Town Planning Review 92.1 Featured Article

The editors of Town Planning Review (TPR) have selected the following paper as the Featured Article in TPR 92.1.

This paper will be free to access for a limited time:

‘The COVID-19 pandemic in informal settlements: (re)considering urban planning interventions’ by Uchendu Eugene Chigbu and Victor Udemezue Onyebueke.

When asked to describe the paper and highlight its importance, the authors stated the following:

Due to the onset and recurrent waves of the COVID-19 pandemic around the world, daily lives and work have been brought to intermittent halts, leading to widespread panic intermingled with inordinate quest for essential commodities and news (or is it answers?). In rising to this unprecedented occasion and to bring ‘professional expertise to bear on the COVID-19 crisis’, TPR issued the Call for Viewpoints related to COVID-19 in May 2020. Our submission is one of the selected contributions. We write this blog not only to draw people’s attention to the original article, but also to try to highlight its major contributions without the formalities and language of academics.

The article basically focuses on alleviating and/or containing the COVID-19 or corona virus threats in slums or informal settlements, those parts of our cities that lack basic planning and infrastructures for healthy living. Our enquiry takes off from this fundamental premise, and attempts to address, albeit in a roundabout manner, Jason Corburn’s (2009, p.1) puzzling poser:

How can modern city planning, a profession that emerged in the late nineteenth century with a goal of improving the health of the least well-off urban residents, but lost this focus throughout the twentieth century, return to its health and social justice roots?

Evidently, the form and intensity of the COVID-19 contagion differ widely across localities, cities, countries, and regions of the world. Informal settlements easily present the worst risk scenarios. Urban planners as well as public health practitioners are equally mortified and troubled by this impending calamity, from which neither them nor government can wash their hands of. This is because slum are thought to emerge from complex systemic interactions among numerous factors like rapid urbanisation, underdevelopment, land tenure insecurity, poverty etc. coupled with the missteps and oversights (if you like, malfeasance, misfeasance, and/or nonfeasance) of government, urban planners and planning/health departments. The roll out of the virus prevention protocols, including 1-2 metres social distancing, regular hand washing plus other measures marked the first taste of trouble while the new-fangled pandemic-driven function of the house as both a refuge from infectious diseases and a living-and-work space is the second.

Today, the cat is already let out of the bag! Imagine being locked down in some compact shacks and improvised shelters (cramped space with little or no setbacks) without running water, drainage, basic amenities, and recreational spaces? Besides the out-of-control noise, smell, uncharitable sights, and general abject discomfort, many of such high density settlements face additional environmental risks of flooding and landslides since many of them are built on unstable terrains. What an objectionable prototype of refuge-home-office for anyone!

Other aspects of this calamitous disease threat, which difficult to overlook, are: one, the ‘city as an ecosystem’ argument – intrinsic interconnectivity and interdependence within anu city – that whatever affects one part easily touches the others; and two, the fact the prospects puts over 25% of humanity (approximately 1.95 billion slum dwellers) across the world at great risks. Over the years, urban planners have conceived informal settlements as crime-ridden and unhealthy landscapes, but today they have become the most visible emblem of spatial injustice, a culmination from decades of inequities and exclusions. Much more than any single section of the city, the planning discipline has struggled with the idea and reality of slums, a discursive trajectory spanning nearly a century from the early notions of the bulldozer approach and slum clearance to their more permissive options (for example, improvement/upgrading and property rights endowment) that see such settlements as a potential asset and ‘development from below’.

Over the years, planning studies focusing on the structure and inner workings of informal settlements have foregrounded them as a ‘wicked problem’ after American planning theorists, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber. The rationale is that these adverse habitations appear to have, among other things, ‘no stopping rule’, no definitive formulation or solutions, and are both uniqueness and complex in character, and oftentimes, are symptomatic of underlying problems. In our article, we argue that together with Corvid-19 threats, the informal settlement question has become considerably convoluted, and consequently, best approached as a ‘super wicked problem’. Levin and colleagues, who first used this term in their 2012 article underscored four features, albeit in regarding climate change, equally speak to emergent perilous slum realities, viz.: (i) time is running out; (ii) weak or absence of central authority to manage the problem; (iii) same actors seeking to end the problem are also contributing to it; and (iv) policies aimed at the problem tend to gamble with short-term measure and take the future for granted.

What then can be done about this proverbial ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over a quarter of humanity? How can urban planning tackle this super wicked problem of Corvid-19 threat facing most, if not all, informal settlement?  In other words, is it possible for the planning discipline (perhaps, with the help of its sibling discipline – public health) to ‘return to its health and social justice roots’? To attempt these questions, our article identifies six common COVID-19-related challenges in informal settlements and suggests potential urban planning interventions capable of improving them.

We made six recommendation, including, to: (1) tackle the paucity of interdisciplinary research on the COVID-19 pandemic situation in slums by co-developing baselines and pandemic-responsive plans; (2) deal with the excessive high densities and space constrictions that hinder healthy living in slums by designing disaster-preparedness strategies to raise pandemic alerts; (3) handle the shared units (rooms, bathrooms and toilets) challenges in informal settlements by introducing tailor-made housing plan to reorganise sharing as a survival strategy; (4) address the general absence of central authority oversight in slums through multi-stakeholder participatory and integrated approaches, involving NGO workers, community groups and religious leaders, government representatives, etc.; (5) use tenure responsive land-use planning approaches to improve the land-tenure insecurity situations in affected settlements; and (6) distinguish slum health from urban health and mainstream urban-slum-health nexus in the implementation of the urban plans.

Undoubtedly, a few study limitations exist. The recognition that it is still an evolving situation imposes obvious constraints on a fuller understanding of the subject. There may yet be more ties between planning and public health roles (in tackling the situation) than is identified in the article. What is important to note is that planners may be able to develop more health responsive plans by working with public health officers towards ensuring that health is brought back as a core element in planning at different levels (be it urban, peri-urban, or rural).


LEVIN, K., CASHORE, B., BERNSTEIN, S., and AULD, G. (2012), ‘Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change’, Policy Sciences, 45, 123–52.

RITTEL, H. W. and WEBBER, M. M. (1973), ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’, Policy Sciences, 4, 155–69.

CHIGBU, U. E., & ONYEBUEKE, V. U. The COVID-19 pandemic in informal settlements: (re) considering urban planning interventions. Town Planning Review92(1), 115-121.


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