Make or break

Atkins | 10 Dec 2007 | Comments

According to Lars Reuterswärd, director of UN-HABITAT’s Global Division, building a house in the developing world is the easy part. First you have to create an urban environment in which the skilled want to work and the industry wants to invest.

What are the big issues facing the construction industry in the developing world?

There are two main things: first of all, we’re experiencing a period of high construction activity around the world. In China alone, 1.4 billion square metres is built on every year for housing. In south-east Asia at least, this is a golden age of construction.

In Africa, however, the construction industry is focused on the mid-top level of the market. Very little is being done at the cheaper end of the market for the less fortunate segments of the population. The dilemma is that what is acceptable is not affordable and what is affordable is not acceptable. And, unfortunately, the industry is doing next to nothing about it.

Secondly, in this market, people demand well-located housing, close to work opportunities. Principally, that means urban areas. But these areas are often located on marginal land that is prone to hazards such as landslides and flooding. Our main focus has to be improving that situation and changing the way people are catered for.

What about the distribution of money and investment?

In almost every place we have studied there is money, but it often lies idle in accounts. Meanwhile, investment is specifically focused on certain types of development. To find out why that is the case, the World Bank conducted a study recently. It looked, in particular, at why people will invest in, say, south-east Asia, but not in Africa. They found that crime, corruption and general disorder make the region very unattractive. People don’t feel safe there, nor do they have a reasonable expectation that they will get a return on their investment. That’s something we really must address.

How can the construction and design industry help in this?

We need developers who are prepared to invest in their own countries, as well as in affordable and “downmarket” housing. If nothing else, it’s a huge market – globally, over one billion people need to be adequately housed.

I think it’s fair to say that the construction industry tends to be pretty conservative and to have very low R&D budgets. That covers research not only into technical elements of construction and so on, but also on the evolving needs of the global population.

After all, there are many ways in which people may purchase and look after housing, but how do you organise the social structure so that it is safe and agreeable?

Are there adequate skills to address the problems in the developing world?

For developing countries, it’s difficult to have a successful low-income, professional profile in any sector, because when young people become qualified, they inevitably focus on developing the more affluent side of the market. In the developed world, meanwhile, there’s more of an eye on developing facilities for the majority, because there’s a market for it now.

As a former university academic, I think that construction and architecture students receive far too little training in social improvement and in how to address the needs of the developing world. It is improving, but often training focuses on technical requirements and less on social needs.

And the level of skill in architecture and design?

There are too few professionals and they are unevenly distributed. In Africa, for example, there are 35,000 architects, 25,000 of whom live in Egypt. Contrast that with 100,000 in Italy alone.

I don’t blame people for going for the low-hanging fruit and focusing on upmarket construction. But it means we need more professionals in order to cover more markets.

And the solution?

Well, we’re working on that; it’s what we call “reality-based training”. As part of their training, professionals visit the slums, see the needs of the people and the designs that are required, rather than simply what is possible in Paris or London. In fact, ironically, architects in the developed world are also now focusing far more on this reality-based training to address issues such as accommodating immigrants. Going forward, training in the developing countries will need to be reality based.

There are other issues, of course. One-third of the population in a developing nation might not be able to read and write. The democracy and economy of a nation develops faster when this improves, as will the level of technical skill we hope.

How are developed nations helping?

We have a programme at Trondheim University where leading talent is brought together from the developing nations to collaborate. In this way, resources can be diverted to address issues in Africa, while those from developing nations can access the better resources of the European universities.

But we need to get the balance right. We don’t want to just tell people what to do. By bringing the captains of learning together, we can expand the universe of learning considerably. To improve, universities need exposure to contemporary thinking and theories.

Where does the environment fit in? Can developing nations afford to consider environmental issues?

Over the past year, the relationship between urban development and climate change has finally come to the fore and is making headlines. And the future is urban – in a few years, the vast proportion of people will be living in cities. It’s now recognised that with that comes a responsibility – we can make it or break it. However, most developing countries feel that the damage done by carbon emissions is largely the fault of the developed world. The carbon footprint of someone living in a slum is clearly very small.

The other issue is that, while we need to monitor and change what’s going on in the macro-environment, in the developing world sustainability is also about the micro-environment. We need to enable cities to run day-to-day, at ground level, at a decent standard, and to establish good governance. If you can’t run a city properly, then forget about the environment. In turn, if there isn’t a good system of law and governance in place, then the developed world won’t invest.

It’s imperative that we provide construction professionals with the confidence to invest. This will start to generate the wealth needed to reinvest and boost the economy.

How can investment in developing cities be encouraged then?

Cities have been around for 4,000 years. Now, yes, some of them have a military basis or strategic importance, but fundamentally most grew up to provide a market for products and ideas – universities, religions and industry.

We need to make cities in the developing world productive so that they can be self-sustaining, so that industry can flourish and people can develop their lives.

There’s no contradiction. Cities are designed to generate wealth. Otherwise people would remain in their rural villages. And rural populations need cities because they provide a market for their produce at a reasonable cost.

Are there any examples of how things are changing?

There are some examples of how things can be improved. In Vietnam, for example, the whole notion of property rights has been reformed and people have greater confidence.

As a result, the construction industry has boomed and society has seen the benefits.

However, I’d emphasise again that the industry is quite conservative. We need the construction process to be designed in a more inclusive way so that everyone’s needs are taken into account.

The bottom line is that what’s really difficult is getting access to land and to infrastructure such as water and sanitation – the basic stuff.

Building a house is the simple part – we’re not talking about skyscrapers here. It’s not rocket science and the share of the total budget for housing is peanuts.

There’s an obsession in the construction industry with turnkey contracts, where they can simply build and deliver. But they need to be a little more innovative than that.

Changing cities: UN-HABITAT, the UN agency for human settlements, wears two hats – it leads the way on development issues, promoting socially, economically and environmentally sustainable towns and cities, while also helping people in direct, urgent need of assistance. UN-Habitat is trying to change the way that cities, in particular, are run. However, a UN agency alone can’t provide every area of the world with affordable housing. That, says Reuterswärd, is down to the banks and the big industry players.

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