Enacting Building Codes And Regulations

Building bye-laws and zoning regulations effect slum dwellers and poor communities in five major ways.

1. The Upgrading Process

In many cases city-wide building bye-laws and zoning regulations are used for the upgrading process of slums. The standard of these bye-laws and regulations is far too high as a result of which a large number of homes have to be demolished and relocated, often far from the places of work of the affectees.

One of the major issues is the width of the roads which communities consider to be excessive.  The reasons given for these widths are that they facilitate fire and health related emergency services. There is a need for a review of these regulations and standards for people have coped rather well with lower standards in slums, sometimes for well over three generations without being adversely affected.

Similarly, the imposition of regulations related to density and open spaces also adversely affects communities in the upgrading process. The integration of open spaces and pedestrianised streets (or streets not having any through traffic in them) can overcome the problem of open spaces considerably. As it is poor communities in slums use streets as places for social gatherings and recreation.

In many regulations settlements that are in ecologically “dangerous” zones are not earmarked for upgrading and regularisation. A sizeable minority of poor communities live in such zones, most of which are “dangerous” because they are prone in flooding. However, experience has shown that once such settlements have been removed, the area is made safe by the building of embankments after which it is utilised for middle or high income housing. It is therefore important that only those settlements should not be upgraded which cannot be made “safe” through the building of required infrastructure.

It has also been observed that funds for upgrading are better utilised by the communities themselves. Funds managed by the communities produce far cheaper projects, better quality work and are implemented over a shorter period of time than contractor managed projects. They also bind communities together and help in their empowerment.

2. Planning of Low Income Settlements

In the planning of low income settlements as well, the road infrastructure is excessively wide making the cost of land and infrastructure unaffordable to poor communities. Building bye-laws and zoning regulations are invariably made to accommodate the automobile and since there are few automobiles in low income settlements such roads do not serve much purpose but adversely affect community social life and gatherings.

In many countries, building bye-laws and planning regulations also specify the minimum size of a plot of land/housing unit. In many cases, this is also excessive and makes housing unaffordable for a sizeable number of poor communities. Studies have shown that poor communities can live comfortably in far smaller plots/houses provided they are laid out in a informal manner in cluster form.

Building bye-laws for new settlements specify materials and forms of construction that the poor cannot afford. As a result of which they are violated and to prevent demolition or fines due to these violations, poor communities have to pay bribes to building inspectors of local governments.

The building bye-laws and zoning regulations do not create communities around clusters, infrastructure and shared open spaces. In many countries, communities invest in neighbourhood infrastructure development for which they form organisations. Appropriate planning could encourage this process which would not only help in developing community provided infrastructure but also community organisations and cohesiveness.

Most building bye-laws and zoning regulations promote the concept of segregated land-use, however, poor households often set-up shops and work places within their homes. Much of this economic activity is in the informal sector even if it serves formal sector enterprises. In the absence of affordable options this is the only means by which a majority of slum dwellers can make a livelihood. Again, the violation of segregated landuse bye-laws and regulations makes poor communities vulnerable to corruption or police violence. It is therefore necessary to plan mixed landuse low income settlements and promote investment and programmes in them for economically productive activities and for the development of skills. These programmes should be seen as an integral part of the physical planning process.

3. City Level Bye-laws and Regulations

City planning bye-laws and zoning regulations in the South are mainly derived from the First World experience. As such, they are anti-pedestrian, anti-street, anti-dissolved space and anti-mixed landuse – all the things that low income settlements are and which are in keeping with the culture and sociology of low income groups. In addition, the city is planned primarily for the automobile and not for the pedestrian and commuter. It is necessary to focus on the needs of the pedestrian and commuter population in the cities of the South and to develop bye-laws and regulations that cater to their needs, security, comfort and economic activity.

In planning middle or higher income settlements, the needs of the lower income communities that serve these settlements is seldom catered to. Housing for them is not made available and nor is space made available for hawkers and small retail outlets that eventually crop up in the open spaces and/or streets in these settlements and which eventually have to cater to corruption or to be removed.

4. Procedures

Procedures for regularisation and upgrading of slums and/or for the acquisition of land for housing are long and cumbersome and require that the poor are viewed with suspicion and hostility by officialdom. Often they involve visiting a number of government offices, often far away from each other, and considerable expense in paper work and official and unofficial payments. This means a loss of time and in the process wages as well. This problem has been overcome in many programmes by making the entire documentation and financial process a one-window affair by locating government functionaries in the evening (when people come back from work) on the upgrading or building site. Thus instead of people going to officialdom, officialdom comes to the people.

Building bye-laws for new construction should support the incremental building process through which poor households build their homes overtime. There should be maximum flexibility in the regulations to allow any use of materials provided the structure is not dangerous and has sufficient light, air and sanitation and water facilities which too can be acquired overtime.

5. Evictions

Most evictions occur due to the land hunger of a power nexus between politicians, developers and bureaucrats. They make use of the fact that many anti-eviction decrees and laws are incomplete and are not supported by appropriate procedures. If such procedures could be put in place, they would help in reducing evictions considerably and strengthen the legal position of slum dwellers.

Evictions also occur due to badly conceived rehabilitation projects and mega infrastructure projects, often funded by international funding institutions. Criteria for judging these projects need to be developed along with laws, rules and regulations for implementing the criteria through a process of public hearings and involvement of communities and academia.

The eviction of hawkers in many cities of the South has become a serious issue which is adversely affecting the lives of tens of thousands of families. Research has shown that these hawkers can be rehabilitated without adverse environmental repercussions in pedestrianised streets in the same locations where they operate from today. Local governments will benefit enormously from this process. Principles for such rehabilitation followed by rules and regulations need to be established.


  • Bye-laws and zoning regulations have to be developed for the upgrading process which are based on the sociology, economics and culture of the communities living in them. For this a participatory research into the living conditions in low income settlements is required.
  • Planning of new low income settlements has to establish an optimum relationship between resources (financial, manpower, land), standards and immediate requirements and understand that all three are dynamic and will change overtime. Physical planning should be carried out in a manner that can cater to this possible change – only then it be affordable to the residents and governments.
  • Procedures for regularisation and upgrading and acquisition of new land/housing units should be compatible with the culture of low income households and should aim at overcoming the constraints they face in the process even if this means making changes in the manner in which officialdom currently functions.
  • City level planning should be pro-street, pro-pedestrian, pro-dissolved space, pro-mixed landuse and anti-eviction.
  • The above recommendations can only be developed and implemented if there are appropriately trained professionals who can carry out the required research and turn it into appropriate bye-laws and zoning regulations and develop the tools to make them operational.  For such professionals to be created, a major change in the curriculum of planning, architecture, engineering, legal and medical professions is required.

One Comment

  1. Excellent article, you know I am planning to meet you soon, Javaid A Khan.

    Posted January 10, 2023 at 11:38 am | PermalinkReply

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