Autonomous adaptation to global environmental change in peri-urban settlements: evidence of a growing culture of innovation and revitalisation in Mathare Valley Slums, Nairobi

Jessica Paula Rose Thorn, Thomas F. Thornton, Ariella Helfgott

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The growth of peri-urban areas is increasingly recognised as a dominant planning and urban design challenge for the 21st century. In burgeoning poor urban settlements growing on city margins, autonomous adaptation strategies are often the only measures to respond to increasing climatic and compounding stressors. Yet, in both research and practice there remains lack of understanding regarding the dynamics of adaptation and risk reduction at the level of the community. In this paper, we argue urban slums are ideal places to consider adaptation because they offer examples of more extreme social-ecological stress than one finds in more established communities – the kind we can anticipate more broadly in the face of climate change. A framework for identifying local adaptation processes is presented and applied to analyse the case of Mathare Valley Slums in Nairobi, Kenya – a densely populated suburb, where residents are regularly exposed to flooding from heavy rainfall. Findings reveal that slums, often viewed as illegitimate, makeshift, and temporary settlements, are places experienced by many residents as permanent communities characterised by rapid environmental change. Processes of adaptation in Mathare have become institutionalised through time, as a new generation of people imagine themselves staying and (re)organise to achieve a higher level of functioning through various strategies to reduce risk. Innovative and revitalising adaptation occurs as residents shift from employing more generic and expected coping strategies, such as evacuating homes or economic diversification, to creating “gated” communities and savings schemes to maintain and improve the settlement, despite uncertain tenure. Both formal and informal institutions, such as youth groups, play an important role in governing such heterogeneous localities, incrementally upgrading the slum and providing critical public services. Long-term residents' increasing recognition of the permanence of the slum community and its stressful conditions appears to lead to more collective action toward adaptation pathways. However, this is in marked contrast to the dominant non-local perspective of Mathare's status as both impermanent and illegal, which prevails among government officials. As such, strategies are generally not incorporated into planned interventions. While progressive policies designed to reduce risk exist, they remain nascent in their establishment and fail to benefit slumdwellers. The case illustrates the need to incorporate the wealth of knowledge, techniques, and experience extant at the community level in the development of adaptation planning.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)121-131
Number of pages11
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2015


  • Urbanization
  • Autonomous adaptation
  • Flooding
  • Urban slums
  • Mathare Valleys Slums
  • Climate change


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