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Toward negotiated mitigation of landslide risks in informal settlements: reflections from a pilot experience in Medellín, Colombia

Harry Smith, Centre for Environment and Human Settlements, The Urban Institute, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Françoise Coupé, Escuela del Habitat, Facultad de Arquitectura, Universidad Nacional de Colombia Sede Medellín, Medellín, Colombia
Soledad Garcia-Ferrari, Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Helena Rivera, A Small Studio Ltd. | Architecture + Planning Research
Wilmar Edgardo Castro Mera, Escuela del Habitat, Facultad de Arquitectura, Universidad Nacional de Colombia Sede Medellín, Medellín, Colombia


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Urbanization continues to drive informal settlement growth on land exposed to hazards such as landslides, increasing risk among low-income populations. Though technical and social ways of managing landslide risk are known, in developing countries these measures are often difficult to implement because of complex social, economic, political, and institutional reasons. We present the findings from a pilot research project in Medellín, Colombia, which aimed to explore the scope for, and acceptability of, landslide risk-reducing strategies for informal settlements from the community and state perspectives; understand the barriers to landslide risk-reducing strategies; and identify politically and practically viable approaches to such strategies within a wider and more complex context of social and physical risk in the area. Focusing on the latter objective, we compare two forms of community-local government spaces for negotiation that were used during the project (a Cabildo Abierto and a joint local government-community Working Group), applying Fung’s “democratic cube” to their analysis. This helps understand their different nature, but also raises questions about the ability of Fung’s model to address governance arrangements related to so-called informal settlements in the Global South, and the need to revisit this model drawing on context-sensitive approaches and insights on informal governance arrangements from the growing literature on service coproduction. The key conclusions highlight the importance of overcoming the state-community stand-off over land occupation rights in Medellín, which is also found in self-built neighborhoods worldwide, by reorienting the problem away from conventional long-term land use planning issues toward issues of safety in the short and medium term, together with an incremental approach, in opening up opportunities to develop wider negotiated mitigation of landslide risk at a more strategic level involving both community and local government.

Key words

community self-management; coproduction; informal settlements; land use planning; landslide risk management; Latin America; negotiation

Copyright © 2020 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087