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Insight from "COVID-19 Challenges and Responses in Informal Settlements"
4 June, 2020

The webinar was initiated and hosted by Luisa Bravo (City Space Architecture/Journal of Public Space), Hendrik Tieben (Chinese University of Hong Kong) and Gregor H. Mews, (Queensland University of Technology / Urban Synergies Group), part of the series “2020: A Year without Public Space under the COVID19 Pandemic”. This webinar looked specifically at challenges and responses in informal settlements with first-hand experiences from scholars, non-governmental organizations and activists in India, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, and Uganda.


Greg opened the conversation by highlighting the significance of the topic of COVID-19 response in cities and crowded areas, which accounted for most of the infection cases and introducing the concept of urban loveability, essentiality constituting social capital, collective efficacy, subjective well being, space interventions to create meaningful human existence.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” - Jane Jacobs

CEO, Dreamtown, Copenhagen, Denmark
Rasmus Bering

By improving public space, Dreamtown empowers youth in an array of soft skills in Africa. Over 60% of urban Africa live in informal settlements, and most confirmed COVID-19 cases took place in capital Sierra Leone in the area Western Area Urban (Freetown), revealing challenges include 1) awareness building, 2) access to sanitation and health, 3) livelihood support to meet basic needs, 4) gender-based violence and teenage pregnancies as both skyrocketed when schools closed. Rasmus thinks that public space can be part of the solution. 


Dreamtown created over 20 safe public spaces with Urban Synergies Group in Freetown over the past two years with the intention to create cool hang out youth centres and creative hubs for the communities. These spaces turned out to be important resources during the current crisis, serving as access into communities, safe gathering places for young girls, distribution points for water, sanitizers, and education, and a safe place away from violence and to report crime. Dreamtown also created parks, urban gardens, and green spaces in Kampala in Uganda, intended to create vibrancy in slums. Amazingly, this has become a source of livelihood, satisfying basic needs for food during COVID-19. These two short but powerful examples showed how essential spatial access is during emergency, and the essence of multi-purpose spaces that allow flexible adaptations. Rasmus concluded by raising the concept of public space as nexus Space, where public spaces both can have a function in times of development, but also can have a function in times of humanitarian crisis.

Here we are talking about a year without public space, but for us it’s really a year with public space where we see the power of space.

KTS Photo_Profile.jpg
KT Suresh
National Lead Policy & Campaigns (Urban & Labour), Action Aid India

Action Aid has been working tirelessly during the national lockdown in India via relief operations in 25 state provinces, reaching out to 3 million people on a day-to-day basis, and completed a national survey of over 11,500 people in transit. The 100 million internal migrants were hit worst by the lockdown. They suffered starvation, road accidents, fatigue as they travelled back to their villages, which are at least 500 km of walk. This fleeing illustrated the stark difference in social class within the country. Heavily policed bus terminals and state boundaries, and occasional violence showed the gravity and cruelty of the migrants, creating the ‘one of the most harrowing experiences since the time the country went through partition’. 


These labour drains that are taking place in large cities are causing huge changes in nature in informality and living spaces, which require a new order in the city. Migrants were abandoned at the first sight of trouble. One survey also revealed that on average, 10 people shared a room in the city, making it impossible to execute social distancing. The COVID-19 crisis is unmasking the problem at a gigantic level, this demands of us an imagination of how we look at informal settlements at a scale that we have never dealt with before.

The experience of those who are the city makers, the ones who actually build the cities, the ones whose labour contributes to the making of the economic model, their experience of the city is one of  abandonment.

Josephine Malonza
Lecturer, University of Rwanda, Kigali, Rwanda

Josephine introduced the concept of human centered design process which highlights 5 important steps: Empathy, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test, stressing the particular importance to revisit the community after the design is completed. Such a process is only successful if we pay attention to the following: context (go beyond location and assumptions), empathetic (a deep understanding of current and future needs and motivations), collaborative, optimistic, experimental, effective collaborations. Josephine further shared inspirations:

  • Be confident that we are all designers because we are strategically creating solutions to respond to community needs;

  • Be comfortable to learn and unlearn; 

  • Get out there and step out of comfort zone;

  • Be optimistic and see problems as opportunities.


Human centered design process is a combination of desirability, feasibility and viability. Josephine concluded with Jan Gehl’s quote “First life, then space, then buildings. The other way around never works.” 

Tatenda Churu (Head of Program) & Casper Chigama (Executive Director)
House of Art Association, Harare, Zimbabwe

House of Art Association works with four pillars - innovations, advocacy, education, diversity, through all types of art, it promotes development within the communities in Harare, Zimbabwe. Casper explained the difficulty of maintaining social distancing and reducing movement for slum communities since there are no governmental relief funds and measures, which means that people living in the settlements still need to work in the informal sector to make ends meet. COVID-19 also means a huge gap in public transportation, informal workers and essential service providers spend hours waiting to get transportation every day. 

Tatenda listed other major challenges such as lack of sanitation infrastructure, water, protective equipment and poor resources allocation. The House of Art Association tries to adapt to the current situation and contribute via art, for instance, using graffiti and social media to spread the message, to build awareness and educate informal settlers on how the disease spreads. The aim is to create a new culture that fosters preparedness for other common diseases in crowded environments like cholera. Tatenda acutely pointed out the irony of how only community-driven public spaces work during COVID-19 when governmental ones are all closed, she further stressed the importance of public space during emergencies like this.

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