Community-led Upgrading for Self-Reliance in South Africa: Integrated Construction and Environmental Management Systems in Informal Settlements

Funded by: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in collaboration with the National Research Foundation (NRF), South Africa (See ESRC press release for more information.)


February 2016 to February 2019


Principal investigator (UK): Dr Maria Christina Georgiadou.
Principal Investigator (South Africa): Dr Claudia Loggia

University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa; University College London, Eco Ltd Solutions

PSI researchers:

Ben Fagan-Watson

Isis Nunez Ferrera

Peter Barbrook-Johnson

Background, summary and aims

For fuller details about this project and latest news, visit the project website:

This project focuses on ‘informal settlements’ in South Africa, which are often characterised by the lack of basic services and infrastructure (e.g. safe sanitation, reliable electricity), poorly performing building materials (e.g. wood, cardboard, metal sheets, mud) without any building plans approved and often on illegally-accessed and hazardous land. The idea that the communities in informal settlements should be involved in improving their homes and neighbourhoods is often discussed in the international development community. However, the tools and processes needed to ensure a successful upgrade of environmental and construction management are poorly understood, and top-down policies used by central and local government in SA have not been successful to date. If communities can improve their neighbourhoods through participatory techniques, enhancing construction skills and using available materials, then there could be local, regional and national environmental, social and economic benefits.

The research will explore the underpinning barriers and enabling drivers for communities to upgrade their informal settlements in SA.  It seeks to establish a network of academics from the UK and South Africa who will collaborate with each other and together with local populations, community organisations, NGOs, local authorities and private companies to co-produce socio-technical knowledge on bottom-up upgrading approaches in informal settlements in South Africa.  The project findings are intended to raise awareness in international policy and practice.

During the course of the project, researchers will focus on informal settlements in Durban and through participatory action-research methodology, produce findings on bottom-up construction and environmental management, with the involvement of the local community.  This will include exploring the potential of closed-loop systems where wastewater generated from the settlements can be reused for agriculture and investigating the processes, partnership models and business models required to ensure resilient infrastructure. 

A key aim of the project is to map the skills developed and enhanced through the ‘self-build’ approach in the Durban settlements and transfer lessons from the UK Government Construction 2025 Strategy.  The final phase will involve the development of an Integrated Collaborative Toolkit, which will take the form of a dynamic decision-making model, which will map potential ways for communities, businesses and policymakers to collaborate.  It will also identify the resources required, skills developed, and the business models created for mobilising private sector involvement and economic growth.