Complex Cities of the Global South

Key words: democratisation, governance, [in]formal spatial practices in developing countries, urbanisation in the Global South

The graduation topic Complex Cities of the Global South is dedicated to the study of and the design and planning proposals that tackle urbanisation issues and challenges in the Global South. Our aim is to understand and to propose feasible and realistic planning and design solutions at the regional and local levels that are sustainable, inclusive and embedded in the particular governance contexts that developing countries present. The outputs of Complex Cities of the Global South graduations are strategic plans,  including the design of strategic interventions at area or metropolitan level. An excellent example of student work is to be found HERE. The graduation project, titled ‘An informal frame incorporating social & economic production of space in redevelopment’ was developed by Kritika Sha (India).

Students who investigate the topic Complex Cities of the Global South are welcome to engage with locations of their preference (considering access to information wisely!). We, however, encourage them to consider a particular opportunity that arises for the studio in the 2019-2020 graduation period:

An action plan for the Mediterranean

The Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) is an intergovernmental Euro-Mediterranean organisation that brings together all 28 countries of the European Union and 15 countries of the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean.

The Mediterranean is considered one of the cradles of civilization, as several ancient cultures developed on its shores. Despite the many differences among countries in the region, they share a common heritage and several common challenges. These challenges include, but are not limited to, the climate (including water management), the use of natural resources, the use of the Mediterranean as a trigger for commerce and development, the use of this sea and the countries bordering it as one of the main thorough routes for immigrants  and refugees coming from Africa and the Middle East, etc. All these issues reflect the role of the Mediterranean as a crossroads of civilizations, bringing together Europe, Africa and the Middle-East.

The Union for the Mediterranean has a plan. It wishes to design an Urban Agenda for the Mediterranean, following the example of the New Urban Agenda and the Urban Agenda for the EU, including an action plan for sustainable, fair and inclusive urban development in the region.  The objectives of this urban agenda are to promote integrated, sustainable, resilient, fair and inclusive urban regeneration and development across the Mediterranean region as a means to foster human development, economic prosperity, political stability and overall sustainability.

The Task

TU Delft has been called upon to help coordinate the process of research and writing of this new action plan. One of the underlying objectives is to bring together urbanisation in Europe and the rest of the region.  Students choosing the topic Complex Cities of the Global South are offered the opportunity to:

  • To develop their graduation project in line with the UfM action plan proposal
  • To work collaboratively with mentors on activities leading up to the action plan, including possible workshops and other activities with schools in the region
  • To access resources and stakeholders in cities and regions included in the UfM action plan
  • To develop exemplary projects that will be considered in discussions about sustainable urban development in the region
  • To experience a real-life governance and design project connected to the European Union and its partners in the Mediterranean basin.
  • To contribute with data and evidence gathering, including for example then organisation of a database of schools of planning and design around the Mediterranean.

Key areas of action (possible focus areas)

The key areas of action for integrated urban planning are (these can be used as focus areas in project proposals):

  1. Informal settlements and deprived neighbourhoods as focus points for the creation of inclusive cities and communities
  2. Former brownfields and railway sites as focus points for urban regeneration and area redevelopment
  3. Heritage and tourism as drivers of economic prosperity
  4. Port-cities and their hinterlands as drivers of sustainable economic prosperity

General approaches, other focus areas

To become involved in the above described initiative for an Urban Agenda for the Mediterranean presents a particular opportunity for 2019 – 2020 graduation students. However – and as mentioned above – students can also engage with the topic Complex Cities of the Global South in other parts of the world. In this, they consider the below described principles and issues.

Strategic spatial planning typically involves the proposal of a spatial vision and the formulation of a spatial strategy to achieve that vision. A spatial strategy is typically composed by spatial interventions (spatial designs) and policies that have a spatial and societal impact. The whole must be formulated in processes that include a governance approach – that is, the process must contemplate the relationships between public sector, private sector and civil society and propose new partnerships and solutions.

As other Complex cities graduations, Complex Cities of the Global South graduations are research based. This means that serious academic research takes up quite a lot of our energy and time. Students are encouraged to dedicate the time before their P2 to develop a solid academic base upon which their spatial strategy and  spatial interventions will be built. As a consequence of this, research here means going beyond the critical understanding of processes. Research is done with the purpose to propose feasible solutions in consultation with or with the participation of real world stakeholders. These might include UN-Habitat, the Dutch Ministry of Aid and Development, The Dutch Association of Municipalities (international section), African, Latin American and Asian universities and institutions, The World Urban Campaign and many others.

With the advent of the A is for Africa initiative at BK, this section of the studio has started to devote its attention to Africa and several students have already done work there. The Africa Initiative continues to support students at BK who wish to do research, planning and design in Africa. This part of the studio is also propelled and builds upon the partnership between TU Delft and UN-Habitat and the World Urban Campaign for the teaching of the New Urban Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.


Downtown Addis-Ababa, with the recently inaugurated light rail, 2016. Photo R.R.


Many regions around the world are challenged by explosive urbanisation triggered by rural to urban migration, as people arrive in cities  looking for better lives. Rapidly urbanising regions are at the same time the locus of national projects of industrialisation and modernisation or development. But the effects of these modernisation projects can be problematic at social and environmental levels. Modernisation and development projects need to be reformulated in order to include sustainability and democracy.  This has consequences for how cities are planned and designed. The principle of the ‘right to the city’ includes the right to shape the city and to share the benefits of urban life with fellow urban dwellers, but how to achieve the ‘right to the city’ in places where the most basic services and facilities are lacking?

Complex Cities of the Global South projects explore issues of urbanisation, citizenship, environmental sustainability,  social and economic integration and power under conditions of rapid modernisation and rapid urban growth, often coupled with inadequate governance and  weak institutional capacity. This section of Complex Cities explores how good governance, planning and design can be deployed to promote access to public goods, improve livelihoods and liveability, tackle mobility problems, achieve affordable housing, resolve conflicts over land in terms that recognise the contributions of urban communities and other actors, through sustainable modes of development.


Informal urbanisation in Paraisopolis, one of the largest favelas in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Roberto Rocco.


Urban informality can be defined in many ways and is highly contested. Scholars have identified three schools of thought characterising debates on informal urbanisation: dualist, legalist and structuralist. Despite various critical accounts, a dualistic framework for the study of informality persists. The assumption of formality as the ‘norm’ and informality as an anomaly can still be read in practice and policy. In recent discourses, this binary opposition is being addressed by several authors, forcing a more nuanced understanding of what is “informal”. Here, we see informal urbanisation as intrinsically connected to modernisation and rapid urbanisation processes, but lacking basic features that characterise the formal city, such as land and/or property legal ownership and access to adequate sanitation, for instance.

Pages from INTRO Inclusive city-2

Urbanisation project by Peabiru, one of the leading offices in slum upgrading in the world.

Slum upgrading

Slum upgrading has become an option in many parts of the world, as opposed to strategies of slum eradication. This issue is particularly relevant for Latin America, but is lacking in Africa. Rural migration into cities has largely ceased in most Latin American countries, which have attained unimaginable urbanisation rates in the last few decades (92% in Argentina, 87% in Brazil, 77% in Peru (CIA World Fact Book, 2012). Besides, most countries in Latin America are functioning democracies, while this is not the case in many African countries. Meanwhile, urbanisation in Africa is extremely low (only 20% in Ethiopia, for instance), even though urbanisation rates are among the highest in the world. Many countries in Africa have very low capacity to tackle the problems of explosive urbanisation and planning institutions are weak.

This reprieve in rural influxes and democratisation means that Latin American cities can think ahead and plan how to include informal sectors of cities into some kind of planning system. The question for Latin America seems to be not how to have less planning and governmental control, but rather the contrary: how to develop more effective planning strategies recognising informal urbanisation and seeking to address the challenges and exploit the opportunities it creates.

Projects in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela have shown that, through legalisation, implementation of public facilities and improvement of infrastructure, mobility and accessibility, informal neighbourhoods can become well-functioning parts of the city with decent living standards. In order to achieve this, it is critical to rethink governance approaches to accommodate the social, economic and institutional specificities of informal neighbourhoods and embrace more inclusive and participatory planning practices in order to recognise and integrate the stakeholders from those areas into decision-making processes.

But what about Africa? Can formulas developed in Latin America be transferred to the continent? How to tackle urban development in countries that are both urbanising at record rates and have weak institutional and planning capacity? We are currently building up knowledge and practice that allows us to dialogue with African stakeholders and part of the energy of this studio will be used to organise a big conference in March 2019 titled “African Perspectives on African Urbanisation”.

This part of the studio is also connected to the organisation of the “Confronting Informality” Symposium, which builds upon research being done in this section. More information about the symposium can be found here: https://confrontinginformality.org

Learning Outcomes

At the end of the graduation year, students will be able to

  1. Creatively and critically reflect on and discuss the interrelated nature of urbanisation, democratisation, and socio-cultural transformation;
  2. Critically analyse and reflect on the forces, structures and agents that build, manage, plan, govern and shape cities;
  3. Apply trans-disciplinary approaches to explore ways in which informality can support achievement of the right to the city;
  4. Envision, design and plan desirable and possible futures for rapidly-growing cities in the Global South [in this case the Mediterranean region, which acts as a bridge between Global North and Global South];
  5. Elaborate a sustainable and politically sensitive spatial plan that addresses some of the many issues connected to informal urbanisation (see student work already done)

Relation with research activities

International planning and developing regions: Inclusive Cities graduations are connected to the research line INTERNATIONAL PLANNING AND DEVELOPING REGIONS of the Department of Urbanism of the TU Delft. Graduations help the promotion of development studies at TU Delft and in the Netherlands. They contribute to the acquisition of scholarship and increased knowledge about urbanisation practices in the Global South.

Extra-curricular activities: Research and design on Inclusive Cities will be complemented by extra-curricular activities, such the Urban Thinkers Campus and the Confronting Informality Symposium, both student-led events at TU Delft. and the Confronting Informality Symposium. To know more about the Confronting Informality Symposium, CLICK HERE.

To know more about the organisers, please CLICK HERE.


Core literature

  • UN-Habitat 2014. Practical Guide to Designing, Planning and Implementing Citywide Slum Upgrading Programs. R. Skinner. Nairobi, UN-Habitat. Download
  • UN-Habitat 2012. Streets as Tools for Urban Transformation in Slums: A Street-Led Approach to Citywide Slum Upgrading. B. Banerjee. Nairobi. Download
  • UN-Habitat 2015. World Atlas of Slum Evolution. Nairobi, Un-Habitat. Download
  • UN-Habitat (2014). Construction of more equitable cities: Public policies for inclusion in Latin America. Nairobi, UN-Habitat. Download

Reading recommendation

  • DEVAS, N. 2010. “Does City Governance Matter for the Urban Poor?” International Planning Studies 6(4): 393-408. Here the author discusses what are the consequences of governance-based planning to deprived citizens. Issues of power asymmetry, effectiveness and accountability are discussed. The poor generally don’t have a voice in city development and planners must find ways to make them heard.
  • LARSEN, G. L. 2012. An Inquiry into the Theoretical Basis of Sustainability. Understanding the Social Dimension of Sustainability. J. Dillard, V. Dujon and M. C. King. London, Routledge. This text fundaments the whole discussion in our course. How does an idea of “integral sustainability” (one that includes sustainability’s social, economic and environmental dimensions) help us understand the role of planning and planners in city development?
  • PAPADOPOULOS, Y. 2007. Problems of Democratic Accountability in Network and Multilevel Governance. European Law Journal, 13, 469-486. This text discusses the issues and challenges of governance in planning. In this text, the author discusses concepts of governance and the issues arising from new styles of government and planning that rely on this concept, especially those related to accountability, transparency and democracy.
  • RILEY, E., et al. 2001. “Favela Bairro and a new generation of housing programmes for the urban poor.” Geoforum 32: 521-531. Tools for planning informality. Latin America is a great laboratory for experiments on how to tackle informality. Tools like the Favela Bairro programme are part of a new generation of tools that recognise the rights of informal dwellers.
  • SAUNDERS, D. 2010. Arrival city: how the largest migration in history is reshaping our world, New York, Pantheon Books. This popular book examines the phenomenon of migration in 30 cities and villages on five continents.  It analyses how migration impacts cities, population growth, foreign aid and politics.

Exemplary graduation projects*