Solar power for better water.

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My latest article for urb.im looks at how solar technology could help in providing access to potable water for poor communities in Lilongwe. Regulations may however stand in the way of expansion of the initiative.

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Make your own metro.

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Think you can develop a system that transports 2,000 passengers in St Petersburg over 73 days? It took some training, but last night I was immensely pleased with myself for breaking the 2,000 passenger mark for the metro system I’d built for the city. The occasion was (yet another) evening spent playing Mini Metro, a seriously addictive strategy simulation game where you design a subway system to transport the growing population of a global city.

There’s a simple beauty to the game: all you need to do is connect stations to enable passengers to travel from where they are to where they need to be, from triangle to square, circle to teardrop. It’s straightforward premise, but soon gets complicated: as passenger numbers rise, you run out of tunnels and bridges to cross rivers, you don’t have enough lines and carriages, and that pesky new hospital decided to open up right at the outskirts of your system making transportation there a total hassle. In the end, a station overcrowds and you die. Game over. But thankfully, you can start again. And trust me, you will.

It’s been years since I’ve played anything but a bubble bursting game on my phone, so I’m by no means a regular video gamer and do not aspire to be one. My love affair (ok, fine, addiction) with Mini Metro arises from that it focuses on a topic I’m interested in – public urban transport – and thereby allows me to play the game whilst pretending I’m doing it for ‘educational purposes’. In short, it’s the perfect game for an urbanist in denial about the joy they experience playing video games.

The game is still undergoing development, but available for purchase in Early Access for US$6.99. For the sake of my general productivity, I hope the developers never come out with a mobile version.

On homes in Lilongwe.

This post features edited excerpts from my recent report Survey of Urban Poor Settlements in Lilongwe, produced by ActionAid Malawi and the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network.

Semi-permanent housing in Mtandire settlement

Semi-permanent housing in Mtandire settlement

Our survey looked at both types of housing in the 33 featured settlements, as well as attempted to get a sense of the prevalence of renters vs owners. The findings are outlined below.

The 2008 Population and Housing Census of Malawi divides house types in the country into the following categories:

Permanent – Roof made of iron sheets, tiles, concrete or asbestos, and walls made of burnt bricks, concrete or stones. These include caravans and tinned structures.

Semi-permanent – Lacking construction materials of a permanent structure for wall or roof. These are structures, which are built of non-permanent walls such as sun-dried bricks or non-permanent roofing materials such as thatch.

Traditional – Both thatched roof and mud walls.

We assessed the most prevalent type of housing through observation during a transect walk in each settlement. The majority (52%) of settlements featured a combination of permanent and semi-permanent housing, while housing in 45% of settlements was predominantly semi-permanent. In only one settlement, Sector 7, was housing found to be predominantly permanent; the majority of houses in the settlement were built as part of a home construction project operated by Habitat for Humanity. No settlement featured predominantly traditional type housing.

While homes built using sun-burnt bricks usually made on site represent an easy and affordable means of accessing housing for the urban poor, the practice raises both environmental and safety concerns. Respondents in many settlements stated that semi-permanent houses regularly collapse during the rainy season, which in some cases has resulted in deaths. Use of the open ground for house construction also contributes to soil erosion in the settlements.

Bricks drying in the sun in Area 23 settlement

Bricks drying in the sun in Area 23 settlement

On the issue of home ownership, we found that residents are divided between home owners and tenants in 30 of the settlements surveyed. In the majority (64%) of settlements with tenants, over 50% of the population is estimated to rent their homes. The percentage of renters is estimated to be over 80% in four settlements, Chinsapo, Mchesi, Mwenyekondo, and Mgona. The below figure shows the number of settlements with the indicated percentage of renters:

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There are no renters in three of the settlements surveyed, Lundu, Mbangulu, and M’bwetu. All three are categorized as Rural and are located at the fringes of the city. Indeed, data analysis indicates that Rural settlements are on the whole five to eight times less likely to have renters than other types of settlements; for example, settlements categorized as Urban are 8.8 times more likely to have renters than Rural settlements (CI of 3.5 to 24.2, p of < 0.001).

Average monthly rent is 2,725 Malawi kwacha in the settlements where tenants are present. Data analysis shows that average monthly rents are around 2,000 Malawi kwacha higher in settlements defined as planned compared to unplanned settlements (CI of + 500 to + 3000 MKW and p of 0.002).

Rental housing in Area 22

Lilongwe: Ain’t no water where she’s from.

This post features edited excerpts from my recent report Survey of Urban Poor Settlements in Lilongwe, produced by ActionAid Malawi and the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network.

Water for sale from a private tap in Makatani settlement

Water for sale from a private tap in Makatani settlement

Accessing water is a pervasive problem for the poor in Lilongwe. In our survey of 33 settlements, almost half indicated that is a common challenge. This is despite 85% of the settlements surveyed having access to water from the Lilongwe Water Board (LWB). Only five settlements have no access, and they are all typified as Rural, and located nearby each other in Areas 25 and 55 in the city’s north.

The below chart indicates the most common means of accessing water in all communities surveyed. While the most common ways of accessing water are through taps, water kiosks, and wells, rivers are also used for accessing water in 36% of settlements. That residents access water from sources other than LWB taps or water kiosks reflects both a lack of willingness and ability to pay for potable water, as well as challenges accessing LWB water due to a limited number of water kiosks, the cost of a private tap, and low water pressure meaning potable water is not readily available.

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Twenty-two of the settlements access water through water kiosks. Excluding Chigwirizano as an outlier , the average cost of 20L of water from a water kiosk in the remaining 21 settlements is 10 Malawi kwacha. Eleven of these settlements have Water Users’ Associations (WUA), cooperative societies where communities establish a legal business entity and register it with the Government to operate all water facilities in a designated area. There is however no statistically significant difference in the cost of water between settlements with and settlements without a WUA.

Residents in Kasengere settlement regularly resort to using river water, even in the wet season

Residents in Kasengere settlement regularly resort to using river water, even in the wet season

Lilongwe: Fear in the dark.

This post features edited excerpts from my recent report Survey of Urban Poor Settlements in Lilongwe, produced by ActionAid Malawi and the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network.

Residents don't trust each other in the dense settlement of Mwenyekondo

Residents don’t trust each other in the dense settlement of Mwenyekondo

To get a sense of the level of social capital in the 33 settlements surveyed, we asked respondents about feelings of safety and trust. As the below data shows, while levels of trust are relatively high, the sense of safety in most settlements varies considerably between day- and night-time. In essence, come sundown, you’d better be home.

Respondents were asked to rate how safe they feel in the settlement as well as the extent to which residents trust each other to assess the level of social capital in the settlements. As the below chart indicates, levels of trust are high in the majority (76%) of the settlements – only five settlements indicated low levels of trust. Four out of the five settlements with low trust levels between residents, Mwenyekondo, Mtsiriza, Mtandire, and Tumbwe, are characterized as relatively dense with high a percentage of renters, which may partly account for the lack of trust.

trust level

The sense of safety in the settlements surveyed is starkly divided between day- and night-time. While respondents in most settlements stated they felt safe during the day, they also indicated that they felt unsafe during the night. As a result, the sense of safety in 58% of the settlements is moderate. It is of note however that the sense of safety is low in almost a quarter of the settlements surveyed; 58% of settlements also cite crime as a problem.

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Eighty-five percent of settlements indicated that they have good relationships with neighbouring settlements. Many respondents highlighted funerals as common occasions when residents in neighbouring settlements come together to support each other.

Can the poor stay put in Lilongwe?

This post features edited excerpts from my recent report Survey of Urban Poor Settlements in Lilongwe, produced by ActionAid Malawi and the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network.

Chatata settlement in Lilongwe has been earmarked for eviction due to planned expansion of the Kanengo industrial area

Chatata settlement in Lilongwe has been earmarked for eviction due to planned expansion of the Kanengo industrial area

Forced eviction of the urban poor is common across the world. Urban growth leads to land in cities becoming increasingly scarce and desirable, while the powers that be are in many countries keen to lease or sell it (legally or illegally) to the highest bidder. That’s seldom the urban poor, who instead get squeezed out of the city. As the below data shows, evictions are not yet a major concern in Lilongwe, but the combination of insecure tenure and strong urban growth means that unless action is taken now, they could very well loom in the not too distant future.

In our survey of 33 poor settlements, respondents were asked whether ‘none’, ‘some’, or ‘most’ residents in the settlement have tenure security documentation in the form of either land title deeds or land registration. The majority (53%) of settlements indicated that none of the residents have tenure security documentation, while a quarter indicated that most residents have either land titles or land registration.

Whether or not residents have tenure security documentation is strongly correlated with who is perceived to own the land. Data analysis shows that residents in settlements where land is owned by the City Council are 19.6 times more likely to have tenure security documentation than residents in settlements where land is held customarily (CI of 4.1 to 183.8 and p of 0.003). Similarly, residents in settlements where Chiefs do not allocate or sell land are 7.5 times more likely to have tenure security documentation than residents in settlements where Chiefs allocate or sell land (CI of 2.0 to 33.41 and p of 0.007).

Based on a transect walk around each settlement combined with verification using satellite imagery, it was determined whether a settlement was planned or not. Twenty-seven percent of settlements were determined to be planned, while 9% are partly planned. The majority (64%) of the settlements surveyed are unplanned.

planned

Residents of unplanned settlements are less likely to have tenure security documentation. Data analysis shows that residents in partially planned settlements compared to unplanned ones are on average 14.8 times more likely to have tenure security documentation (CI of 1.9 to 177.3, p of 0.021); the likelihood rises to 25.9 when comparing fully planned settlements to unplanned ones (CI of 5.7 to 156.5, p of < 0.001).

As shown in the below chart, the majority (52%) of settlements report no fear of eviction or actual eviction threats, regardless of the availability of documentation.

eviction threat

Of those under threat of eviction or perceived to be under threat, only two settlements, Chatata and Federation, rated their eviction threat level as ‘high’. 38% of the settlements rated their threat level as ‘moderate’, while 50% rated it as ‘low’. The below pie chart indicates the perceived level of eviction threat:

level of eviction threat

The majority (69%) of settlements with some level of eviction threat stated that the source of the threat was a rumour. Residents in many settlements recall evictions in the 1970s (some even refused to relocate at the time) and are concerned they may be moved given the current rate of growth of the city. Five settlements have more substantive reasons to fear eviction: Mgona and Area 50 Proper cited railway development as the cause for eviction threats; Chatata cited industrial expansion and previous eviction notices from local authorities; Kaondo cited verbal threats by the authorities; while Federation shared foreclosure notices issued by a local NGO.

Homeowners in Federation settlement have received foreclosure notices alleging failure to repay home loans

Homeowners in Federation settlement have received foreclosure notices alleging failure to repay home loans

Tram museum joys.

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Stumbled upon the Tram Museum in Helsinki today whilst doing my Christmas shopping. Located in the city’s oldest tram depot in Töölö, which today also houses the Korjaamo Culture Factory, the museum tells visitors about the history of trams in Helsinki (and trams are very Helsinki) while also showcasing several trams from mainly from the 20th century.

Introduced in 1891, trams in the city were initially horse-drawn. By 1900, however, electric-powered trams were already in operation. During the war in the 1940s use of trams by city residents sky-rocketed, and while usage numbers have since gone down, they remain a beloved mode of transportation in the city.

Today, Helsinki has 13 tram lines (though only nine of these are considered actual lines) crossing the city centre on some 85km of track. There are also special trams, such as the much-loved SpåraKOFF, a 1959 tram repurposed into a pub that operates during the summer.

So if you’re a transportation buff and in Helsinki, head to the Tram Museum. The exhibition is short and sweet, and also great for kids who can freely roam around the trams. And best of all, like all museums operated by Helsinki City, entry is always free.

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