• Ana Rosa Chagas Cavalcanti TU Delft, Architecture and the Built Environment


Poverty is still one of greatest challenges in our world. In the developing world, an enormous number of people live below the poverty line. It is estimated that 10% of the world population live under 1.90 dollars a day (World Bank, 2018, p. xi). Although some may argue this is a narrow and technocratic definition of poverty, these numbers indicate that much needs to be done to alleviate issues connected to poverty. Urban poverty affects non-OECD countries, such as Brazil, in a critical manner, as society is characterized by strong inequalities which put a lot of strain on social and political structures, and a very tiny percentage of people controls a great portion of the country’s GDP (Savador, 2016, p.23).1 One of the consequences of poverty and inequality is a very imbalanced and dysfunctional housing market, in which access to affordable housing is made very difficult. Informal settlements are the spatial representation of poverty and exclusion in the city. One could argue they are also the result of exclusion from structures of citizenship (Rocco & Van Ballegooijen, 2018).

The growing number of people living in informal settlements coupled with prospects of high urbanization rates currently turns housing into a key aspect to address to the production of a more equitable urbanization process in the 21st century. Yet, housing is a very complex challenge that includes complex issues. In order to house people currently living in informal settlements there is no recipe or manual. The current housing crisis in the world, notably in Brazilian metropolises and small and middle-sized cities currently suffering rapid urbanization processes, demand that we question traditional design and planning approaches to housing provision for the poor. Housing provision for the poor is not only a policy challenge. It is also a ‘spatial’ challenge, insofar it involves architectural and urban spatial solutions through the design of dwelling. Local authorities, planning departments and others, try to tackle this question through policy implementation, but the spatial outcomes are often quite lacking. Poor citizens are left out of the discussion, and it is often very frustrating to see that the spatial solutions given to communities are completely disconnected from the real daily needs of citizens. Design and planning of housing can play a pivotal role to address the current housing challenges to the poor, by addressing their needs.

In my work I claim that current architectural and planning responses seek to ameliorate hygienic and sanitary conditions regarding the existing standards in slums/informal settlements, but the hygienist approach is quite antiquated and fails to tackle the complex interrelations between dwelling, work, and other activities that make up a community. I claim that labor is one such component shaping, planning and governing the built environment of informal settlements that is systematically ignored by policy makers and designers alike. In literature, there is no concern about the labor practices of the poor in connection with the design, planning and production of space and as a driver of spatial development.

My research explores how labor practices shape, plan and govern the spaces in informal settlements. The main method used to perform this research was participatory research, in which I actively took part in the life of the case studies, often with long periods of residence in informal settlements, in a trajectory that is much longer than my formal PhD, amounting to ten years of studies. I explored how labor shapes the houses, alleys and streets in environments that are planned and self-built by residents. I further explored how labor affects the space between the formal and informal city, how it governs economic relationships in broader territories, how it explains migration processes, the emergence and the growth of informal settlements, and how it comes to represent value and dignity for the citizens living in these settlements. By doing so, this research aims to question how labor defines the informal settlement itself, and how it could frame new theorizations and epistemologies of informality.

I have employed participatory research in order to understand the needs of the poor and to elaborate a critique on why current housing solutions provided by planners and architects to residents living in informal settlements ignore their working activities, and I propose a set of benchmarks and recommendations that can be easily be used by policy makers and architects alike regarding better housing for people living in informal settlements. By doing this, I aimed to fill the gap in literature regarding the lack of research on how labor shapes space and how it can ultimately dictate the spatial logic of informal settlements. It can provide a different approach to housing the residents of slums, based on their claims and their labor needs.

Doing this type of research has allowed me to understand and address the needs of people living in slums, shedding light on issues that are unknown or ignored by architects and planners. I claim that labor is an essential part of the spatial dynamics and the lives of residents of informal settlements (Cavalcanti, 2009, 2017, 2018). Labor is necessary to maintain their livelihoods both in the informal settlements and in the formal houses where they are occasionally resettled (Cavalcanti, 2018). Therefore, one of my main conclusions is related to the role of labor within housing rights, as this primary right, the right to work, allows people to exist, live, thrive, create expand and maintain spaces in informal settlements (which is particularly relevant when they are relocated to formal housing or when their settlements are subject to redevelopment plans) (Cavalcanti,2018).


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How to Cite
CAVALCANTI, Ana Rosa Chagas. Introduction. A+BE | Architecture and the Built Environment, [S.l.], n. 8, p. 23-40, aug. 2019. ISSN 2214-7233. Available at: <>. Date accessed: 18 sep. 2019. doi: