INTERVIEW: Sheela Patel on transforming the urban poor from invisible and informal to recognized and resilient

By Climate Champions | March 19, 2024

Over one billion people worldwide currently live in informal urban settlements, in self-built homes, outside of regulatory frameworks, without formal land tenure. These settlements often lack basic infrastructure such as sanitation, clean water, and electricity, with residents also often facing the constant threat of eviction. With three billion people estimated to need adequate and affordable housing by 2030, and with extreme weather increasing, the situation is extremely urgent for many cities, especially in the Global South. To understand the opportunity to address urban poverty, we spoke to internationally recognised human rights activist, Sheela Patel.

The Climate Champions’ Global Ambassador outlines her vision for the Roof Over Our Heads campaign designed to help women leaders from informal settlements to advance resilient, low carbon and affordable homes and solutions for their urban communities thereby advancing the overall climate resilience of their cities. Watch the interview:


How did you enter the climate resilience space?

For the last 50 years, I have worked on strategies to recognise the rights and needs of informal urban communities, in other words people that are forced to live in slums or shanty towns. Initially my work was focused in Mumbai and India through SPARC and subsequently around the world through Slum Dwellers International, a global network driving for inclusive and resilient cities.

For the longest time, as groups working with the urban poor, we always found ourselves battling with environmentalists who felt that poor people were disrupting and destroying nature, for example, by living near water bodies, urban forests, or low-lying areas like marshes. There was a lack of acknowledgement that poor people were living there because they had nowhere else to go. They were living outside of the usual models of urban governance, without access to basic services, such as clean water, sanitation, and adequate housing.

Fast forward to 2014, and the chair of the Elders, Mary Robinson, was asked by the UN Secretary General to develop the architecture for the social justice element of the UN climate change process, which was to be presented at COP 21, in Paris in 2015. I was invited to join the Committee to represent people who lived informally, which was my first real exposure to the challenges of climate change. Back then, I realized that urban informality, which the UN estimates to affect over 1 billion people worldwide – rising to three billion by 2030, was not part of the whole framing or understanding of the climate problem. Critically, the most vulnerable people were not included in the process of designing climate solutions. 

That was the beginning of my struggle to prevent ‘sustainable development’ and ‘climate’ from working in separate silos. Since then, I have been seeking smart ways to bring climate science and technology in as foundational elements of development. My biggest plea – whether I’m talking within our urban informal networks, to city leaders, or to Indigenous communities – is that we need to integrate development and adaptation in order to address urban and rural poverty. To forge a future which is both resilient and robust, you cannot separate development investment from climate investment. They are like two sides of the same coin of investment.

What is the greatest challenge facing the urban poor?

Image: An example of inadequate informal housing in Surat, India.

I always focus on the issue of urban poverty through the lens of very poor women who live informally. Globally, 40% of city-dwellers in the Global South live informally. Yet, strikingly,  this fact is completely invisible to the consideration of natural disaster-recovery, or poverty alleviation, or any city-related development issue. The number of people living informally is even projected to double in the next 10 years, as the frequency and severity of climate-induced disasters rises. So, unless we change our mindset, the crisis of urbanization, and the burden of stress borne by the poor will only be exacerbated.

Cities are starting from a remarkably low base, when it comes to knowledge, research, investment and technology inputs to address urban poverty, which causes the ongoing exclusion of informal communities. Even when it comes to baselining the issue there is a lack of research systems capable of producing a reliable database. The IPCC reports highlight extreme poverty in cities, but there is a lack of technical data to assess the problem in detail. Nor do we currently have the bandwidth to gather these insights. 

Why are informal communities usually overlooked by city planners?

This is a systemic problem. Cities in the Global South are locked in a colonial planning system, originally designed to serve the interests of the colonizers, by focusing on extracting resources, and controlling indigenous populations, rather than fostering long-term development and welfare of communities.

Conventional urban development work begins with prioritising the legal entitlements of a very small number of people that own property – whether they be government, or private sector. In this system, to all intents and purposes, the urban poor are informal, illegal, and invisible. This visible – invisible’ challenge is very dangerous. When you enter a city like Delhi, you see many poor people living in terrible conditions, but they are not depicted in city planning or actions. We need to redesign planning systems to reflect the real numbers of people that actually need a place to stay. 

What is the strategy behind the Roof Over Our Heads campaign?

I started working 50 years ago on addressing the challenges of the poorest people living on the sidewalks of Mumbai, which is estimated to be up to half of the population. In examining ways to boost the city’s resilience, we realized that strategies and governance systems designed for the city’s poorest people were vital to meeting the needs of others too. We realized that we should get back to meeting basic needs to advance the overall resilience of cities.

Over 90% of all people who live informally in the Global South – especially in Asia and Africa –  design, finance and construct their own homes. So, many upper echelon solutions, such as fiscal transfers, that we hear about in the world of development never actually reach people living informally – and similar climate adaptation solutions won’t reach them either. To tackle this issue we started Roof Over Our Heads, a campaign focused on delivering resilient, low carbon and affordable homes and improving public infrastructure to the urban poor.

Our strategy is to coalesce the poorest neighbourhoods, and city planners and construction professionals to identify, design and finance effective physical materials that poor women can use to construct their homes. By making better materials and construction systems available we can ensure that the small amount of money that people spend on their homes produces the most resiliency.

Image: A demonstration of the use of recycled and low cost roofing material as part of the ROOH Lab in Surat, India.

In 2023, our first year, we developed a methodology for young construction professionals to work in the poorest neighbourhoods with a cohort of women – to study their houses and create a minimum standard for building materials. This enables us to assess a wide range of materials, ranging from clay tiles to corrugated tin metal sheeting, based on their cost, shelf life, and other markers of effectiveness in protecting people from extreme weather conditions experienced in slums in different climatic zones.

At COP 28, global engineering and sustainable development consultancy, Arup announced that it would join the pilot, by helping expand access to affordable, carbon neutral materials at the Rasulabad, an informal Settlement in Surat, India. Part of Arup’s role in the pilot is to improve housing design to boost energy efficiency and resilience. We aim to create one hundred such labs in about 20 countries, each shaped to tackle critical, local challenges that can be scaled in other regions.

Why the name – ‘Roof Over Our Heads’?

‘Roof Over Our Heads’ comes from one of five key ‘wants’ that many women leaders in Asia and Africa identified during a series of knowledge-gathering conversations. It’s an expression of women’s basic need for security, and it also talks to the need to adapt home building techniques and materials to withstand climate events, from heat, wind, rain and cyclones.

How do you plan to scale the Roof Over Our Heads campaign globally?

Last year we finished 17 informal settlements in nine cities in India and documented this in a book that was launched at COP 28. This year, we will continue to develop further India projects, working with local artisans and communities to improve the resilience of homes, using available materials, as well as finding ways to fund new materials.

Simultaneously, we are taking the initiative to communities in other countries. The initiative is architected so that the strategic team in India builds the capacity of an anchor team in other countries – essentially training the new trainers. The core teams consist of community leaders, construction professionals and NGOs. We are scaling a project in the Philippines, as well as planning to scale projects in East Africa, MENA, and in Argentina.

As we expand, we will examine where there’s a spine of solutions which are the same in different countries, as well as learning from specific, localized elements – and so the repertoire of options expands. That’s the plan. It’s ambitious, but it’s based on our belief that by working with a skeletal team, who share all of their findings, we can scale solutions rapidly to meet urgent demand. Real scale comes from fostering exponential multiplier effects, rather than through a linear, command and control approach.

Have you any examples of this scalability in action?

Yes, one of our India labs is focused on a community of waste pickers in Bangalore. They collect recyclable materials such as paper, plastic, glass, and metal from bins, landfills, and streets. We’re not only helping them to upgrade their own homes with waste materials production, but also creating an income generating activity for them. Also, many of the materials that poor people use for their homes are purchased from waste pickers, so we can have a wider influence on informal communities that they come into contact with. Waste pickers operate within a huge network, so through this pilot we can have a major impact.

Through the lab, we’re learning the importance of relationships and trust, for example, working with the waste picker community, who not only face precarious conditions, health risks, but also social stigma. 

We navigate difficult spaces such as this with a commitment to simplicity, a lack of complications – and by focusing on our core priority – to enable very poor women to assess the resilience of their homes and take action.  

How can we shift from top-down technocrat approaches to climate action, to a more inclusive approach?

An outcome of the pandemic was to give the development world a period to reflect on the effectiveness of our investments. We realised that the health system was completely destroyed, it was unable to support poor people. Curfews and the inability to work had devastated poor peoples’ lives. The poor had no real resilience to deal with the situation, except their collectivism and their ability to survive. This wasn’t provided from any development investment, it came from them alone.

Top-down rescue strategies were only reaching households that had secure tenure, which was only three to five percent of the people who needed it. Clearly, that adds up to a humongous amount of investment in research, education, and poverty reduction that has been misdirected over the last five to six decades. Part of the problem is top-down, cookie cutter approaches applied to acutely different regions. There is a mindset, for example, that if you solve rural problems, then there will be less migration to cities. And many people in the Global North believe that if you give investment to the Global South, people won’t migrate northwards. These are flawed, discounted theories, but they commonly underpin approaches to development. 

That’s where initiatives like Roof Over Our Heads can help, by addressing issues from  below, by inviting donors, technical professionals, networks to explore an alternative paradigm together – as equals. Certainly, we need funding in this space, as well as technology. But more than this, we need democratisation to leverage the insights of people who are most motivated to find solutions, women in informal communities should be empowered as agents of change, not passive recipients.

That’s the potential that we see. We know how vulnerable that potential is, because it’s still not mainstream and it makes many people uncomfortable, so we have a long way to go.

How are you working with partners, especially the private sector?

We have been very greatly supported by the Champions Team and the Global Resilience Partnership in providing connections. For the last four to five decades, society has demanded that our duty bearers – from governments, to judicial bodies and security forces – use their authority to protect the poor. We have not sought the support of the private sector. So, we’re learning to develop our arguments and our representation to become good partners to the private sector. Just as we want to be treated as equals, we need to be able to clearly communicate to partners what they can do for us – and the value on the table for them.

Image: The ROOH team from Arup demonstrates the use of discarded plastic bottles as a building material for waterproof, insulated homes. 

So we design that value into the programme for partners. For example, as we speak, young Arup engineers are working together on our India pilot to identify and develop construction solutions that provide structural integrity and resilience, as well as being economical. The beauty of this is that outcomes are co-produced – the community co-creates the construction standards – and the artisans who build houses sit together with the engineers to co-produce the best solutions. We’re all learning to work in a different way.  

What are your key learnings from driving locally-led climate adaptation?

We aren’t doing enough to produce truly locally-led climate solutions in the areas where they  are needed. Most solutions are driven by science, international research, and “big picture” collaborators. We need to look at the meta-level knowledge coming from locally-driven processes to see where those elements can be used to link the top-down with the bottom-up. 

An important ingredient of “locally-led” is to produce an aggregatable quotient. There is not enough focus on the carefully, directly and sensitively-analysed local quotient. If it’s not aggregated, it’s lost. If I introduce one brilliant initiative in a small location, it’s not going to produce impact – unless it’s something amazing. In most cases, steps forward are very humble, they are not spectacular. That’s why the 100 labs concept of Roof Over Our Heads is key – as the demand will be everywhere, not just India, or Kenya, or other places. From our organically evolving process, we realise that there is immense potential at a meta-level to produce ways for the bottom up and the top-down climate solutions to meet in the middle.

Initiating resilience from both sides of the equation is the most critical challenge. We need both the overarching assessment and resources provided by global institutions. Increasingly, we’re seeing evidence that crises created by climate change cost more to local economies than any money that can be thrown at them. To face the climate challenge, we need to turn the logic of the past on its head. 

What makes you optimistic that we can build a fair and resilient world?

You just have to meet a bunch of very poor women, and see their ability to just carry on – and cope, manage and nurture – to make you feel optimistic. We talk about doom and gloom sitting in our comfortable middle class homes. But women in poverty face real doom and gloom every day. Some have had to migrate to cities where they don’t know the language, living in difficult conditions and scavenging to survive. What can they do? They cannot just stop. They have to do something. So, they try out different ways forward. Women like these are thirsty to understand how to do things differently, how they can do better for their families. We can all draw real inspiration from that. 

Also, failure is not an “end of game” situation. We live in a world where we look at success and failure through monetization. If a business closes down, it’s seen as a failure, the CEO is called a failure and that person’s career is finished. But when you look at Silicon Valley software businesses, they proudly wear the badges of their failures – as it shows progression towards success. Often in the development world, when an initiative fails, it’s stopped – rather than adapted.

To solve our problems, I have the basic belief that we should build everybody’s capacity to investigate, explore, understand, and to demand an explanation. That, for me, really represents the democratization of knowledge – not making all of us the consumer of somebody else’s knowledge all the time. I call this the “right to research”, not the kind of research of a university professor – but everyones’ right to investigate, interrogate, reflect, analyze and opine. This right to research should be universalized in today’s day and age. You can’t make poor communities and the general public only the consumers of some esoteric research that has been legitimated by someone on the other side of the globe.

That’s my yardstick. When I come to events either in the development or the climate space, I ask, “Do the communities that are being discussed here have the capacity to do what we have been privileged to do?” “If they had the resources to analyse their own situation, would they have come to the same conclusion as we did?” “And can we work with communities to scale their knowledge on survival in other parts of the world?” 

If the answer to these questions is “yes”, we can jumpstart some very exciting new explorations.

Sheela Patel, Director, Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) 

Sheela Patel is the Director of SPARC, an NGO she founded in 1984, that has been working in alliance with two Community Based Organizations of the urban poor – National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan, active in several cities across India.

She is widely recognised – nationally and internationally – for seeking urgent attention to the issues of urban poverty, housing and infrastructure onto the radar of governments, bilateral and international agencies, foundations and other organizations.

Sheela is a founder amongst many of Slum Dwellers International, a transnational social movement of the urban poor in Asia, Africa and Latin America. She was a Commissioner of the Commission for Adaptation to climate change between 2018-2020 and is currently a trustee of the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED), Global Ambassador for Race to Zero and Race to Resilience, Member of the Club of Rome, and a board member of Climate-KIC. She was awarded the 2023 Lawrence C Nussdorf Urban Leadership Prize by PennIUR.

Watch the interview

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