Decent and Affordable Housing for the Poor

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Urban populations across the South are growing fast: by 2030, some 5 billion people around the world will live in cities. This year will be the first year in which urban dwellers (3.3 billion people) will outnumber rural residents for the first time (UNFPA).

Africa now has a larger urban population than North America and 25 of the world’s fastest growing big cities. Asia and Africa’s cities are growing by an incredible 1 million people a week, with 72 per cent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa living in slum conditions.

How well people dwell is integral to their mental and physical health. Most squatters and slum dwellers – a category that includes half the urban population of Africa, a third in Asia and a fourth in Latin America and the Caribbean – live in makeshift homes made from whatever they can get their hands on. These dwellings are usually unsafe and vulnerable to fire, floods, and earthquakes. On top of this, these sprawling slums can be depressingly grim to look at for those living there.

In Brazil’s Sao Paulo neighbourhood of Heliopolis – the largest of the city’s 400 favelas, or shantytowns – the majority of its dwellings are made from cement and brick. It is stigmatised as the ugliest part of the city, yet a unique initiative has transformed perceptions of the area – and brought pride to its residents. The project offers a model for slum areas looking to make the next leap up the ladder of development. Heliopolis first sprang up in the 1970s, wedged between highways and roads. Plagued by crime, there is a wide spread in incomes and urbanisation among the 120,000 residents packed into the one-and-a-half square mile. Older parts have many services, while newer areas lack basics like plumbing and electricity.

Well-known Sao Paulo-based Brazilian architect Ruy Ohtake ( mobilised the 6,000 residents to use a fixed palette of six colours – from bright yellow to deep purples – to create a look described as akin to an Italian hill town.

“Ohtake told a newspaper that Heliopolis was the ugliest part of the city, so we went to him and asked him to figure out how to make it beautiful,” Geronino Barbosa, director of the Heliopolis community group UNAS, told the design magazine Dwell.

Ohtake, famous for his hotel designs and renovating former colonial areas, rose to the challenge: “I believe in beauty as a social function, so what better way to exercise that belief,” he said. To avoid the initiative feeling like something being imposed from on high, the plan did not go ahead until the residents were happy. And to make sure they felt they owned the results, they did all the painting themselves. The result is a river of colour running through a landscape of dreary, unfinished brick homes jammed between streets and factories. The Italian hill town-effect leaves pedestrians experiencing a surprise as they turn through the streets, happening upon hidden plazas and little bars.

“Our dream is to expand this project to the entire favela,” said Barbosa. “People love their painted houses. One of our participants told me that her house has been transformed into a sort of Carnival parade.”

“Who doesn’t want to live in a beautiful house?” said UNAS’ head, Joao Miranda, to Dwell. “We want the same things as everyone else.”

Another architect has tackled the problem of how to create inexpensive but durable and beautiful homes for the poor. Iranian-born architect Nader Khalili ( has created what he calls ‘super adobe’ dwellings inspired by traditional Iranian rural homes. The cone-shaped homes are made from sandbags piled one on top of the other in a circular pattern. A basic home is three rooms of 400 square feet, and can be built by five people (with only one needing skills), within weeks. Being sandbags, the homes can easily be dismantled and moved or adapted to meet new space needs.

Khalili first fell in love with the sand adobe homes of Iran in the 1970s. He had been on a journey to find a home design that was both environmentally harmonious and could be built anywhere in the world quickly and cheaply. But while the original Iranian sand adobe is easily destroyed by earthquakes and bad weather, the ‘super adobes’ are earthquake, hurricane and flood resistant. They are now being built across the Americas , Asia and Africa.

“You can never build one of these that doesn’t look beautiful,” he said. “Just as you have never seen an ugly tree or an ugly flower.”


  • Builders Without Borders: Is an international network of ecological builders who advocate the use of straw, earth and other local, affordable materials in construction. Website:
  • World Hands Project: An NGO specialising in simple building techniques for the poor. Website:
  • Tsunami-Safe House: A design for Prajnopaya Foundation: a project coordinated by the SENSEable City Laboratory, a new research initiative between the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Website:
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© David South Consulting 2021

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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