Reflections: Residents of informal settlements & the right to the city

Blog Post by Christine Stenton, Monitoring & Evaluation Intern

Years after fleeing Uganda’s brutal civil war in the North and trying to settle into Kampala’s Nakawa district, members of the Needy Support Center continuously struggle to access urban land and space. As residents of informal settlements, they are struggling for the right to the city – to remain within urban space, access urban services, and protect their rights as citizens. In practice, there is no real acknowledgement of the housing rights of residents of informal settlements or their right to the city; this leaves them vulnerable to forced evictions and displacements once public land gets sold to private developers for a higher profit. Urban centers like Kampala are increasingly driven by economic competitiveness at the expense of poverty reduction initiatives or affordable housing alternatives. In this way, citizens’ access to public spaces and urban land are increasingly contingent on peoples’ ability to pay for it. As a result, residents of informal settlements are often forced to relocate to the periphery of the city on peri-urban land where access to public services, infrastructure and economic opportunities are limited. These human rights issues intersect with the HIV/AIDS epidemic and it affects the responses of CBOs on the ground and their attempts to stop new transmissions, raise awareness, provide care for those already affected, and to fight stigma within marginalized communities. Citizens are being displaced from the spaces where the responses on the ground are taking place, and progress from community development efforts are being squandered.

There are many ways in which community development and group mobilizing are affected when residents of informal settlements get displaced; the experiences of one of CAP-AIDS Uganda’s local CBO partners – the Needy Support Center – speaks to these struggles. The challenges that NSC is currently facing as an organization are directly impacted by their inability to secure tenure and access urban space. As a result, it is difficult for members to attend meetings regularly since they are now scattered around the Nakawa district area and are burdened by the cost of transportation to reach the organization’s headquarters. This also affects the ability of NSC members to act as caregivers to HIV+ members in the community; when more travel is involved it limits the frequency of their visits and their ability to effectively monitor the health and well-being of people in their care.



The lack of social welfare or social safety nets available for Ugandan citizens perpetuates the need for informal settlements. When these urban spaces are sold to investors or developers, they forcibly evict the marginalized people occupying them. This approach of “bulldozing” informal settlements does nothing to address the underlying issues involved in their perpetuation and ends up exacerbating the problem. These residents – now in a more vulnerable position after being uprooted from their homes, communities, social networks and economic activities – become forced to find alternative informal settlements to occupy.

Definitions of citizenship become important when discussing human rights and peoples’ right to the city, particularly when it comes to vulnerable and marginalized communities who may not hold formal ownership or tenure of the land and space they occupy. Henry Lefebvre defines citizenship based on inhabitance as opposed to acquiring or possessing formal citizenship status. Thus, regardless of whether or not the state has awarded people with official recognition of their formal citizenship, those who inhabit the city have a right to the city. The concept of ‘the right to the city’ involves both the right to appropriate urban space (i.e. the right to use and access urban space) and the right to meaningful participation (i.e. the right to be involved in decision-making regarding the production of urban space at any scale). The exclusion of residents of informal settlements from urban planning and policy decision-making becomes clear when these plans and developments infringe on the land and spaces that these residents occupy and forces them to leave. It is important that we reconstruct our notions of rights and citizenship to include and accommodate marginalized communities since peoples’ access to urban space and public services should be based on peoples’ humanity and not their economic status.

There is also a gender dimension to this issue because of the differentiated ways that women experience urban space; security factors into the way women experience space within informal settlements in a way that is often different than the experiences of men. For this reason, the proposal for a charter for Women’s Right to the City calls for women’s groups/organization’s to be consulted when formulating public policy and the physical planning of the city (i.e. infrastructure, services, security, housing projects and public spaces).


The women of NSC fulfill their roles as caregivers and breadwinners in face of significant physical and economic insecurities. Pushing for governments (like the Ugandan government) to ensure that urban policies will consider the needs of residents of informal settlements can open up possibilities for alleviating some of the struggles they face in accessing, navigating and remaining within urban spaces.

Project planning meeting at NSC headquarters in Nakawa with members


More advocacy is needed to make sure that the voices of residents of informal settlements who are struggling for the right to the city – like NSC members in Nakawa – are heard!

To learn more about organizations advocating on behalf of residents of informal settlements you can visit Amnesty International’s website: or look into COHRE: the Center for Housing Rights and Evictions at

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