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Rethinking urban slums, block by block

Lack of access makes urban slums particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.
ASU part of team developing an open-source tool to combat slums' vulnerability.
Open Reblock invites input from those within slum communities.
January 29, 2016

Open Reblock project to map out way to expand access to services in slum communities, making them more resilient to effects of climate change, natural disasters

In our rapidly urbanizing world, more than a billion people living in slums lack access to essential services, such as water and sanitation, and to emergency response — a situation made even more perilous as climate change is expected to drive more frequent extreme-weather events in the coming decades.

Scientists from Arizona State University and the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), together with Slum Dwellers InternationalSlum Dwellers International is a network of community-based organizations of the urban poor in 33 countries and hundreds of cities and towns worldwide. (SDI), have been selected from hundreds of ideas to tackle an innovation challenge put forth by the Amplify Program: How might urban slum communities become more resilient to the effects of climate change?

For many urban slums, the key to resilience may lie in an integrated development approach called “reblocking.” This is a process by which slum communities physically rearrange themselves to create new streets and public spaces that provide access to every residence and workplace, facilitating the universal introduction of modern services and providing each household with an official address.

“Creating a street network that can facilitate movement within a neighborhood involves much more than simply tearing down structures that are in the way and bulldozing a road. There are social, economic, physical and even cultural considerations that must be integrated into the design of an effective street system,” said José Lobo, a professor in ASU’s School of Sustainability, who co-leads the Slums, Neighborhoods and Human Development Cities project with professor Luís Bettencourt at SFI.

“It is essential to develop a platform that includes both technology and community involvement, so that all of these considerations inform the design of a street network which is itself an essential ingredient for neighborhood development.”

A screenshot of a website with a map of an urban slum.

Natural disasters hit urban
slums, such as Soweto and
(top) Khayelitsha townships
in South Africa, particularly
hard because of lack of
access to basic services.

Photos by Matt-80
and (top) Chell Hill

The ASU-SFI-SDI collaboration is developing its reblocking platform as an open-source tool that will allow residents to re-plan their communities with minimal cost and disturbance. The platform allows users to map buildings, thoroughfares and services within their community and propose new layouts that most efficiently solve the problem of universal access.

“Creating visual digital images for a dialogue within the city and between communities is not a process presently in place,” said SDI chair Sheela Patel. “Enabling slum communities to generate these data, getting internal agreements within their members and presenting it to cities is of great value to the Slum Dwellers International affiliates.”

Users will be able to iterate and edit suggestions to coordinate community and local government objectives. Quantities such as street length and proximity to existing services provide real-time estimates for how much each street plan will cost. The website, (pictured below), includes a beta version of the urban planning tools that the project will now improve through better design and collaboration between slum communities, local governments, researchers and technologists.

“By providing a map that can be iterated to create a well-serviced neighborhood, we ensure that everyone involved is working from a common reference,” said Christa Brelsford, an ASU-SFI postdoctoral fellow who designed the Open Reblock algorithms and is helping develop the platform. She received a PhD from ASU's School of Sustainability.

A screenshot of a website with a map of an urban slum.

With new support from the Global Resilience Partnership as part of the challenge, the project will create a more dynamic and user-centric design that will enable slum communities to easily generate, analyze and edit maps for providing access to each place of work and residence, and in this way set neighborhoods on a path of resilient development, as dictated by local knowledge and needs.

“The science and the algorithms behind Open Reblock allow you to create potential solutions faster and more systematically,” SFI’s Bettencourt said, “which we hope will speed up the process of converging on a great design that will more surely improve the lives of people in the neighborhood — according to their own preferences — and their city. It also provides a new perspective on the street plans of neighborhoods in all cities.”

The Amplify Urban Resilience Challenge will provide funding and design support for innovative solutions. The proposal from the ASU-SFI-SDI collaboration will receive support from the Global Resilience Partnership — which includes the Rockefeller Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

The Urban Resilience Challenge is one of 10 innovation challenges under the Amplify Program that “find and support solutions to some of the world’s most pressing development issues.” The challenges are a collaboration between the international design group, OpenIDEO, and the Department for International Development.

ASU lecture to discuss 'Undocumented Literature on the Mexican-US border'

Robert McKee Irwin lectures as part of Interactions and Interchanges series

January 29, 2016

How do we classify texts produced by undocumented authors who no longer identify as Mexican, yet have no officially recognized status in the United States?

For Mexican-born authors who are legal residents or citizens of the U.S., their writings are usually labelled as American or U.S. Latino literature. If they only temporarily reside in the U.S., their work may be considered Latin American (rather than U.S. Latino) “travel writing.” Robert Irwin Robert Irwin, professor of Spanish at the University of California, Davis. Download Full Image

Robert McKee Irwin will lecture on these issues at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 10, in West Hall Room 135 on the Tempe campus, as part of the Interactions & Interchanges lecture series. His presentation will deal with authors and texts caught in between these categories.

Irwin will focus on "No Documents, No Escape" by Roberto Rangel (in collaboration with Ana Luisa Calvillo), the testimonial narrative of an undocumented Mexican currently incarcerated in California, who was once deported and will undoubtedly be deported again if he is ever released from prison. His narrative suggests that the politics of border control have produced a multiplicity of borders that places the most vulnerable into an abyss located between two nations, shutting them out of both.

Irwin is professor of Spanish at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of  "Mexican Masculinities" (2003), and "Bandits, Captives, Heroines and Saints: Cultural Icons of Mexico’s Northwest Borderlands" (2007), which was awarded the Thomas J. Lyon award for Best Critical Book in Western American Cultural Studies by the Western Literary Association.

Irwin is principal investigator for the Sexualidades Campesinas digital storytelling project and co-principal investigator of UC Davis’s Mellon Initiative in Comparative Border Studies: Rights, Containment, Protest. He is working on a project focused on the personal expressions and public images of Mexican emigrants to the United States who fail to become Mexican American.

The event is free and open to the public, but RSVPs are recommended. For more information, see the event webpage.

This event is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and the Department of English. The Interactions and Interchanges speaker series was developed in conjunction with a grant from the U.S. State Department for a project on “Globalizing Research and Teaching of American Literature,” a university partnership between Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore, Pakistan and ASU.
The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict is an interdisciplinary research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that examines the role of religion as a driving force in human affairs.

Terry Williams

Communication and events coordinatior, Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict