Abstract: Informal settlement dwellers are disproportionately affected by ill health, violence and many other socio-economic challenges. These are largely connected to the unhealthy and unsafe physical conditions within which they live. Interventions in the built form through the provision of physical infrastructure have been proposed as a strategy to improve economic, social and health outcomes for informal settlement dwellers and are also suggested as tools to address violence and insecurity, which have reached unprecedented levels in many cities of the South. Whereas there is a clear case for improving the living conditions of people in slums, there is still much debate and uncertainty about what exactly constitutes upgrading, the most appropriate methods and approaches to upgrading, and what the objectives and desired outcomes of upgrading interventions ought to be. This paper tries to shed light on the complexity of upgrading interventions through a comparison of three upgrading projects, each utilising a particular method and approach, and their impact on the perception of safety of their beneficiaries. The research findings show that physical improvements and a full package of basic services are absolutely crucial to improve the living conditions, reduce vulnerabilities and improve the safety of informal settlement dwellers. But these need to be supported by social and economic programmes in order to bring about tangible improvements in people’s life circumstances. Research across the three sites, however, suggests that in a context marked by high unemployment, poor education and limited opportunities to break the cycle of poverty, the long-term impact and sustainability of upgrading interventions is limited in the absence of targeted programmes aimed at addressing the structural factors which drive and sustain high levels of violence and crime.

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