Enhancing Safety through Upgrading – Experiences from Cape Town

Enhancing Safety through Upgrading – Experiences from Cape Town – Blog

Violence and crime are spatially distributed with violent crime often concentrated in poorer, underdeveloped urban areas - such as this informal settlements in Khayelitsha, Cape Town

Violence and crime are spatially distributed with violent crime often concentrated in poorer, underdeveloped urban areas - such as this informal settlements in Khayelitsha, Cape Town

Improving safety is a key outcome of the South African policy on upgrading informal settlements. Yet little is known about the impact urban upgrading has on improving safety and reducing violence in these settlements.

In this article, Mercy Brown-Luthango from the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town shares preliminary findings from a research project that looks at the effectiveness of different urban upgrading approaches with regards to safety.


Safety is an issue which occupies the minds of most South Africans on a daily basis. South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world with a death rate of 157.8 per 100 000 population which is considerably higher than the average rate of 139.5 per 100 000 population for the African continent and nearly double the global average of 86.9 per 100 000 population [1].

Violence and crime are spatially distributed with violent crime often concentrated in poorer, underdeveloped parts of the city. The relationship between violence and the nature and quality of the physical environment is well acknowledged.

Safety needs to be priority of urban upgrading – not a coincidence

A research report released by the World Bank in 2010 on violence in cities argues that the physical attributes of poor living environments in the form of inadequate infrastructure and services do not only create opportunities for violence, but can also heighten frustration and a sense of exclusion which might find expression in violent acts [2].

A 2011 UN Habitat report “Building Urban Safety through Slum Upgrading” [3] argues that informal settlement dwellers are more vulnerable to crime and violence and are often the main victims and perpetrators of violent crime. The physical upgrading of informal settlements is proposed as a tool to improve the quality of life of residents and to address growing violence and insecurity in such settlements.

The report further states that violence prevention and improving the safety of informal settlement dwellers should be one of the most important priorities of an upgrading intervention rather than just an “incidental consequence” of upgrading projects. Yet globally, only very few cities have a coherent and focused violence prevention strategy as part of their urban upgrading programmes. Even in cases where improvements in safety have been observed, this has been an unexpected outcome of the programme.

Assessing the impact of urban settlement upgrading on safety

In Khayelitsha, respondents felt safer thanks to ECD projects - but the lack of sanitation facilities caused anxiety over the safety of women and children.

South African upgrading policy clearly identifies the improvement of health and safety as an important outcome of an upgrading intervention. However, it is not clear whether departments responsible for upgrading of informal settlements systematically monitor the achievement of these outcomes. Little is also known about the impact and effectiveness of different upgrading approaches in terms of violence reduction and improvement of safety.

Given the gaps in the knowledge base regarding upgrading and its relationship to safety, a study currently being conducted by the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town is trying to assess the effectiveness of upgrading of informal settlements as a tool to improve safety and to compare the violence reduction and safety outcomes in different types of upgrading projects.

Three types of upgrading projects have thus far been studied. These include:

  1. An informal settlement in Mitchell’s Plain which was upgraded into formal housing, through a roll-over type upgrading, using the People’s Housing Process (PHP).
  2. An informal settlement in Philippi which was upgraded using a re-blocking approach which involved the spatial re-configuration of the site and structures to enable the provision of infrastructure and services like electricity and sanitation.
  3. An informal settlement in Khayelitsha, currently undergoing an upgrading process as part of the Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) programme. The VPUU programme has a specific focus on violence prevention and the improvement of safety through an approach which centers on the integration of situational, social and institutional crime prevention.

What is urban upgrading – and how do residents perceive it?

Mapping crime hotspots in Mitchell's Plain: Upgrading measures had little impact on the high levels of gang violence in the township.
Narrow paths and flammable materials raise fears of fires in Philippi township. Re-blocking measures and fire-resistant materials promoted safety.

Upgrading is defined as a process aimed at improving the physical, social, economic, organizational, and environmental conditions of residents through the provision of infrastructure, services and tenure security.

South African upgrading policy advocates a 4-phased approach to upgrading with the first three phases committed to the preparation and delivery of services and infrastructure as well as tenure security. The final phase, which might or might not form part of an upgrading intervention, involves the delivery of formal houses.

As far as residents’ perceptions of the improvement in safety after the upgrading intervention is concerned, the study revealed quite interesting results from all three settlements.

In Mitchell’s Plain residents felt no real improvement in the levels of violence in their settlement since it has been upgraded. The majority of resident felt unsafe in the settlement due to high levels of gang violence linked to high levels of unemployment and drug abuse.

They felt quite ambiguous about their safety within the home. For some their home provided a refuge from gang violence outside whereas others felt unsafe in their homes due to the poor structural quality of the housing product. However, many respondents lamented the loss of neighbourliness and solidarity after the upgrading project, which some attributed to the receipt of the formal house.

“You feel protected with your family in the house; you can lock doors properly, we have solid structures, bullets can’t go through the walls; no gangster can come into my house, but the physical infrastructure of the house does not make me feel safe.” Respondent from Mitchell's Plain

In the re-blocking project in Philippi, respondents generally felt more positive about the improvement in their safety. The re-organisation of the structures into a cluster formation improves visibility and allows neighbours to look out for one another’s safety. Furthermore, the provision of fire-resistant building materials helped reduce the risk of fires. The biggest source of unhappiness though is the fact that residents are still waiting for electricity to be delivered.

“It helps us because there is no crime now, because the shacks are no longer congested and you can see your neighbor now. Yes, it’s safe now, because people watch each other’s houses. And now we know each other.” Respondents from Philippi

Interestingly, unlike in Mitchell’s Plain, respondents in Philippi felt that the clustering of the dwellings has actually improved relationships and support amongst neighbours.

In the VPUU project, more than half of the respondents felt that the settlement is safer and attribute this to the provision of electricity. Respondents also felt that there has been some improvement in the safety of children in the settlement and credit VPUU’s Early Childhood Development (ECD) projects and the provision of safe places for children to learn and play as significant in this regard. However, housebreakings and the lack of sanitation which forces many residents to use the surrounding bushes to relieve themselves, contribute greatly to feelings of unsafety amongst respondents.

Safety is multi-dimensional

The described preliminary findings of research into urban upgrading in Mitchell's Plain, Philippi and Khayelitsha clearly show that the provision of infrastructure and services has a significant impact on the informal settlement dwellers’ quality of life as well as their experiences and perceptions of safety. However, experiences and perceptions of violence and concerns over safety are very different in these three settlements. These can be ascribed to the broader social and spatial contexts within which these settlements are located, the nature of the upgrading intervention as well as the process of formalisation and its consequences.

While in Mitchell's Plain, much concern was expressed over a perceived increase particularly in gang-related violence after upgrading, the safety concerns in Philippi were much more linked to concerns over environmental hazards. In Khayelitsha, the lack of sanitation facilities which forces residents to make use of the bushes still causes much anxiety over the safety of women and children.

As a whole, the research has also shown that safety is multi-dimensional and it is important to take this into consideration when planning upgrading interventions. More research, also in other cities beyond Cape Town, is needed to expand the evidence base regarding the importance of informal settlement upgrading as a safety tool.



[1] Seedat, M. et al., (2009) Violence and injuries in South Africa: prioritising an agenda for prevention. Lancet, 374, pp.1011-1022.

[2] World Bank (2010) “Violence in the City – Understanding and supporting community responses to urban violence”, The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, Washington

[3] UN Habitat (2011) “Building Urban Safety through Slum Upgrading”. UN Habitat, Nairobi.

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