Urban infrastructure

This is archived content. For the most recent information on our work see our pages on Urban Water and Waste.

Access to Infrastructures Service programme

Goal 2: Poor people in slums or peri-urban settlements enjoy a better living environment and income-generating opportunities from accessing or providing infrastructure services.

For families like this in Mavoko, on the outskirts of Nairobi, there many problems, from poor housing to illegal settlement, polluted water and low income The world is becoming increasingly urban, and the numbers living in urban slums are growing. The poor environment in these places is both a cause, and a consequence of people's poverty. It is also associated with people's disempowerment and inability to make their voices heard with decision-makers such as the local authority and utility companies. However, poor people in urban slums are resourceful already find ways of gaining access to the key services they need. We need to recognise, build on, and improve what is already happening. In many cases, there may be good opportunities for people to benefit from running a business which also provides a service to their neighbours for example by running a water kiosk, or collecting or recycling waste.

The main types of infrastructure we work on in urban slums are water supply, sanitation, waste management and housing.

We also recognise that, in reality, people's problems are inter-related. For families like the one pictured living on the outskirts of Nairobi, there are a multitude of problems from poor housing to illegal settlement on the land, polluted water, and low incomes from work as casual labourers which doesn't leave enough for the costs of schooling or health care. All these problems are inter-connected, so integrated solutions are needed. A series of projects running since the late 1990s in Africa, and since 2006 in Asia are seeking to develop and apply an 'integrated approach' to tackling urban poverty.

Urban projects | Book: Confronting the Crisis in Urban Poverty: Making Integrated Approaches Work

There are five cross-cutting themes for our work under this goal. They help to explain the approach we take.

1 Technology and technology choice

Technologies can help solve the problems people face in poor urban communities. These include cheaper building materials such as stabilised soil blocks and micro-concrete roofing tiles for building secure homes. In Kassala, Sudan; flood-resistant, affordable designs have been successful. To address the sanitation crisis in many countries, Practical Action has promoted a wide range of different types of toilets, some designed for individual households, and others for community use. Some produce clean, safe, compost, and others biogas for cooking or lighting. Practical Action has also introduced carts for rubbish collection, machines to wash or process plastics, and appropriate techniques for composting. In all of these we have trained local people and others as technicians and managers to run and maintain the technologies.

Technical information: Building materials | Waste & recycling | Water & sanitation

2 Participatory planning

Practical Action is aware that building latrines and training local artisans is one piece in the jigsaw puzzle. However, such practical answers will only be successful if they are developed and put into action with the communities themselves. Likewise, technology will only serve to be effective in the long-term when local authorities recognise the needs and rights of slum dwellers, and support the provision of services and infrastructure as well as granting land tenure within slum settlements. By taking time to work with communities Practical Action is helping people to understand and agree on their priorities; encouraging community members to come together with one voice and helping communities ensure their voice is heard and acted upon by local authorities.

We have developed experience of participatory planning in various countries including Kenya, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Case studies: Participatory planning in Kitale, Kenya | Making voices heard in Faridpur, Bangladesh

Toolkit: Participatory Urban Planning toolkit based on the Kitale experience (PDF, 19.4MB)

3 Income and employment from services

The informal economy of poor people's small businesses is extremely crowded, in most towns and cities and it can be difficult to find opportunities for income generation. Most business sectors with low barriers to entry are already saturated and casual work can be irregular and low paid. Potential exists, however, for work to be found within the settlements in which people live. With Practical Action focusing on the service delivery that is vitally lacking within the slums themselves, such as waste collection and recycling, selling water, or running community sanitation facilities, the problem can actually prove to be an income-generating solution. In Nairobi, Kenya, Matthew Luvindi is part of a growing group collecting plastics from his neighbourhood and selling them to the co-operative for further bulking and processing. He said "People didn't want to associate with me but now they see our activities as noble, and we are making a reliable income from it".

With no capital and little security, obtaining credit to support the development of a small business or the building of a permanent, safe home is not easy. Savings and credit schemes are also important, Practical Action is helping people invest in small businesses and borrow money towards land and housing.

4 Linking with wider infrastructure systems

In urban areas where local authorities or utility companies have the mandate and responsibility to deliver services to everyone, it becomes particularly important to work in partnership. In many of our projects, although we are developing solutions at the local level, we are also seeing how those need to be connected to city-wide systems. For example, water supplies can be managed by communities and small water enterprises, there needs to be good communication with the water supply company. In waste management, waste can be collected by community-based organisations, but their work needs to be linked to the city-wide system for waste disposal.

5 Scaling up and influencing

We aim to influence national, regional and international processes, and share the lessons of our work more widely. We are doing this in a variety of ways.

We have been involved in global initiatives such as UN-Habitat's Best Practices committee, and in running sessions at the World Urban Forum. In the UK we are members of a coalition of NGOs and academics working on issues of urban poverty.

We have also recently commissioned studies of four cities (Kathmandu, Dhaka, Bhubaneswar (India), and Nairobi) to understand more about how large infrastructure projects are - or are not - benefitting the poor.

We have worked to influence policies at the local level. This has included work on changing inappropriate standards for housing, building materials and urban upgrading:

Regulatory Guidelines for Urban Upgrading (RGUU) | Knowledge and information systems of the urban poor (KIS) | Integrated Urban Housing Development

UN-Habitat: Fresh approaches to urban development
Practical Action is engaging in some key debates on urban development with more than 1,000 practitioners and policy makers. Issues under discussion include participation, good governance, corruption, standards and technologies. This debate will provide the basis of global thinking and agreements in the 2010 World Urban Forum.

World Urban Campaign

World Urban Campaign
Practical Action has recently signed up as a member of the World Urban Campaign, an initiative of UN-Habitat. The key message of the WUC is the need for creative, resilient, sustainable cities and communities.

Project work

Current and recent project work under this programme includes:


Southern Africa:

South Asia:



East Africa:

Multi-country programmes:

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