Working Informally

Working Informally

Résumé en français

Les établissements informels sont un phénomène urbain mondial qui représente la forme la plus répandue de création de villes. Au Cap, en Afrique du Sud, environ 146 000 ménages vivent dans 437 quartiers informels, dont beaucoup ont été créés avant la démocratie et ne bénéficient toujours pas d'un régime foncier reconnu ou d'un accès aux services de base. En outre, à l'échelle mondiale, les quartiers informels sont au cœur du changement climatique, les quartiers du Cap subissant chaque année des inondations hivernales et la propagation de maladies qui en découle, exacerbées par le manque d'infrastructures formelles et la mauvaise qualité des espaces publics. En Afrique du Sud, une vague de fond a reconnu que les communautés établies offrent des réseaux sociaux et économiques qui ne devraient pas être déracinés dans le processus de modernisation et que les gouvernements locaux, les groupes d'ONG et les agents de mise en œuvre doivent plutôt changer leur approche de l'informalité en s'éloignant de la réinstallation formelle des logements. Il est nécessaire d'adopter une nouvelle approche de la conception qui fasse des concepteurs des facilitateurs et des médiateurs du processus de modernisation, en mettant davantage l'accent sur les connaissances de la communauté. Les membres de la communauté vivant dans les quartiers informels ont des compétences importantes à apporter à leur propre processus d'amélioration. Cet article propose que les architectes paysagistes deviennent des leaders d'opinion, en combinant la co-conception qui donne du pouvoir aux membres de la communauté locale et la connaissance de l'infrastructure paysagère et de la création de lieux.

Informal settlements are a global urban phenomenon representing the most prevalent form of city making. In Cape Town, South Africa, there are approximately 146,000 households in 437 informal settlement pockets, many of which were established before democracy but still do not have recognised tenure or access to basic services. Furthermore, globally, informal settlements are at the climate change coal face, with settlements in Cape Town experiencing annual winter flooding and the associated spread of disease, exacerbated by a lack of formal infrastructure and poor quality public spaces. In South Africa there has been a groundswell acknowledgement that established communities offer both social and economic networks that should not be uprooted in the upgrade process and that rather local governments, NGO groups and implementing agents need to shift their approach to informality away from formal housing resettlement. A new design approach that recasts designers as facilitators and mediators of the upgrade process is needed, placing greater emphasis on community based knowledge. Community members living in informal settlements have important skills to contribute to their own upgrading process. This paper proposes that landscape architects become thought leaders, combining co-design that empowers local community members and knowledge of landscape infrastructure and place-making.


Informal settlements are a global urban phenomenon representing the most prevalent form of city making, (UNHabitat, 2021). In Cape Town, South Africa, there are approximately 146,000 households in 437 informal settlement pockets (Ndifuna Ukwazi, n.d.). Many of these settlements were established before democracy but still do not have recognised tenure or access to basic services. Furthermore, globally, informal settlements are at the climate change coal face, with settlements in Cape Town experiencing annual winter flooding and the associated spread of disease which is exacerbated by a lack of formal infrastructure (such as stormwater and sewers) and poor quality public spaces.

These settlements urgently require attention to ensure that residents can live with dignity. In South Africa, where this study is based there has been a ground swell acknowledgement that established communities offer both social and economic networks that should not be uprooted in the upgrade process  and that rather local governments, NGO groups and implementing agents need to shift their approach to informality away from formal housing resettlement (which cannot keep up with informal settlement proliferation) to a more sensitive in-situ based process.

In-situ based interventions necessitate a new design approach that potentially could recast designers as facilitators and mediators of the upgrade process and place a greater emphasis on community based knowledge.

This de-emphasises of a top down approach has the potential to challenge the imbalance of power held by professionals and acknowledges that Community members living in informal settlements have important skills to contribute to their own upgrading process, bringing key community stakeholders meaningfully into the project with agency.  This paper proposes that there is space for landscape architects to become thought leaders in this field, marrying innovative methods of co-design to empower local community members with knowledge of landscape infrastructure and place-making expertise to better create resilience.

Furthermore it is put forth that the lessons learned from working in informal settings have applicability beyond their own contexts and that co-creation should be viewed as a best practice design tool when working within any community or group. Thus the tools developed from “working informally” could be used by all landscape architects designing with communities.

Europe Pilot Project

This article focuses on the informal settlement of Europe in Cape Town and a small water point and infrastructure upgrade project that was undertaken between 2019-2023 by the authors. This pilot project, completed with funding from the Rotary foundation, focused on an acupunctural approach to upgrading, identifying a key area of strategic importance to instigate positive change within the community, create dignified public space and to test some of the ideas and methods surrounding in-situ upgrade.

The design process revealed interesting lessons that speak to the potential of urban infrastructure to combat climate change pressures whilst working with resident communities to build trust, develop designs and create a deep sense of project ownership.

Europe, founded in 1992, is a well-located and established informal settlement sited 16km east of the Cape Town CBD. It is in close proximity to the Cape Town International Airport and sandwiched between the Gugulethu Cemetery, the commercial corridor of Klipfontein Road and the N2 highway. Europe, with 10 other informal settlements, forms part of the “Airport Precinct” which is part of the “Southern Corridor Integrated Human Settlements Programme.” These settlements have been identified for potential future upgrade, however the time-frames of this upgrade are uncertain and the dire conditions in Europe require urgent intervention (Figure1).

Figure 1: Location diagram

Europe has limited access to services, with potable water points provided at a rate of 1 per every 40 households. The settlement is also located on an uncapped dump site and prone to devastating winter flooding (Western Cape Government , 2016). There is no formal stormwater or sewer system on site and runoff and domestically produced greywater drains out of the settlement along makeshift pathways (Figure 2). This greywater contributes to the contamination of stormwater during the rainy season creating health and safety concerns from ponding greywater in public settings (Western Cape Government , 2016).

Figure2: Site analysis of the Europe Informal settlement

As is the case with many other informal settlements in the country, the settlement of Europe is led by an elected committee referred to as “Community Leadership” who oversee all issues concerning the settlement and who report directly to the elected Ward Councilor. Existing relationships between the authors and the Europe Community Leaders were initially established in 2014 with formal engagement beginning on the project in 2019. The identification of flooding, drainage and ponding emerged as major community challenges in community enumerations undertaken by the Western Cape Government with local NGOs as well as through focused academic studies and community dialogs run by the project team. Europe also lacks dignified public space (Figure 3), with children having to play in muddy streets or crossing the busy Klipfontein Road to play in the neighbouring cemetery or along dangerous highway edges (Daniel Steyn, 2021).

Figure 3: The standpipe tap point before upgrade

The pilot intervention therefore aims to directly address these issues by providing both infrastructure and public space. The intervention stretches from the primary pedestrian access route into the settlement, to the key intersection which was identified by community members as an emerging commercial and community node. This node includes a large creche, a pharmacy and several spaza shops and is located at the top of a watershed. The intervention capitalises on this existing activity by inserting a new public space associated with introduced waterpoints.

The plaza is a shared space that is paved and gently dished to catch the storm water from the surrounding areas and to direct runoff from minor events toward a permeable drainage walkway.

The channel comprises interlocking concrete permeable pavers to create a hardened surface for both walking and driving access and directing drainage toward Klipfontein road without causing erosion. This permeable pavement improves both runoff quality through treatment in the base storage layers, and runoff quantity through storage capacity beneath the pavement. Runoff quantity is further managed through the placement of SUDs (sustainable urban drainage systems) tree planters at intervals along the drainage route designed to receive runoff.

Conventional stormwater management has focused on quantity (flow) management, by collecting runoff and channeling it to the closest watercourse. This has had a significant impact on the environment through the erosion of natural channels, siltation of water bodies and pollution resulting in environmental degradation. Sustainable drainage systems are a collection of water management practices that aim to align modern drainage systems with natural water processes, deliver amenity and biodiversity.

The SUDS systems used to manage the stormwater in Europe include stormwater tree trenches, which are landscaped planters positioned at intervals along the drainage route designed to receive runoff. These tree platers create a bio-retention area to encourage treatment of stormwater and infiltration into the ground, as well, as greening the site with vegetation and providing shaded seating areas (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The plaza with sitting walls

In order to respond to a lack of drainage infrastructure and to assist in solving the issues around water pollution and ponding, a greywater diversion system was introduced. Greywater is disposed at gullies adjacent to residences, shared by 2-4 households. These Gullies divert the water that once would have flowed over the makeshift pathway below the upgraded walkway to Klipfontein Road. The gullies are installed with a grating (cemented into the concrete surround) to prevent large solids entering the system. Diverted greywater then runs along a 100mm uPVC pipe beneath the drainage channel with inspection chambers/manholes set at intervals to facilitate maintenance. As there is no sewer system to connect to, the greywater is diverted into a silt trap before entering the storm water system along Klipfontein Road. The waterpoint layout is shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Axonometric drawing of the Europe Waterpoint System

Throughout the project the team questioned how the service requirements of the area could be solved whilst aiming to address the need for positive public space within the settlement. It was concluded that sustainable, robust and resilient public space could be developed in conjunction with service provision with a minor cost implication. This allowed the authors to create multifunctional spaces that function as urban infrastructures.

In Europe the spaces are designed to be flexible and multi-functional. Although they are engineered to drain and to deal with water, they are also carefully designed as gathering spaces, sports courts, dance stages and roadways to make emergency vehicle access easier. The choice of paving was deliberate to give a sense of permanence and to elevate the design beyond problem solving and towards space creation (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Community members gather at an upgraded water point in Europe Informal Settlement

The waterpoints that define the spaces are ergonomically and generously designed for both water collection, laundry activities, gathering and play. The water points include 7 taps (5 new, 2 upgraded) to allow for better access to clean water. The new and additional taps are housed in a 900mm high wall to allow for a bucket to be placed underneath. The surrounding walls are 600mm wide and 450mm high providing plenty of seating and play space as well as a place to rest a washing basket.

The squares represent some of the only safe local public spaces, regularly used as meeting points, as well as soccer pitches and go-cart tracks. The plaza has also recently been the location of a netball competition where markings were chalked onto the paving, hoops brought in and the seating around the square becoming the spectator seating (Figure 7).

Figure 7: The square used as a netball court

Working Informally – a design approach

The design team campaigned for a more sensitive in-situ based design process for the Europe informal settlement project - one that allows for incremental intervention and acknowledges the voices of communities throughout a rigorous co-design process. Co-design refers to the collaborative approach of creative problem-solving between diverse stakeholders at all project stages. It emphasises the knowledge held by community members during all stages of the design project, beginning with identification and understanding of complex problems to the final design of contextually appropriate solutions (de Koning JI, 2016.).

This approach challenges the idea of the designer as expert as it allows for multiple ideas to be introduced to the project by various stakeholders. This shifts the responsibility to the designer to understand the issues raised and to find appropriate responses, solutions and most importantly opportunities.

The design methodology of co-creation has a direct impact on the typical stage based project structure that is often used by landscape architects to take a project from inception to close-out after construction. The co-creation process is time intensive, requiring that long term trust is built, elongating the inception and concept stages of the project. Conversely it is the design teams experience, based on the rapidly changing conditions of the informal site, that the time spent to develop the design to construction drawings in office is expedited in lieu of regular hands-on site meetings and on the design development during the construction phases on the project.

In the pilot phase of the project the design team worked with community leadership, identified community elders and youth members in the form of various workshops, site walk-throughs as well as visits to other upgrade projects to identify areas for intervention and develop contextually appropriate responses over the course of a full year.

It is also worth noting the importance of building trust and proving a track record. The community of Europe has been engaged by various groups over the years and whilst there was a willingness to engage there was a collective sceptisism about the likelihood of the project going forward. The responses the design team received when initially tabling designs was “we will believe it when we see it” and whilst community members who we engaged were comfortable discussing the issues faced they were initially reluctant to engage with design responses.

In order to overcome this challenge the team identified a series of “quick win” projects that were designed to immediately address community needs and to demonstrate intent.

One such project was the refurbishment of the community centre. After the construction on the community centre began the design team found that the community members where much more amenable to discussing the water point and infrastructure project in real terms. Likewise, conversations about future phases of the Europe project have been made easier after the successful rolling out of the pilot project.

The pilot project tested the ideas of “listening differently” by creating safe spaces where women could come together throughout the implementation phase of the project. These spaces where designed to allow for sharing over a productive task. In the pilot upgrade, a planting club was introduced. This club ran as a series of practical workshops to impart critical gardening skills whilst establishing an on-site nursery, growing all material for the upgrade project. The planting club ran over the course of two months and culminated in a celebratory planting day with local NGO groups, the Ward Councilor and the planting club participants.

The planting club tested the idea that not all voices are heard in public meetings and that conversation occurs organically and easily over a productive task (Figure 8). This model of activity-based co-creation allows for designers to gain a deeper understanding of the user group but arguably more importantly brings additional community members, specifically women, into the design and implementation process, building pride and project ownership. This model could be replicated with any hands-on project task.

Figure 8: The planting club at work

Finally the Europe project construction and implementation was undertaken by a local emerging contractor, Khule Quality Construction, who understood the complex conditions within the informal settlement and was able to work directly with the recipient community. A skills audit was undertaken by a partner NGO at the project outset and all construction workers for the project were chosen from within the Europe community, which provided employment as well as maintenance training for the project.

Design reflections and conclusions

The Europe Waterpoint upgrade pilot project has clearly demonstrated the ability of site infrastructure and services to be developed with good place-making outcomes at the core, creating multifunctional and flexible public spaces. The case of the plaza space in particular has proven to be a community asset that is consistently used.

The project has not been without its challenges and lessons. The introduction of planting within the scheme has proven to be largely unsuccessful with much of the planting that was grown through the planting club workshops dying within the first year of the project. This reveals that although there are established gardens and gardeners within Europe there is a need to design the spaces as urban environments with robust and hard wearing materials in lieu of softscaping, as at this point in time maintenance of the landscaping is not a priority.

Secondly, the system was designed to respond locally with the existing users of the space in mind. Tap points are generally used by the direct surrounding residents with each tap being used by approximately 40 households. The design intervention has induced a demand with residents coming from beyond the waterpoint catchment, placing pressure on the introduced infrastructure. Whilst the infrastructure has held up to this additional use it is clear that future upgrades will need to be planned to provide choice and that these interventions will have to be designed with a greater frequency of use and volume of water and waste in mind.

Finally, whilst the co-design methodology is one that we would like to bring into all of our projects we have found that a conventional project structure with strict deliverable-based project fees and defined timelines has a way to go to accommodate a fully engaged co-design process.


de Koning et al, 2016. Models or co-creation. Service Design Geographies Linköping University Electronic Press, Volume Proceedings of the serv des. Conference, pp. 266–78.

UNHabitat, 2021. Housing Slums and Informal Settlements - Urban Indicators Database.  Available at: [Accessed 10 January 2022].

Ndifuna Ukwazi, n.d. Available at: [Accessed 15 09 2023].

Western Cape Government, 2016. Enumeration Report: Europe Informal Settlement Pocket, s.l. Western Cape Government Human Settlements.

Daniel Steyn, V. M., 2021. When four children die in a sinkhole in Nyanga, who is responsible?. Daily Maverick, 13 February 2021