Informality today, and perhaps even more importantly in the years to come, remains to be the dominant mode of urban production in many cities of developing nations. And informal settlements for many urban dwellers are the only viable alternative for accessing land, services, job opportunities and social mobility. Yet, much of the planning and design practice in these cities disregards and/or alienates this form of urbanization. Informal settlements, which generally are referred as “slums” are often associated with unsafe, unsanitary, badly serviced living environments without security of tenure. The dominant idea which has shaped and continues to shape most non-western cities is based on the rejection of inherited patterns and knowledge and the pursuit of an irrelevant urban modernity. (Malik 2001)
Modernist housing provider model, i.e. strong public sector involvement in a centralized production of ready-made minimum-standard units for anonymous residents, was introduced both to address the problem of housing shortage in the era of rapid urbanization and to solve the problem of “slums”. Conflicting views of modernist approaches have resulted in an ongoing and polarized debate: on one side, praise for its salutary delivery of the masses from unhealthy “slums”; on the other, disdain for its engagement in oppressive practices of social engineering and the eradication of traditional urban fabric. Modernist residential blocks are criticized for their lack of sensitiveness to social and cultural needs of the people (eg Holston 1989). They are also criticized for being unaffordable, energy-demanding, and climatically unsound and being rigid (e.g. Correa 1985). The dissatisfaction with modernist housing solutions has motivated reconsideration of traditional methods of housing production and more increasingly in recent years many studies are being directed to understanding the production and functioning of informal settlements.
While there had been few attempts to couple informality and formality, they have emphasized only one aspect – that of the moral and entrepreneurial capacity of the urban poor in informal housing environments. Exploring informality both from theoretic and design point of view the study intends to observantly investigate physical and social qualities of informal settlements in terms of their capacity to accommodate hierarchically and temporally defined needs of the dwellers. The paper presents a part of an ongoing doctoral research which explores what values for residents are inherent in ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ types of housing and what the concepts 'formal' and 'informal' mean in connection to production, use and management of housing. The objective is to create knowledge for possible coordination and synergies between these poles.
Empirical evidences are primarily drawn from own study of an ongoing large scale condominium housing program of Addis Ababa to sketch the first drafts of ideas for a housing and urban development model for African cities.