy in planning.