The first time I saw an informal settlement, I was a twenty-something graduate student traveling in South Africa. I was stunned by the poverty and by the massive size of the settlements outside of Cape Town and Johannesburg—corrugated metal, tarps, and tangles of wire stretching as far as the eye could see.
Those were my straight-up ecology days. I was in Cape Town for a meeting of the International Temperate Reef Symposium, where I spent my days listening to talks about seaweed, limpets, and nearshore oceanography. At the time, there was no space in either my professional life or really in the field of ecology for shantytowns or the people living within them. I was struck by them, but whizzed by on the freeway.
Recently, I’ve been working with colleagues at NatCap on our effort to contribute to the design of sustainable, livable cities. I’ve been thinking about using natural areas to increase the resilience of the San Francisco Bay Area to sea-level rise, helping with our review of how nature in cities benefits people, and beginning to create “Urban InVEST”—our suite of models that will help urban planners and other decision-makers map, measure, and value the services provided by nature to people in cities.
To date, this work has focused primarily on cities in the US and China. We’ve got projects and key collaborators in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and the San Francisco Bay Area. As always, our work on the ground shapes and focuses our perception of need, hones our research questions, and drives our development of tools.
While we’ve been making some good progress in this initial set of cities in the United States and China, we realize an urgent need to look beyond these two global powers. With two-thirds of the global population expected to live in cities by 2050, sustainable, livable cities must evolve across the planet. And while cities in high-income countries offer unique opportunities for innovation in this space, cities in low- and middle-income countries certainly do too. I’ve feared that if we don’t think about or partner with rapidly growing cities in other corners of the globe from the beginning, we risk our tools and approaches being irrelevant to the concerns and needs of massive numbers of vulnerable, marginalized people, such as the 3.5 billion people estimated to be living in urban areas by 2050 without adequate sanitation or safe water.
So, when I got invited by Steve Luby (at Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health) and Gretchen Daily to join a whirlwind research trip with a newly launched project in cities in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, I knew it was a matchless opportunity for NatCap to expand our work into two critical new areas, one geographic and one conceptual: 1) cities in low- and middle-income countries, and 2) fostering “planetary health” by better connecting ecosystem health to human health and wellbeing.
The RISE Project
RISE, an unusually fortunate acronym, stands for Revitalizing Informal Settlements and their Environments. Led by Monash University in Australia, it is an ambitious undertaking to work with communities in informal settlements to co-design and implement natural infrastructure solutions to wastewater treatment and flooding to improve human health and wellbeing.
The interdisciplinary RISE team is exploring the multi-faceted effects of green infrastructure interventions in informal settlements in Suva, Fiji and Makassar, Indonesia. Building on the ground-breaking water sensitive cities approach pioneered by Monash University and used in Australia, Singapore, China, and Israel, the team is exploring new approaches to reducing flood risk and managing waste in informal settlements in developing countries.
Residents from twelve informal settlements from each city will work with architects, engineers, ecologists, and others to co-design solutions to wastewater treatment and flooding. Those solutions will be implemented and their impacts on human health and that of the environment will be measured. Using a randomized controlled trial study design, six informal settlements in each city will initially serve as controls—comparison sites without interventions—but will get the interventions by the end of the project.
The project is primarily designed around the goal of reducing the exposure of people in these communities to fecal contamination, with a particular focus on children under five (who are both most exposed and most susceptible to its often lethal effects). However, the team will also explore effects of the green infrastructure-based interventions on additional aspects of human health, individual and community wellbeing, biodiversity, and other ecosystem outcomes. They are planning a dizzying array of sampling and data collection: blood samples, stool samples, water samples, soil samples, mosquito trapping, rat trapping, acoustic surveys, questionnaires, and more.
This US $27M project was initiated with a grant from the UK-based Wellcome Trust for the research components, a grant from the Asian Development Bank for the physical upgrading works, and in-kind support from government, industry, NGO, and academic partners.
Our first stop was Suva, Fiji. In Fiji, as in much of the rest of the world, over half of the population lives in urban areas. Rural to urban migration has outpaced urban development and 10% of the country’s population (or 100,000 people) now lives in informal settlements. There, inadequate sanitation significantly impacts wellbeing. In urbanizing regions like Suva, sanitation methods that work reasonably well in rural villages quickly overwhelm the capacity of the local environment to clean, dilute, and export wastes.
Of course, the solution in many urban centers has been “big pipes”—engineered sewage treatment systems that remove wastes and treat them off-site. The RISE team hypothesizes that thoughtful use of built infrastructure (toilets, communal septic tanks, smart boxes) and natural infrastructure (soil, wetlands, retarding basins) in communities with relatively secure land tenure can replace the “big pipes”, decrease fecal exposure in communities, improve health and wellbeing, and make these communities more livable.
Some homes in the Suva settlements we visited are sided with corrugated metal; others are concrete, wood, brick, or a mixture of materials. Most are connected by dirt paths, though a few have concrete walkways. Residents are clearly exposed to fecal contamination from improper treatment of wastes. Many homes have piped water coming in, but no appropriate ways to dispose of wastewater. I watched a woman washing dishes in an old bathtub, the wash water draining directly into the local stream. I saw pit toilets, toilets with pipes going into leaking septic tanks, and toilets that empty directly into the waterway. In one settlement, pigs live in enclosures perched among mangroves, their feces dropping right into the water that laps at the stilted houses during high tide and occasionally floods homes during storms.
In some respects, the informal settlements we visited in the city of Suva seemed like denser versions of the villages you might find in more rural areas of Fiji—just more concentrated and tucked into forgotten strips of land within the urban environment. An advantage these urban “villages” have over some of their rural counterparts is their access to three critical municipal services—garbage collection, electricity, and water. Another asset they have is that nature is already part of the fabric of these communities and providing benefits to them. I saw small plots of taro, many little decorative gardens, trees providing fruit and shade, fishing boats tucked into mangroves. As in rural settlements, there was also an obvious sense of place and community—some homes were freshly painted with bright colors, while others had porches that served as gathering places. I saw community centers, churches, kids being kids (the most fun-looking game was one that seemed to be some kind of combination of bowling, cricket, and dodgeball), and smiling faces everywhere with a “Bula!”—the warm, Fijian all-purpose greeting.
After a brief day and a half of meetings in Singapore, we travelled on to Makassar, Indonesia. As in Suva, urban migration, land scarcity, housing costs, and other factors have combined to leave vulnerable people behind in informal settlements. And as in Suva, basic sanitation is lacking in these communities, with even more of a mismatch between human population density and the ability of the environment to assimilate wastes.
Unlike Suva, most of the communities we visited in Makassar have neither a city water supply nor trash collection services. Some people buy bottled water, others share shallow wells that run dry in the dry season. And clearly, sewage and other forms of wastewater contaminate walkways and living spaces. One resident stood on her small porch with her three teenage sons and showed us the black, stagnant water in the open drain that moves greywater from the home she was born in down to the river. Through a translator, she told us that her septic tank overflowed into the open drain occasionally and that during storms, it floods her home. Throughout the communities we visited in Makassar, there was trash along the fringes—on riverbanks, cast up on muddy shores, piled in vacant spaces.
The Makassar settlements were a study in contrasts. Many of the communities we visited had broad, brick walkways bedecked with hundreds of red and white flags left over from the recent celebration of Indonesia’s 72nd year since independence. We saw settlements with dense groves of banana trees providing shade and fruits and large plots for urban farming followed by settlements with closely packed homes separated by narrow, packed dirt walking paths. Some homes were sided by corrugated metal, others were concrete, wood, brick, or in some cases glass, with tiled porches, and even had an air conditioner or two.
A constant: In every community, a pack of kids followed us everywhere laughing, playing, and encouraging us to take their pictures.
The settlements we visited in Suva and Makassar are on the margins. They are in low-lying, flood-prone coastal areas fringed with mangroves. They are on steep hillsides at risk of landslide. They are along trash-choked streams that regularly spill their banks. They are on old road right-of-ways and sandwiched between factories and concrete walls built by private landowners. They are in little triangles of land between busy roads. People within them make their homes in these little slivers of land that others have left behind.
The people living in these communities are on the margins too. They are in between rural and urban living. They are partly serviced by municipal services but are unable to rely on the built infrastructure that so many others—even in their own cities—rely on for basic water and sanitation services. They take part in both formal and informal economies—working jobs in the city center but also cutting hair, operating small shops from their homes, babysitting, gardening, raising livestock, and sorting trash.
At NatCap, we now have an opportunity to propose work that could plug into and complement that of the RISE team’s efforts to support these marginalized communities. Ecosystem services on our priority list for Urban InVEST development may need to be modified or completely re-thought to ensure their relevance to these types of urban environments in low- and middle-income countries, but I think any additional work will serve us and, more importantly, people on the margins in growing cities well. Empirical data coming out of the RISE project could help us map, model, and measure new links between nature and human health and wellbeing and help scale RISE’s work from these 12 settlements to others around the world. Connecting NatCap’s ecosystem-centric work to the biomedical, public health, and development community’s human-centric work seems like our best hope for accomplishing NatCap’s mission of encouraging investment in nature for the benefit of people and planet.
I left Suva and Makassar very excited to see what the RISE team and the communities co-create to address the sanitation issues faced by these settlements. I am heartened to know that this extraordinary, passionate, warm, open, interdisciplinary team and the communities with which they are partnering will be learning from this unique opportunity to test nature-based interventions and thinking hard about how to scale them up for applicability to settlements in other locations.
At times, I was completely overwhelmed by the scale of the problems the RISE project is trying to tackle. But at others, I was buoyed by the certainty that it is only through this kind of deeply interdisciplinary work—involving local communities, architects, urban planners, physicians, ecologists, engineers, economists, veterinarians, community-engagement specialists, gender experts, bankers, anthropologists, contractors, builders, public health specialists, communicators, statisticians, and more—that we’ll solve the pressing problems of today.
I also left Suva and Makassar determined to find the resources—financial, intellectual, and human—to co-develop more of NatCap’s work with people on the margins. Like the RISE team, we too are deeply interdisciplinary and deeply committed to seeing equitable, sustainable solutions to the world’s development challenges. We’re working in new spaces now—urban environments—and explicitly connecting our work to human health. We need new collaborators, resources, and experiences to help us continue to push frontiers.
And I left Suva and Makassar, glad that this time I wasn’t whizzing by on the freeway.
Anne Guerry is NatCap’s Chief Strategy Officer and Lead Scientist