Q&A: David Gouverneur on Landscape’s Potential for Serving Informal Settlements

Landscape strategies for informal settlements: creating armatures to shape urban form

What are the best strategies to deal with informal settlements and the growing populations of urban poor? Research on post-informal settlements has focused on retroactive strategies that upgrade existing conditions “small scale urban acupuncture.” Yet little emphasis has been given to pre-emptive strategies that address future growth. Landscape urbanism as an urban strategy advocates for flexibility, continual re-arrangement, and flux. So it has a strong potential for improving the lives of the urban poor through a nuanced understanding of how informal areas adapt and grow.

I spoke with David Gouverneur, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Landscape Architecture program, who has devoted his research to the study of landscape armatures as pre-emptive systems for the upgrading of the informal city. His insights provide an idea of what these armatures are, how they perform, and how they can contribute to furthering the post-informal landscape urbanism discourse.

Leo Robleto Costante: In an increasingly urbanized world, why is it important to study landscape within the context of informal settlements?

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David Gouverneur: The gap between the developed and the developing world is widening and the disparities are clearly manifested in the places in which people live and how these sites perform. In Asia, Africa, and Latin America almost a billion people—one sixth of the world population and one third of urban dwellers—live in informal settlements, unplanned environments constructed by their own residents. According to the United Nations Human Settlements Program, it is expected that by 2030 this number will double. These staggering figures demand innovative approaches for dealing with this new scale of territorial occupation if we want to narrow down the disparities and therefore ameliorate social tension, resentment and violence, in a globalized world.

Different international organizations and authors have written extensively about the consequences of such demographic explosion and the nature of informal occupation, but little has been done in terms of envisioning how to deal effectively with the consequences of these demographic pressures and how to foster the growth of the predominantly informal city. This is the reason why I became interested in researching this topic and what motivated me to develop the notion of “Informal Armatures.”

The Informal Armatures promote an ecology of relations (natural and social) which make the system resilient, focusing on aspects that the community cannot address on their own

Courtesy David Gouverneur

LRC: As it is widely known, informal settlements arise primarily due to the migration from rural to urban and the need to obtain shelter by those newly arrived in cities. Should design for informal settlements make landscape interventions a primary focus given that residents of these communities often design and build houses themselves, or is the design of housing systems still the most important factor to address?

DG: Housing is not the problem. Although the resources of self-constructed shelters may vary greatly between different countries and within the same contexts, people have the ability to gradually construct their dwellings. The central problem is rather the lack of appropriate habitats where these shelters have a better chance to evolve as part of a healthy and robust system.

The mega-informal settlements which are shaping the urban landscape of many developing countries’ cities are far from successful forms of territorial occupation across a range of indicators—quality of life, autonomy from global markets, dependence on the formal city, environmental impact, resource consumption, social mobility, governance, and happiness, just to mention a few.

In these settlements, basic services are non-existent or very poor, such as potable water, wastewater treatment, and waste disposal; public spaces and amenities are rarely found and economically these areas are highly dependent on the formal city.

Additionally, residents do not have access to educational or health services (a basic human right), economic opportunities are scarce, and violence and crime rates can be staggeringly high. In such environments, what is more important than the protection of life? The design challenge in such communities is to guide the growth of the settlements prior to, and as they occupy new territories, in a preventive manner, introducing creative strategic and design moves during early phases of occupation while envisioning how they may evolve over time.

Targeted interventions can become equally successful components of complex and broader systems, improving living conditions for hundreds of millions in these new cities in the making. Informal settlements cannot be considered a marginal urban condition, but rather the mainstream of the dynamic forms of complex urban ecologies that are shaping highly populated cities of the developing world. The goal is to tap into this logic, to tap its inner forces and to foster a better performance of the system.

Informal armatures bundle infrastructural, social, water management/food production, mobility, economic, managerial and cultural strands which create the support system for future informal occupation

Courtesy David Gouverneur

LRC: Throughout your research, you mention the use of “armatures” as systems to deploy in addressing the growth of informal settlements. We have already introduced the concept, but can you explain to us, how a landscape urbanism armature would function in informal settlement upgrading, or as a pre-emptive design solution?

DG: The armatures should assist the informal settlements in achieving what they have difficulty in doing on their own. Perhaps the most important roles that the armatures can play are providing appropriate land for the initial occupation to occur; tapping into the energy and assets of the existing urban areas; avoiding risks and the loss of resources and lives which occur when unfit sites are spontaneously occupied; taking advantage of the site’s assets; and protecting fragile ecosystems that should be free of urbanization processes.

The armatures also begin to shape a system of predominantly open spaces and uses which are crucial for the sustainable growth of the informal settlements, which would not occur spontaneously. These components would remain in the public realm as the settlements mature, but they should have the ability to adapt to the changing conditions and demands of the settlements

Lastly, including components and fostering processes that will promote the best performance of the system in terms of management, governance, access to information, best use of energy and resources, economic drivers, and anchors of identity, just to mention a few.

The open space of the armatures system should be protected from unwanted occupation with uses that are relevant for the community in different phases; these are accompanied by “custodians” (dots) that exercise stewardship, management, maintenance, and communal engagement

Courtesy David Gouverneur

LRC: How is the deployment of these precluding armatures different from retroactive upgrading in already-consolidated informal settlements?

DG: Good question. The upgrading of existing informal settlements is an important undertaking, but it is also a complicated, time consuming and expensive task. It can bring about substantial changes in the performance of the informal neighborhoods, but has less impact at the city and regional scales.

One reason for the difficulty of this approach is the degree of consolidation and the tightness of the urban fabric in the majority of these settlements.

Such improvement operations may be considered a sort of corrective surgery. In order to improve connectivity, provide infrastructure and community services, create a system of open spaces, and relocate residents from inappropriate locations (due to from geological instability, risk of flooding, locations under power lines or above gas lines, etc.), you need to have adequate space. Part of the existing fabric has to be carved-out—deleted—to make room for introducing the new components that will induce these corrective changes.

This has to be done without disrupting the existing fabric, and with the approval of the residents that will need to be relocated. There are also limitations as to the extent of the transformations. Let’s say that the informal settlements have grown into very large urban conglomerates—which is the case in many developing cities—where the informal tissue houses millions of inhabitants. A conglomeration of this magnitude would require some components and systems that operate not a local scale, but at metropolitan and regional scales that are currently not included in the informal city due to their size (i.e., large markets, manufacturing areas, technical schools, sport facilities, transportation nodes, recycling plants, cemeteries).

And here is where the armatures can make a big difference. They can provide the framework to guide the location and the transformation of the predominantly informal city, operating at different scales.

The armatures preclude total occupation or perform on par with the initial occupation of the site, and also adapt to the requirements of the settlements as they mature and expand. They can be very malleable, and work with very different spatial constraints.

LRC: The growth of informal settlements almost always takes the form of land invasions. People take whatever piece of land is available in close proximity to the formal aspects of the city to build their homes. This process consolidates once more families begin the same process until the accretion is such that whole hills, plains, and even riverbeds get colonized. How then, do we protect these newly deployed growth armatures and public spaces from invasions? How do we prevent land invasions that would eventually destroy the concept and function of the armatures?

DG: I envision that the armatures will include elements that establish stewardship over the areas that should remain in the public domain, or some components that may be developed by the private sector at some point under guidelines that will make these profitable operations while serving the public interest. The goal, as is implied in your question, is to keep the areas from informal occupation—to avoid losing the public realm. The trick here is to select the appropriate “custodians” that will keep an eye on the land until the community clearly identifies them as public places and starts defending them on its own. For this idea to be successful, the custodians should be institutions, community organizations or even individuals that the community trusts. They should also be able to give the best uses to these “open spaces,” providing a sense of cultural attachment, from the earliest phases of occupation.

Let’s imagine that we are a community that has just arrived from the rural areas, in search of better opportunities in the city. We settle in the area where an armature is located, facilitating our access to land, water, electricity, and security. Most likely during the fist stages of occupation we are in “survival mode,” with no jobs, savings, contacts, political leverage, or urban skills. The area under custody may well serve during this period to provide food, potable water, construction materials, communal organization and information to help us adapt to the new urban environment. In more mature stages, the settlers have become urbanites, they have surplus income, they have organized their own manufacturing industries, they seek higher educational levels for their children, have more time for leisure and recreation, and participate in local politics. The components of the armature would have morphed to respond to these new demands, providing different services and amenities, and probably offering equality different spatial, morphological and aesthetic conditions.

LRC: In your definition of armatures, you mention that they are not solely confined to spatial and concrete designs, but also to decision-making. Does the future of informal growth armatures rely mostly on political will, on the community’s social capital in wanting to improve these areas, or both?

DG: Urban form is a result of the natural and social forces that shape it, but it also affects these forces. In order for the armatures to have a positive impact in the way millions of new urban dwellers in the developing world may live, we need to ensure that those who have the vision, the resources, the managerial skills, and the will to act understand what is at stake and commit to giving these ideas a chance to perform. Without political, managerial, institutional and communal support, these technical/design ideas cannot be implemented. Thus it is very important to present the armatures in a way that will be clearly understood by these actors, and particularly what initial steps can be taken to start moving in a good direction. The theory and research into Informal armatures should be associated with precise design operations in which the character, the role, the scale and the morphology of the different strands and components of the armatures are visualized. These can’t be dogmatic though, but need to respond to the nuances of each context and culture. And finally, as your question suggests, the formal moves can’t be conceived independently of the economic, managerial, political, and institutional considerations that propel the transformations. The main task is to provide the conditions that will transform these areas into new cities in the making, instead of marginal-submissive components of the formal city and the globalized market. Indeed, they should be understood as dynamic hybrid urban ecologies that may well become the dominant and best form of territorial occupation in the developing world.


David Gouverneur received his M.Arch. in urban design from Harvard University (1980) and his bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela (1977). He was chair of the School of Architecture at Universidad Simón Bolívar (1987-91) and director of Urban Development of Venezuela (1991-96), as well as professor and cofounder of the Urban Design program and Director of the Mayor’s Institute in Urban Design at Universidad Metropolitana, in Caracas, Venezuela (1996-2008). His professional practice focuses on urban plans and projects for historic districts, rehabilitation of areas affected by extraordinary natural events, new centralities and mixed use districts, improvement of informal settlements, and tourism/recreational areas. Since 2002, he has lectured at the department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and, since 2008, in the Department of Regional and City Planning at Penn Design. Students working under his supervision have won various awards since he has been at Penn, including the Urban Land Institute Competition (ULI winner, runner-up and 2 honorable mentions, 3 student awards granted by the ASLA and winner of the Edmund Bacon Foundation competition in 2008). He received a G. Holmes Perkins Award for Distinguished Teaching from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008.

Leo Robleto Costante was born in Caracas, Venezuela, finished his undergraduate studies in urban planning at the University of Cincinnati, and holds a Masters from the AA in Landscape Urbanism. He is currently finishing his second Masters in Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania after working with several firms in London, Caracas, and New York. He has lectured, published, and taught in Venezuela, yet his work experience inside Caracas’ informal settlements was what really changed his perception of the relationship between landscape and cities. This became the foundation for his research on how landscape urbanism’s potential can become both infrastructure and armature for the benefit of cities.

This article is co-syndicated by Metropolis POV and Landscape Urbanism.

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