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The link between sustainability and equity was firmly established in the Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future, which included the language “inequality is the planet’s main ‘environmental’ problem”. Following its publication in 1987, significant resources have been dedicated to sustainable development and poverty eradication. These intertwined goals were included in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals and the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals. However the concept of social sustainability—the quality of life and livability of neighborhoods—and social justice are not factored into most solutions. Additionally, while the majority of migrants have flocked to informal settlements on the margins of large cities in search of work and opportunities, the World Bank and NGOs have been focused on rural development, not urban problems. From 1970-2000 only 4 percent of a $60 billion budget was spent on urban development.

To counter this discrepancy, in 1999 the World Bank and UN-HABITAT formed the Cities Alliance to coordinate slum rehabilitation, but multiple factors often converge to stall progress.  Janice E. Perlman documented several challenges in “Fighting Poverty and Environmental Justice in Cities” including: the “three C’s”, corruption, clientelism, and cronyism; the threat of violence and drugs; an anti-urban bias; and the attempt to use one solution for every situation. As described in her 5th principle, “There can be no urban transformation without changing the old incentive system and ‘rules of the game’.” Solving informal settlement problems requires engaging multiple utilities, including housing, water, sanitation, transportation, and notably land entitlements, but coordinating between standalone agencies can be challenging. Finally, informal settlements occur organically and grow exponentially; UN-HABITAT estimated that 70 million new residents are added to informal settlements each year. Even when cities try to address issues they are constantly playing catch-up.

Answers, along with social sustainability and justice, may be found by engaging the community. In an essay that documented a study of English neighborhoods to define the measurements of social sustainability, “Social Acceptability”, found that local government can address some problems with policies, but it takes a bottom-up civic engagement to drive change and define the nuanced needs of the community; this gives the residents a stronger sense of place and commitment to their neighborhood. Residents, including in informal settlements, frequently have ideas to solve their day-to-day problems because they are living in the midst of them. Their needs may be simple, such as public restrooms, access to basic banking and credit, and transportation options to get access to employment, but when people are not given a voice, or actively ignored, they remain part of a growing problem instead of a solution.

Similarly, the perception or real threat of crime can be a deterrent, but ignoring the problem makes it worse. The lack of basic services, access to employment or home ownership reduces options for the residents; crime may become an alternative. Broken Windows theory was introduced in 1982 by social scientists James Q Wilson and George L Kelling, which claimed that reducing quality of life crimes in urban environments deterred serious crimes. In the above mentioned study, the neglected appearance of parks in established neighborhood decreased their likelihood of being used, leaving them deserted and open to criminal activities.

Finally, solutions may be complicated by issues of race and class, but the problems will only compound if left alone. As Rose Molokoane of FED UP (South Africa Federation of the Urban Poor) noted, “If communities are organized, they are a tool to address issues that are giving you [development professionals] double stress.”

Perlman offered several cases to show how progress might be made in address the various needs of informal settlements. One notable project leveraged one solution to solve several overlapping problems. Following a heavy rain in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, in 2010, water swept down the sides of the steep mountains where informal settlements (favelas) had been built. 66 people died, many others lost their shelter, and waste was swept down the hillside to the city below. To reduce the likelihood of a another humanitarian disaster, the city created a climate adaptation plan to plant trees along the mountainsides and hired citizens from the favelas for the work; more than 4 million have been planted as of 2015. The trees provided protection from future landslides, but also improved the air quality of Rio, created a carbon sink, and fruit trees provided sustenance. Additionally by hiring residents from the favelas they provided a source of income and sense of pride in their settlement. Finding work for residents is often difficult because they have no formal address and there is a social stigma attached to living in informal settlements.

A question for discussion is how to continue actively engaging communities and empower them to raise solutions to their needs, which will be different from city to city. Informal settlements do not have a centralized governing mechanism so identifying community leaders may prove difficult. Additionally the residents may be scrambling to eke out a living, which leaves little time for community action. There must be efforts made to organize the informal settlements from within to actively engage them in becoming their own solutions.