The Dencity Competition co-founders on rethinking slums

The social architects behind non-profit organisation, Shelter Global share their experiences on confronting the world’s shelter crisis.
Shelter Global

A growing global population and increasing urbanisation are substantial contributing factors to the growth of overcrowded informal settlements in densely populated cities. There are currently over one billion people living in slums worldwide who are subject to poor housing and living conditions.

Shelter Global is a non-profit organisation that draws attention to the world’s shelter crisis with their annual Dencity Competition. This year’s competition invites architects, planners, students, engineers, designers, thinkers and organisations to rethink informal settlements. The aim of the challenge is to foster new ideas that better handle the growing density of unplanned cities and create awareness around substandard urban townships.

The organisation’s co-founders Patrick McLoughlin and Chad Johnson founded the competition last year as a means of tackling issues surrounding rapid urbanisation. Here, they answer a couple of questions about their long-term goals for the competition and what they’ve learnt along the way.

Could you tell us about Shelter Global and why you founded it?

Patrick: We founded Shelter Global in 2014 after we heard some troubling statistics about the world population growth and how many cities are struggling to adapt. For instance, by 2030, it is estimated that two billion people in the world will live in urban slums. We found that a lot of the architecture non-profits concentrated on disaster relief or rural projects, but few were focussed on urban settlements. 

How is your competition, Dencity generating design thinking around informal settlements?

Chad: Dencity’s prompt is very open-ended. This allows entrants to think about informal settlements in an unrestricted way. They can approach it from a conceptual level, or they can narrow in on a specific site. This is ideal because we need both.

Aside from the competition, do you foresee getting teams on the ground, materialising their ideas, in actual slums across the world?

Patrick: That’s always been our intention. The competition started out as our first initiative to get people thinking about slums. Our inaugural competition turned out to be such a success; we decided to continue it on an annual basis. We are currently seeking grant money and want to implement some of the best ideas from the competition in different neighbourhoods.

With regards to the competition, which type of design solutions have you found to be the most effective?

Chad: One criterion that projects are judged by is “feasibility.” Although we see many creative ideas, some of them are simply not possible to implement – at least not in the next few decades. This might be due to a number of factors including accessibility to materials, infrastructure or technology. The projects we find (or think will be) most effective are solutions that enable and empower the people living in these settlements to build better communities in the near future.

Could you tell us what made last year’s winner a standout idea?

Patrick: Well to start, the competition winners are selected by a diverse group of jury members. Shelter Global facilitates and manages the competition, but Chad and I don't actually have any say in who wins. I think the reason why the jury liked last year’s winner was because it utilised local materials. Their low-tech concept presented a feasible, three-step process to improve slums using what was available in the community.

How important is collaboration in driving these ideas forward?

Chad: It’s everything. Collaboration is the only thing that will drive these ideas forward. We all have different views of the world and different ways to solve problems. When you combine people’s knowledge and focus on a single issue, it can open up doors that may not have existed before. That is why we encourage interdisciplinary and international teams. We’d like to stress that this is not just a competition for architects and planners. Anyone with an idea is welcome and encouraged to enter.

Do you think that urban planning is becoming more relevant than architecture, given our growing global population?

Patrick: Absolutely. I think it's going to take a while for people to notice this, though. There are a lot more hurdles for urban planning than there are for architecture. Urban planners have to work with a diverse group of associations and demographics that need to come to an agreement on how to design the areas they live in. A lot of concessions are usually made before a project gets the go ahead to move forward.