Special Issue "Forms of Informal Settlement: Upgrading, Morphology and Morphogenesis"

A special issue of Sustainability (ISSN 2071-1050).

Deadline for manuscript submissions: 31 July 2022.

Special Issue Editor

Dr. Hesam Kamalipour
E-Mail Website
Guest Editor
School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF10 3WA, UK
Interests: informal urbanism; forms of urban informality and adaptation; typology; urban morphology and morphogenesis; tactical and temporary urbanism; public space and streetlife; place identity and urban mapping
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Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

This Special Issue focuses on the challenge of informal settlements. Drawing on multiple case studies across the cities of the global South, this Special Issue aims to explore the ways in which the built environment professions can most effectively engage with processes of upgrading as well as the transformation of negative place identities. Cities have become centres of jobs and opportunities, attracting flows of rural-to-urban migrants, for many of whom informality works as a resource to move beyond the regulatory order in terms of development, design, construction, and urban codes. While informal settlements accommodate about one billion people and counting, these settlements have remained largely undocumented and invisible on official maps. Nonetheless, they are here to stay as the challenge of informal settlements cannot be simply addressed through practices of forced eviction and demolition. With a few exceptions, most informal settlements can be upgraded incrementally and on the same site. The intention, therefore, is to better understand the ways in which forms of informal settlements work in order to provide an effective knowledge base for slum upgrading practices.

The key questions are as follows: What are the morphologies of informal settlements? What are the increments of change? How do processes of morphogenesis work in informal settlements? How can the built environment professions most effectively engage with incremental and in-situ processes of upgrading? In what ways can urban mapping be used to unravel how informal settlements work in terms of urban morphologies and adaptive processes? How can the relations between informal and formal be mapped across different scales? How does functional mix emerge through processes of self-organisation in informal settlements? What are the lessons for generative processes of self-organisation in urban design and planning? What are the ‘informal’ urban codes? What are the dynamics of population, building, and open space densities in informal settlements? How do access networks emerge and consolidate over time? What are the relations between density, mix, access, and public/private urban interfaces? How does public space work in informal settlements? What are the relations between private and public territories? How does the spatial visibility of informal settlements work in relation to the dynamics of place identity? In what ways can the productive capacities of informality be harnessed in slum upgrading practices? How can the emergence of ‘slum conditions’ be prevented in informal settlements? How can the functionality and openness of the public realm be protected in upgrading processes? What are the capacities and limitations of design interventions? What are the synergies and contradictions between formal and informal processes of upgrading?

Dr. Hesam Kamalipour
Guest Editor

Manuscript Submission Information

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Submitted manuscripts should not have been published previously, nor be under consideration for publication elsewhere (except conference proceedings papers). All manuscripts are thoroughly refereed through a single-blind peer-review process. A guide for authors and other relevant information for submission of manuscripts is available on the Instructions for Authors page. Sustainability is an international peer-reviewed open access semimonthly journal published by MDPI.

Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 1900 CHF (Swiss Francs). Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI's English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.


  • Informal urbanism;
  • Informal settlements;
  • Upgrading;
  • Urban mapping;
  • Typology;
  • Urban intensity;
  • Urban morphology;
  • Morphogenesis;
  • Urban design;
  • Informality.

Published Papers (1 paper)

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The Paradox of Informal Settlements Revealed in an ATLAS of Informality: Findings from Mapping Growth in the Most Common Yet Unmapped Forms of Urbanization
Sustainability 2020, 12(22), 9510; https://0-doi-org.brum.beds.ac.uk/10.3390/su12229510 - 15 Nov 2020
Cited by 3 | Viewed by 1264
Informal settlements are the most common form of urbanization on the planet, accounting for one-third of the total urban form. It is expected that by the mid twenty-first century, up to three billion people will live in informal urban environments. However, we lack [...] Read more.
Informal settlements are the most common form of urbanization on the planet, accounting for one-third of the total urban form. It is expected that by the mid twenty-first century, up to three billion people will live in informal urban environments. However, we lack a consistent mapping method to pinpoint where that informality is located or how it expands. This paper presents the findings from a collection of standardized measurements of 260 informal settlements across the world. The main research goal is to identify a standard global sample of informal neighborhoods. It then focuses on mapping urban growth with remote sensing and direct mapping tools. The third stage classifies settlements based on how adjacency features such as development, topography, or bodies of water relate to their growth. The survey of growth corroborates the idea of informality as expanding geography, although at different rates than previously cited in the literature. We found peri-urban location to be a suitable estimator of informal settlement growth. This finding validates the comparison of multiple settlements to understand rates of change of urban informality worldwide. The findings here are vital to resolve important questions about the role of informal urban development in the context of accelerated global population growth. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Forms of Informal Settlement: Upgrading, Morphology and Morphogenesis)
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Planned Papers

The below list represents only planned manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts have not been received by the Editorial Office yet. Papers submitted to MDPI journals are subject to peer-review.


A discussion is happening today regarding the growth of informal areas globally, despite an apparent decrease in the percentual proportion of the population “the absolute number of urban residents who live in slums continued to grow” (United Nations, 2017). Surprisingly, despite the scale of the phenomena of informality, we lack a comprehensive, database that presents these cases globally. Scholars map informal urban development at two scales: the national scale and the neighborhood scale. At the national level, based on data collected by states or international agencies, these entities use national indexes that can be compared across regions (A. G. Gilbert, 1998; Davis, 2006; Roy & AlSayyad, 2004). These studies focus on indexes have little reliability at the city scale. The second group of studies focuses on case studies at the neighborhood scale (Perlman, 2010; Zamora, 2017). While these exercises present fabulous detail, the single case selection presents problems of generalization of findings. These two scales of measurement create blindness of informality at an urban scale and its relationship with global trends.  The Atlas of Informality is an attempt to broaden understanding of such overlooked phenomena.

The primary goal of this research is first creating a database that bridges the data gap between measurements of informality at national level and those single case at the local scale for neighborhoods comparison of informal settlements across geographies. And second to critically answer, how such geographies of informality change at the neighborhood scale globally? And, how does this compare to current informal area growth indexes?

This research uses a robust definition of informal settlement, incorporating global database cases designated as informal settlements in any of its diverse interpretations to include the broad spectrum of informal settlement urban form. A defining characteristic of informal settlements as an urban form is their constant state of change due to the piecemeal additive process of construction. This persistent state of change complicates the study of these urban forms. However, it is necessary to study the variation of the change of settlements over time to further understand their urban processes. This research collects standardized measurements of 420 informal settlements to provide a tool to geolocate, at the neighborhood scale, each one of these places. It then focuses on the mapping of urban growth. For the mapping of informal settlements, the Atlas uses a combination of remote sensing and direct mapping with readily available satellite photography. For this project, we use manual digitization from high-resolution satellite data over fifteen years to construct all cases. The direct measure is a more labor-intensive process but provides more accurate and standardized data.

The survey of growth corroborates the idea of informality as expanding geography. Since the cases selected are the most known in the literature, the expectation is that old cases will consolidate and stop expanding. This mapping revealed the contrary: the entire sample continued expanding. The average increase in the sample is .005 percent per year, meaning that approximately 81,000 hectares of informal settlements are added per year globally, just in already existing informal areas. The data made evident that there are significant differences between regions. Latin America, as expected, presents a less accelerated growth whereas Africa exhibits a more substantial number of entries with an increase between .7 and 1.9 percentage area expansion per year. 

Findings of measuring informal areas at neighborhood scale contradict current data on informality that show a deacceleration in the rate of growth of such places. However, this finding raises important questions about the value multi-scale measurements of informal settlements across the world. The discrepancies presented here are crucial to clarify since global measurements of the scale and change of the problematic of informality guide global urban policy.

Keywords: Informal Settlements, Slums, Mapping, Urban policy, GIS, Urban Growth, Urban land management


Davis, M. (2006). Planet of Slums. London; New York: Verso.

Gilbert, A. G. (1998). The Latin American City.

Perlman, J. E. (2010). Favela : Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Roy, A., & AlSayyad, N. (2004). Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia. Lanham, Md.; Berkeley, Calif.: Lexington Books; Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of California at Berkeley.

Taubenböck, H., & Kraff, N. J. (2014). The physical face of slums: a structural comparison of slums in Mumbai, India, based on remotely sensed data. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, 29(1), 15–38.

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