Off-grid settlements

In urban areas, the provision of basic services such as water or energy requires substantial organisation. The tasks involved include laying of physical infrastructure, ensuring continued service delivery, monitoring supply, maintaining a database of users and communicating regularly with them, and often some form of metering and billing. These tasks may be undertaken by one or more public or private bureaucracies. These institutional arrangements, combined with the legislative and physical infrastructure required, form a relatively complex ‘grid’ which will evolve over time. Different services require differently organised grids which evolve in different ways. In this project we are concerned with five such grids: water, sanitation, energy, communication and transport.  

In wealthy countries, the vast majority of urban residents are connected to multiple grids simply as a matter of course, although individual households may be temporarily disconnected from the grid as a result of missing payments. The situation is very different in cities in poorer countries. It is common for entire areas of some cities to be completely off the grid of institutionalised service provision. Even in wealthier areas, individual households may be at least partially off-grid. In most cases off-grid settlements resemble slums, and many areas where we work are called slums, even by some of those who live there. However, off-grid settlement has a more precise meaning than slum.  

Off-grid settlements are areas of cities where the large majority of households obtain one or more of the five services we are focused on in ways other than through the main institutionalised grids for those services. The majority of housing itself will also be off-grid, and housing is the sixth focus area for this research. The grid for housing operates differently from the others since it does not require institutionalised infrastructure. The housing grid relies on secure tenure. This means that a self-build house made of scavenged materials could be on-grid if its inhabitants have the legal right to occupy the house whereas a group of expensively and professionally constructed homes could be off-grid if they were built in contravention of relevant legislation.  

The key advantage to off-grid provision is that barriers to access are low. Those barriers may be: locational, where grids do not cover all areas of a city; institutional, where access is prevented for administrative or legislative reasons; or financial, where entry or regular costs are prohibitive. Most likely the barriers will be the result of a combination of all three of these factors. Off-grid provision is at best precarious, and may be lower-quality, less reliable and even higher priced than on-grid provision. Off-grid access is rarely an active choice and may define and exacerbate the marginalisation of those who live in these areas.