Published on Sustainable Cities

Expanding Africa’s housing policy options: A second generation of sites and services

This page in:
Sites and services project Sites and services project

Wanjiku, now 77, still remembers clearly the day that she first saw the sites and services plot that was assigned to her. She had been living in an informal settlement on the outskirts of Nairobi’s Central Business District (CBD) when she became a beneficiary of the first Dandora Sites and Services Scheme. “It was a memorable day,” she said. “We had been told that the government had promised land to rural migrants, and we went through the selection process, but we were not sure if it would really happen.  We received our plot and a basic core of a small kitchen and bathroom.” Moving to Nairobi with her husband in the early 1970s in search of work, their options for affordable housing were few, forcing them and many others to move into informal settlements, with poorly constructed structures--primarily made of cardboard and mud, with no piped water, sanitation, paved roads nor community spaces.  Over the years, she was able to incrementally build on additional rooms to her basic single unit, which then became an important source of rental income for Wanjiku and her family.     

Xerox image of old sites and services pilot
Pilot alternatives for low-income groups in sites and services.
 This model of providing small, serviced plots as a starting point for urban residents to incrementally build their houses was used by many countries in the 1970s and 1980s. It was designed as a way to address growing housing demand and was seen as a promising alternative to public and social housing approaches that had been deemed inefficient and financially unsustainable in meeting housing demand. Between the 1970s and 1998, the World Bank financed 100 sites and services projects in 53 countries.     

The approach was successful in some countries, while it took time to see results, but it never produced the expected results in others. By the mid-1990s, sites and services quickly became unpopular due to critiques of slow implementation, and the global focus shifted away from the program. 

This shift was a mistake, according to Nairobi County housing officials today. With 20/20 hindsight, Nairobi housing officials wish that the programs had continued. Comparing today’s Nairobi with that of the 1990s, it is clear that the affordable housing shortage continues, informal settlements have increased, and the sprawl of urban growth has meant that cheap urban land is located on the outskirts of a vastly expanded Nairobi, far from jobs and services. Nairobi officials reflect that, had the sites and services programs continued, the affordable housing crisis could have been mitigated.   

There is growing consensus that the performance of the first generation of projects was assessed prematurely, using narrowly defined metrics, often missing a longer-term view on outcomes, as other countries, such as India, show similar perspectives. Newer studies on sites and services show significant levels of success, with specific sites such as in Chennai and Mumbai, becoming vibrant, thriving neighborhoods decades on. Similarly, once a greenfield in the distant outskirts of Nairobi, the Dandora Estate is now a densely populated multi-storied estate that provides essential affordable housing to low- and middle-income families, and it is considered an anchor estate in the broader, equally dense, neighborhood in Nairobi.  

Sites and services projects in India


A 2nd Generation of sites and services to create vibrant communities  

Given the persistent challenge of affordable housing that so many countries continue to face, it is time to take a fresh look at the ‘sites and services’ approach.  Our recent research, which delved into first-generation sites and services projects, raises the possibility of a second generation of the projects. Policy changes in the land and housing markets now allow for more flexibility in tenure systems, and in building and infrastructure standards, increasing the options available for governments and households. New building technologies such as 3D printing provide faster and more efficient building alternatives with prices coming down.  Increased and extensive participation of communities, NGOs and the private sector in affordable housing creates opportunities for additional resources and innovations that can translate to better outcomes of sites and services.  

With a longer-term view to development outcomes, sites and services can provide a solution in certain environments such as countries where there is strong government and country buy-in, availability of well-located land with clear acquisition processes and accessibility to jobs, and flexibility in planning and building standards that allow for incremental housing approaches. The lessons and guiding principles laid out in the report provide grounds to make smarter investments that will create thriving neighborhoods of the future in cities across Africa. 

See the full report: Reconsidering Sites and Services: A Global Review 


Related links:


Photos courtesy of Barjor Mehta.


Judy Baker

Lead Economist, Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience & Land Global Practice

Sheila Kamunyori

Senior Urban Specialist

Keziah Mwang’a

Urban Development Specialist

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000