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What will it take to meet global housing needs?

Copyright: Sergey Maximishin/Panos

Speed read

  • Millions lack safe shelter, and the housing crisis looks set to worsen

  • Some see technology as the answer, others go back to basics

  • Three ‘take home’ messages emerge for cities and disaster zones

Disaster zones and cities fuel the crisis. They are also hotbeds for knowledge and innovations to break through it.
Shelter is a basic human need. Having a safe and healthy home is a fundamental aspiration for us all: in cities or villages, in poor or rich countries.

But too many people struggle to fulfil this basic need, mainly in cities and in the developing world. Millions are homeless and nearly two billion live in informal settlements that harm their health, safety and opportunities for a better life. Three billion more people are expected to need housing in the next 15 years.

Add humanitarian emergencies to the equation and the crisis becomes more acute. Natural disasters and conflict are major driving forces here, with global changes in both the environment and politics threatening a higher risk in years to come. 

The work needed to build back after disaster becomes painfully clear when considering just three emergencies that made headlines in recent years: the earthquake in Nepal, typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and ongoing displacement due to conflict in the Middle East. There are many more.

“Disaster zones and burgeoning cities can also be hotbeds for innovation.”

anita Makri

The good news is that disaster zones and burgeoning cities can also be hotbeds for innovation. Some of these solutions hit the headlines too — flat-pack homes, 3D printed homes, floating homes or bricks made from waste or desert sand. Eye-catching or simple, they raise optimism about how cheaper methods and new designs or materials might break through the crisis.

Yet time goes by, disasters keep coming, and despite the promise, innovations haven’t yet transformed shelter. Sometimes they are rejected. The Spotlight we publish today asks why — with articles, commentaries and multimedia features that delve into the complex process of securing adequate shelter and homes in cities or after disaster.

Shelter from the storm

An overview article with facts and figures by Monica Wolfe Murray, one of our consultants for the project, describes a ‘perfect storm’ fuelling the housing crisis. Focusing on shelter after disaster, she explains how reconstruction works, outlines guiding principles in planning and design during humanitarian relief, and points out how innovations are pulling practitioners in opposing directions.

One direction is those new designs, materials and technologies — reflected in an opinion article by entrepreneur Anielle Guedes, who sees technological innovation as a game changer. She argues that 3D printing will usher in an era of building faster, cheaper and greener housing than ever before.

The other is a return to traditional house designs and building techniques. An image gallery by Magnus Wolfe Murray, who also advised us for this Spotlight, documents a reconstruction project in Pakistan that used this vernacular approach to build houses with better water resistance and more cheaply than using mainstream techniques.

But each situation is different and there are no blueprints to fit every need. This makes learning from experience indispensable. In a second opinion article, emergency shelter specialist Tom Corsellis outlines steps that can boost learning across the sector by better management of knowledge, not just information.

A separate feature with key resources by Monica Wolfe Murray gathers a wealth of online information and insight on securing shelter in cities or humanitarian situations.

Design for cities

The overview article concludes that some shelter solutions used after disaster may also help in cities. Although a simple transfer of ideas would not work between two different contexts such as these, the principle of putting people first is good practice in both situations.

It is a message echoed in a feature that focuses not on humanitarian aid but on architects’ growing interest in low-cost housing for vulnerable communities. Journalist Rachel David explores some of the challenges facing architects working in the developing world, and how participatory design can keep the focus on the people that buildings are meant to serve.

Affordability is crucial for city residents — and in the third opinion article, development consultant Barbar Mumtaz argues for changes in finance and in the ‘bigger picture’ of how governments and politicians view housing in urban development.

Both messages also come up in a filmed interview with UN-Habitat’s Omoh Odunbaku. Speaking specifically about Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, Odunbaku says housing cannot be isolated from other components of urban planning, and uses mobile-money service M-Pesa as an example of a tool that could help poor people afford mortgage payments.

Common principles

The forces governing shelter provision differ between urban situations and humanitarian crises. Architects generally manage city housing projects, but in disaster zones a humanitarian agency is more likely to take the lead (working with architects, engineers and communities). And people with low incomes looking for a better home in their city will find finance a major obstacle whereas aid money might flow more readily in an emergency, where speed and functionality are the top challenges. An interview with post-war reconstruction expert Sultan Barakat gives an insightful account of those challenges.

But the articles in this collection point to some common principles for practitioners in both urban and humanitarian housing. I single out three take-home messages.

First is that knowledge management systems can let practitioners learn from experience and so work more wisely and intelligently when adapting their work to new environments, even where they need to reinvent the wheel.
Second is the potential of technological advances in building and finance, such as 3D printing, inventive designs and mobile money, to shake up the urban planning and governance systems holding back innovation in housing provision.

And third is what Monica Wolfe Murray has called the “silent revolution” in shelter provision: the trend of placing the building process in residents’ hands so that, whether in a city or a disaster zone, they become involved in deciding everything from design to materials to safe practices.

People, architects and officials will continue to battle the global housing crisis. The hope lies in using tools and information well and in a way that drives development: finding and working with the right building blocks for each project, whether by revisiting vernacular methods or looking to the latest digital technologies.

Anita Makri is opinion and special features editor at SciDev.Net. @anita_makri

This article is part of our Spotlight on Shelter crisis: Rebuilding after the storm.

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