Sheffield Road: an art, not a science

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Pictured above: Residents of Sheffield Road deliberate over plans to “re-block” their cluster of shacks.

By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

Networking informal settlement communities at the city-wide level is perhaps more an art than a science. This is a phenomenon that the growing community-based leadership of the Informal Settlement Network in Cape Town is experiencing on a daily basis. They are working with communities — sometimes their own, sometimes their neighbors — to implement at least 23 projects to upgrade informal settlements, in partnership with the municipality of Cape Town.

The projects serve two main functions: (1) To serve as practical demonstration of how a united community is the number one prerequisite for successful, sustainable upgrades that address the needs of residents; (2) To serve as learning centers for other communities to see and participate in the upgrading process. Taken together with the municipal partnership, these functions point to a greater end: bring together informal settlement community leaders at the city-wide level to ensure that the poor have an influential voice in determining policy and practice for city planning and informal settlement upgrading.

On Thursday, 10 February, I visited one of the first pilot projects in Cape Town, in the settlement of Sheffield Road, Phillipi. The project in this settlement is to “re-block” the very dense arrangement of shacks. This is being done in clusters of approximately 12-15 shacks. Once the clusters are re-blocked, the municipal government has agreed to install toilets where residents desire in each cluster. This has already happened in one cluster, and two more are set to finish by the end of the month.

When I arrived at Sheffield Road, the “pilot project team” of the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) was preparing to meet with one of the clusters. They were going over some possibilities for the design of the cluster, using miniature, to-scale blocks for shacks.

Some of the community leaders wanted to make sure that when each shack was rebuilt that it would be as big as possible. At the same time, ISN leaders on the pilot project team talked through the implications for maximizing the space within the cluster. It was an important to-and-fro where ISN leaders gained a greater appreciation for the needs and interests of the community, while all sides reached a greater understanding about how to use space most effectively in this project.

Once the community leaders and the ISN pilot project team agreed on a general outlook that could be presented to the residents of the cluster, they moved to the bigger meeting. We were all crammed into a small space between about five different shacks. The difference between the density of the one cluster that has already been re-blocked is striking, and once residents in the other areas saw what happened in the first, interest in the project grew dramatically.

One of the key elements of the re-blocking process in Sheffield Road is that each household must contribute ten percent of the cost towards rebuilding their shack. This financial contribution has been a major hurdle for each cluster, but it ensures a kind of ownership of the project, that is otherwise impossible.

The importance of the financial contribution had sunk in with the residents of the cluster. One man asked if his shack could be rebuilt with repayment to come later. The rest of the residents immediately shook their heads and said, “no!”

By the time the meeting had ended, the cluster agreed to begin work in the coming week, and scheduled their next meeting.

These are small steps, but the residents of informal settlement communities — in Sheffield Road and throughout the city through the ISN — are grappling on the ground with the kinds of issues, the professionals, the city officials, and the academics tend to keep in a more theoretical realm. The poor are learning from each other. They are both the professors and the students. The rest of us are still waiting to register for school.

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Pictured above: Vuyani Mnyango, an ISN leader from Barcelona informal settlement, talks with Sheffield Road residents.

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Pictured above: Movable, to-scale blocks used by community members to decide on the spatial implications of their plans for each cluster of shacks.