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What constitutes a compact and sustainable city?


Politicians and researchers often see compact cities as a solution to many environmental problems. But what exactly needs to be more compact? There is no clear answer to this question. Also, most of this discussion focuses on western cities in rich countries in the global north. This despite the fact that the most rapid urbanization takes place in informal settlements around cities in the global south.

In the new project at GRI, researchers however, takes their starting point in the global south and asks: What does compact and sustainable mean in the context of informal settlements in developing countries?

The purpose is to contribute to a more concrete and useful understanding of which qualities a compact and sustainable city actually consists of, especially in regards to cities in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

– Almost a third of the urban population in the world lives in informal settlement. And almost all of the biggest cities that experience the most rapid urbanization are located in the global south. There is no taken for granted that strategies that might work in the global north can be successfully transferred to other places. There are also downsides to compact cities such as pollution, noise and congestion. In informal settlement access to critical services such as healthcare and sanitation are also poor. Increased density may then cause problems, says researcher Maria José Zapata Campos.

On the other hand, positive effects of increased density may include: more efficient transport, closeness to work and family, and more connections between people.

The researches will conduct field studies in Buenos Aires, Havanna and Cape Town. The goal is to develop a consistent and useful system in order to understand what qualities a compact and sustainable city consist of, understand both driving forces and obstacles to achieving these qualities, as well as developing recommendations how to achieve more sustainable informal settlements. The results of the study will then be applied in an informal settlement in Kisumu, Kenya.

– Informal settlements often consists of one-story buildings, so strategies may include building taller houses in order to both save land and money. In Havana, for instance, people have taken initiative to adapt apartments with high ceilings in old colonial houses to make room for an extra floor. This may create both problems and opportunities. We want to explore and understand what actually works, says Maria José Zapata Campos.

Researchers include: Maria José Zapata Campos at Gothenburg Research Institute (GRI) at School of Business, Economics, Jenny Stenberg and Jaan-Henrik Kain at Chalmers School of Technology, Patrik Zapata at School of Public Administration at University of Gothenburg and Michael Oloko at University of Science and Technology, Kisumu, Kenya.

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Maria José Zapata Campos, associate professor, researcher, +46 31 786 5626,