Urban legend: one man, 50 years, countless seeds of hope

Reflecting on the legacy of David Satterthwaite, IIED's accidental urbanist

Long read by
13 May 2024
A bearded man stands at a podium with a screen behind him.

David Satterthwaite makes a presentation at the TEDxHamburg City 2.0 event to advocate for new approaches to aid (Photo: TEDxHamburg)

Summer 1974: A young Englishman with a halo of curly red hair and matching beard was blissfully unaware that his life was about to change forever. David Satterthwaite, 23, had spent two months working at a forestry camp on Vancouver Island, Canada, with friends who had a contract to plant half a million trees. “It was called the Flatulent Silviculture Cooperative,” he says. “Because we ate so many beans.”

Satterthwaite had graduated the previous year from Bristol University where, by his own admission, he did “almost no work” and scraped a third-class degree in history and ancient history. His passion was music, not academia. He played guitar and mandolin in bands and had been his student union’s entertainments officer, booking artists from David Bowie to the Velvet Underground.

A career with music and musicians beckoned. Satterthwaite planned to get a master of business administration degree in arts, media and entertainment management at York University in Toronto. But to deal with the paperwork he needed to go home to England, having planted 30,000 trees. “With the money in my pocket I went to a guitar shop and got the most beautiful old Martin guitar,” he says. Arriving unannounced at his parents’ home near Midhurst, West Sussex, his fate took a turn.

A poster advertising an early David Bowie gig.

Satterthwaite's early music promoter career included booking gigs by David Bowie

Visiting Satterthwaite’s parents that day was Barbara Ward, the economist, journalist and founding director of the recently established International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). Two years earlier, she had played a key role in the UN Conference on the Human Environment and had co-written its core text, a book called ‘Only One Earth’ that laid the ground for sustainable development. Time magazine would call her one of the 20th century’s most influential visionaries.

Ward had come to talk to Satterthwaite’s mother about an event for the local Women’s Institute. When she learned that Satterthwaite was at a loose end, she offered him three months of work, organising her library. Three months turned to six, and then a year. Ward had soon asked Satterthwaite to synthesise material to help her write her next book. He joined IIED and never looked back. It would become his institutional home for half a century. 

Black and white photo of Barbara Ward, David Satterthwaite and other IIED staff.

Barbara Ward (standing side-on centre) the founder of sustainable development, is pictured with the early IIED staff, including David Satterthwaite (back row, third left)

His chance encounter set him on a journey to informal settlements – commonly and often pejoratively called slums – in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It would lead him to speak at intergovernmental meetings, advise UN agencies and produce a prodigious output of research. He would forge partnerships with grassroots organisations across the world and teach a new generation of students, all while helping to shape global agendas for addressing urban poverty, environmental health issues and climate-related risks in the global South. 

His journey would be marked by enduring friendships with remarkable people from all kinds of backgrounds. It was in his early days at IIED that he was exposed to people and ideas that would shape his career and his entire way of life.

More than a mentor

Canada’s former Deputy Minister for Urban Affairs Jim MacNeill had a headache. It was 1975 and the Canadian government had put him in charge of organising the UN Conference on Human Settlements. The intergovernmental meeting – best known now as Habitat I – was happening the following year in Vancouver and MacNeill needed to develop a programme for a huge parallel event for civil society organisations. When he told his friend Barbara Ward, she said: “I’ll lend you David.”

Satterthwaite reflects on his relationship with Barbara Ward, the founder of sustainable development, and how he came to work at the Habitat Forum

Satterthwaite had been immersed in urban issues as Ward’s research assistant for ‘The Home of Man’, the book Canada had commissioned her to write for the conference. When he arrived in Vancouver, MacNeill wrote him a cheque for 180,000 Canadian dollars so that he could invite urban specialists from around the world and develop a programme of events around them.

A black and white photo showing a man giving a speech at a podium with people seated behind him.

Satterthwaite addresses the Habitat Forum crowd, with conference secretary-general Enrique Peñalosa and clean water advocate Margaret Trudeau behind him

The Habitat Forum was a hit. Around 6,000 people attended its hundreds of events. Ward and her colleague David Runnalls organised an expert meeting within the forum and its declaration was read out in the main UN conference, at which Ward also spoke. Her speech and the declaration influenced the official output of an action plan and recommendations for governments. These emphasised the importance of improving housing, providing safe water and sanitation for all citizens, and enabling low-income groups to participate in decision-making processes.

Satterthwaite returned to IIED to work with Ward on her next and final book ‘Progress for a Small Planet’. Asked what he learned from her, he answers without hesitation: “You need to have a sense of the big picture and all its interconnections. If you’re going to write, write carefully and concentrate on making your work readable. We’ve got to give more attention to planetary boundaries – they haven’t been given the attention they deserve.”

Along with her wisdom, Ward would provide Satterthwaite with another key figure in his life, the Argentinian architect Jorge Hardoy.

Two months before Habitat I, Argentina’s military had seized power in a coup and began jailing and killing intellectuals and political dissidents, eventually disappearing some 30,000 people. Hardoy’s life was in danger. Ward invited him to IIED to set up an urban research programme that would become the institute’s Human Settlements Group. Hardoy’s family joined him in England soon after. Satterthwaite became his research assistant and, soon, his close friend and intellectual partner.

“The only person I could think of who could match Barbara Ward is Jorge Hardoy,” says Satterthwaite. “I knew within six months I would work with him, in a sense, with an infinite horizon. I had the sense to know my luck.”

Two men and a woman in discussion.

Jorge E. Hardoy, left, is shown alongside Barbara Ward and Indian environmentalist Ashok Khosla, of Development Alternatives

They would work together until Hardoy’s death in 1993. In an early project, they worked with specialists in Argentina, India, Nigeria and Sudan, who visited 17 countries to assess what governments had done to implement what they had agreed at Habitat I in Vancouver. 

“It won’t surprise you that the rhetoric in 1976 was a lot classier than the implementation,” says Satterthwaite. “We also began to monitor the aid agencies, which they didn’t like at all, highlighting how little priority went to the basics – water, sanitation, drainage, health care, schools.” 

In 1979, it was possible for Hardoy to return to Argentina. He established a regional office that in time became an independent organisation called IIED-América Latina. He began building networks, organising seminars across the continent and encouraging young researchers, including by setting up a journal called ‘Medio Ambiente y Urbanización’– Spanish for ‘environment and urbanization’ – in which they could publish their work. Hardoy and Satterthwaite visited each other for several weeks each year to work together.

Hardoy was “so much more” than a mentor, Satterthwaite says: “Hardoy and his remarkable wife Picu treated me as if I were one of their sons.” The Hardoys’ daughter Jojo, the present-day director of IIED-América Latina, says: “My father really valued and loved David, and he was very close to him.”

During the 1980s, the pair’s research interests included environmental health, urbanisation trends, urban planning and aid – the subject of the doctorate Satterthwaite gained in 1998. Their work was deeply respectful of knowledge from the global South, highlighting poverty and inequality in urban areas, the need to improve housing and provide basic services, and the rights of residents of informal settlements. 

The many publications that Hardoy and Satterthwaite co-wrote included a groundbreaking book called ‘Squatter Citizen’ in 1989. It depicted the reality of urban poverty and inequality, and showed how residents of informal settlements can organise and plan upgrades to their communities despite having minimal resources.

Cover of the 'Our Common Future' book

Satterthwaite and Hardoy also contributed to the World Commission on Environment and Development led by former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland. Its 1987 report ‘Our Common Future’ was hugely influential in putting sustainable development on the global agenda. It would provide the foundation for the Agenda 21 action plan agreed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

At the time, urban issues were still widely ignored in the environment and development sector, in part because of a tendency to equate ‘the environment’ with rural areas. Brundtland said she did not want her report to include Hardoy and Satterthwaite’s chapter on urban issues. But the commission’s secretary-general and the report’s lead author was Jim MacNeill, who Satterthwaite had helped in 1976. “Over my dead body,” MacNeill told Brundtland. ‘Urban’ was in. The chapter helped broaden the understanding of sustainable development to encompass urban areas and paved the way for greater recognition of the role of cities in shaping a sustainable future.

From the ground up

“I was going nuts,” says Sheela Patel, founder of SPARC, an organisation helping homeless ‘pavement dwellers’ to secure housing in Mumbai, India. It was 1989 and she was living in Newcastle in the north of England, where her husband’s employer had transferred him for a year and a half. Feeling isolated, she made a deal with her family that, once a fortnight, she would visit people who knew her kind of work. 

She began making trips to IIED, where she formed a decades-long bond with Satterthwaite and Diana Mitlin, who had joined IIED that year as an economist. In those early meetings, they learned about Patel’s work with SPARC and the National Slum Dwellers Federation advocating for rights to housing, sanitation and basic amenities.

Patel also told them about Mahila Milan, a network of homeless women that she had helped to form to overcome barriers preventing the women from accessing banking services because they lacked addresses. Mahila Milan created savings groups, enabling the network’s members to bank cash and access loans to improve their lives. With no background in research or activism, Patel had been following her instincts as she developed her work, because there was nobody telling her not to. 

A vast crowd of women gather under a colorful covered canvas roof.

A huge crowd attends an indoor meeting of the National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan (Women Together)

“It went against a lot of conventional development knowledge,” she says. Satterthwaite validated her by telling her that if the work made sense to her and the communities, and had positive impacts on women, then it was a good thing. “And in typical David style, he said, ‘Screw everybody else and their opinions’.”

SPARC and Mahila Milan were carrying out censuses and household surveys, gathering evidence to support people’s claims to rights and help them fight evictions. Satterthwaite told Patel that while a researcher will base their analysis on 30, 50 or maybe 100 interviews, she and her colleagues were asking questions of hundreds of thousands of people. 

“I got a lot of legitimacy,” says Patel, “and a right to be opinionated in the face of researchers and all these global Northern city experts whose research I felt might be intellectually very satisfying but had nothing to do to impact poor people’s lives.”

“They can’t compete with you,” Satterthwaite told her. “So, you should have a right to say exactly that and contest it.”

After Patel returned to India, Satterthwaite began visiting her regularly. He encouraged her to document her work in ‘Environment and Urbanization’, the journal that he and colleagues had created in 1989, inspired by the success of the Spanish-language journal of the same name that Jorge Hardoy had set up in Argentina. Patel had never written an academic paper but Satterthwaite worked with her, back and forth again and again, to capture the story she wanted to tell. “I felt I owned that article,” she says. It was the first of many.

Two men sit on a coach alongside one another.

It was through Patel that Satterthwaite met Jockin Arputham, founder of the National Federation of Slum Dwellers. Arputham had been invited to Habitat I in 1976, but had been too busy dealing with the Indian government, which was bulldozing the informal settlement he had been defending for the past decade. After being arrested more than 40 times, Arputham eventually convinced local governments to work in partnership with people in informal settlements, recognising the potential of community-driven development. 

Few people have more deeply influenced Satterthwaite, who becomes emotional when asked to describe Arputham, who died in 2018. “Brave. Committed. Superb organiser. Great negotiator,” then his voice breaks. “A lovely friend. I always cry when I talk of Jockin.”

A man clasps his hands together in a praying gesture while being guided by another man.

Jockin Arputham, left, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 along with Shack/Slum Dwellers International, gives the future King Charles a tour of Dharavi and insight into urban development issues in 2009. This visit caused some controversy in the UK as the then Prince Charles pointed to some of Dharavi’s good characteristics from which UK planners could learn

Satterthwaite’s engagement with partners in India coincided with growing collaboration among organisations in the global South. The formation of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) in 1988 had connected the Indian groups with like-minded groups across the continent. Three years later, the people who would go on to form South Africa’s Homeless People’s Federation began engaging with Mahila Milan and the National Slum Dwellers Federation, catalysing intercontinental peer-to-peer learning among residents of informal settlements. 

Federations of urban poor groups began forming in other African and Asian countries, and visiting each other to share experiences and tactics. In 1996, seven of them formed an umbrella organisation called Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) with Arputham as its president and Patel as chair of its board. Today it has affiliates in more than 30 countries.

“The work we were doing in federation building was very emotionally important for David because he felt he knew the limitations of his work as a Northern, white researcher,” says Patel. “And due to his very close association with Hardoy, he had a deep, deep respect and understanding for knowledge that came from other continents, other locations, other perspectives.”

Satterthwaite ensured that his partners in grassroots organisations could participate in and influence global policy processes. Patel says that she and others – including Somsook Boonyabancha, founder of ACHR, and Jane Weru, who was working with the Kenyan Homeless People’s Federation – took part in the process shaping the Millennium Development Goals because Satterthwaite had recommended them. He also arranged meetings between his partners and representatives of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and bilateral aid agencies to discuss community-led strategies for improving informal settlements.

“When someone has that kind of stature in the urban development process, then it becomes very difficult for others to belittle us,” says Patel. She recalls a meeting with Clare Short, the UK Minister for International Development. “I could tell her without feeling oppressed or anything that, what you are doing in cities is not good enough. It’s not enough.”

Sheela Patel with Kofi Annan

Sheela Patel and UN secretary-general Kofi Annnan discuss a demonstration community toilet that Jockin Arputham had erected in the UN plaza in 2001 as part of his demands for sanitation and shelter for everyone

“A lot of us got exposure to a taste of equality in the development space,” she says. “He took his legacy of working with the founder of IIED very seriously, in terms of being strategic, of getting the right people to speak in the right places and say the right things. We got entry into worlds we never knew existed.”

A journal like no other

From the mid-1990s, Sheridan Bartlett would travel to London twice a year to spend a month working – and occasionally banging heads – with Satterthwaite who she says, laughing, has a capacity to “drive people crazy”.

Bartlett was Satterthwaite’s co-editor at ‘Environment and Urbanization’ – a role she now shares with Diana Mitlin. Decades ahead of its time, the journal set out to create a platform for voices from the global South, particularly researchers and development practitioners for whom most academic journals made no space. This meant working with authors who had never done academic writing. 

“The whole project of David’s work has been about giving voice to people who don’t have it,” says Cecilia Tacoli. “‘Environment and Urbanization’ is quite exactly what it is all about – giving an intellectually rigorous voice to Southern authors. It’s making a seat at the table for people who don’t normally have it and making sure they are treated well when they sit at the table, that they are supported and have all the cutlery they need.”

For Bartlett and Satterthwaite – and several co-opted IIED colleagues – this meant a long process of editing the submitted papers. This was an immense amount of work, but hugely rewarding says Bartlett. “People are always just so delighted that their work has evolved the way it has, just by being engaged with our journal.”

By 2024, the journal had published around 1,066 papers across 70 issues. For Satterthwaite, the highlights include the first paper to introduce the concept of urban ecological footprints and a paper based on interviews he conducted over four years with Jockin Arputham. He is particularly proud of how often the journal’s papers are downloaded each year – some 650,000 times in 2023. 

“To last the amount of time it has, and to have had the influence that it has, and to get so many people published in a format that can be used in a meaningful way in academic debates, ‘Environment and Urbanization’ is just amazing,” says David Dodman, general director of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development at Erasmus University Rotterdam, and a former colleague of Satterthwaite’s at IIED. 

Debra Roberts is one of those people. When she first encountered Satterthwaite in 1999, she was in charge of environmental management for eThekwini, the South African municipality responsible for managing the city of Durban. Roberts was wary of yet another international expert coming to Africa with their ideas. But Satterthwaite was different, she says. He had had no agenda other than to listen and learn.

Speaking at the 2016 Barbara Ward Lecture, Debra Roberts recounts meeting David Satterthwaite and the different way he worked to other researchers she encountered

It was just five years since the end of apartheid, and Roberts was experimenting with a range of new approaches to sustainable development. Satterthwaite told her it was important work. He offered her some small funding, with no strings attached, to document her work and signed her up for a free subscription to ‘Environment and Urbanization’. This was key, she says, as she had no budget for journals. 

“These journals started arriving,” says Roberts. “Suddenly there was this additional resource from which we could learn. But importantly he offered that platform [the journal] as another opportunity to tell our story.”

Roberts and her colleagues would document most of their early climate change work in ‘Environment and Urbanization’, creating a valuable record of Durban’s efforts over time. 

“It has become an archive, and that is so valuable because so little from the global South is mainstreamed in that way,” she says. “One of the most important legacies he has left is the ability for many of us to put our stories into a place where they are globally accessible and can be utilised by others.”

In the early days, the journal operated on a tiny budget. “We did everything,” says Satterthwaite. “We bagged it. We sent it. We cursed it as the dot matrix label-printer jammed.”

The journal’s success attracted the interest of several publishers keen to bring it into their portfolio. Satterthwaite resisted until Sage Publications agreed to meet his requirements. Principal among these was that the journal should remain free to institutions in the global South. In 2006, Sage took over management of the journal’s finances and distribution. 

“Both are tasks that bore the hell out of me,” says Satterthwaite. He and Bartlett remained as co-editors. They are close friends, but working together was not always easy, she says. Satterthwaite would often find promise in prospective journal papers that she struggled to see, so would encourage her to persist with yet another round of edits. 

“He had a nose for the gold,” she says. “And a willingness to stick his neck out to feature that gold.”

Another way for aid

When David Satterthwaite took to the stage of the Laeiszhalle concert venue in Hamburg on 4 June 2013, he was following in the footsteps of bands like the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. But much as he would have loved to, he was not there to play music. He was at the TEDxHamburg City 2.0 event to advocate for new approaches to aid, based on lessons provided by federations of the urban poor. 
 

A man makes a speech at a podium.

Satterthwaite makes his point in typically charismatic fashion as he speaks about how to ensure that aid empowers urban poor groups

Satterthwaite had spent years highlighting the failure of development aid to reach local levels, its inability to support small-scale solutions, and its lack of accountability to its intended beneficiaries. “I want to dream about another way,” he told the audience. “What if the money went straight to a fund to which urban poor organisations could apply direct?”

IIED and its partners had shown how this can work. Between 2001 and 2014, IIED secured more than US$30 million in funding that it channelled to grassroots organisations working to improve the lives of the urban poor in the global South. Diana Mitlin raised most of the funds, which came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK National Lottery, the Sigrid Rausing Trust and the Allachy Trust.

About half of the money went to Slum/Shack Dwellers International to establish its Urban Poor Fund International, enabling its affiliate organisations and their savings groups to secure land tenure, build houses and provide basic services for low-income urban communities. Another $14.5 million went to the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, led by Somsook Boonyabancha in Thailand. It paid for the Asian Coalition for Community Action project, which secured land and supported community-led upgrades in informal settlements in more than 150 cities in 19 Asian countries.

In both cases, the funding enabled low-income communities to plan and implement work that met their priorities, in partnerships with their local governments. The ACHR project generated $90 million of additional investment from governments, as well as more than $20 million from community members themselves. 

“David was very much part of the context that made this possible, and possibly its biggest fan,” says Mitlin. “He was really critical in helping to get the outcomes of this in the public domain.”

Watch the full video of Satterthwaite's presentation at TEDxHamburg City 2.0 in 2013 about new approaches to aid

While Mitlin managed relationships with the donors and was deeply engaged with the federations, Satterthwaite focused on ensuring that the impacts of the funding were documented and shared, in more than 70 papers on ACHR, and SDI and its affiliates in ‘Environment and Urbanization’, and through his contributions to reports by UN agencies and others. 

“He understands what you are trying to say, so you have trust,” says Boonyabancha. “You know that he will put it in the right way – not distort it or use it in the wrong way.”

Satterthwaite strove to dispel the myth that people living in informal settlements couldn’t work effectively with money, and to show how relatively small amounts of funding could go a long way towards improving lives. The key, he says, is that civil society and grassroots organisations are more accountable to the urban poor than more distant organisations are, and they can draw on the capacities of people living in informal settlements to implement projects. 

To his great regret, donors moved on to other issues, despite having funded “a resounding success” that achieved so much with relatively little finance. “We tend to focus on the amount of money as a measure of success,” he says. “We should be focused much more on the intermediary institutions, like the urban poor funds.” 

Urbanising the climate agenda

SPARC founder Sheela Patel recalls talking with a straw-hatted and sunburnt Satterthwaite on a visit to an informal settlement in Orissa, India “a long time ago”. The temperature was almost 40°C. “That’s the first time I heard the analysis and future challenges that extreme weather would bring to us,” she says. Patel says she dismissed the notion and told him: “Forget it – we have to fight against evictions.” 

For Patel and many others working on urban issues, the climate was not yet a priority. In 1996, the recommendations coming out of Habitat II – the follow-up to the conference in Vancouver 20 years earlier – did not deal with climate change. Meanwhile, the scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had said little about urban issues in their first two assessment reports. 

Satterthwaite set about helping to rectify this after the UK government nominated him to join the IPCC in 1997. He pushed scientists focused on adaptation to climate change to recognise the significant risks facing vulnerable people in urban areas of the global South, and lobbied the IPCC to increase its coverage of urban issues.

A man smiles for a photo while surrounded by a messy desk and multiple books and reports.

Sattherthwaite is pictured surrounded by books and reports in IIED's office in Endsleigh Street in the early 2000s (Photo: IIED)  

A turning point came in 2010. The IPCC had agreed to have a chapter focusing only on urban areas for the first time, in its 5th Assessment Report which would be published in 2014. Satterthwaite and Aromar Revi from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements were appointed as the chapter’s coordinating lead authors. Satterthwaite remembers discussing the need to get some local governmental expertise into IPCC. “It is ridiculous that they are so focused on people with no knowledge on the ground,” he says. 

“David reached out to me and said: ‘I simply can’t write a chapter unless there’s someone in the room who actually knows how a city works’,” says Debra Roberts in Durban, who became one of six lead authors for the chapter. This was a radical appointment for the IPCC, which saw itself as a body of scientists not local government officials. “It was a really empowering experience for me,” says Roberts.

As soon as work on the urban chapter was done, Satterthwaite led his team to condense its 78 pages down to a 17-page summary paper for publication in ‘Environment and Urbanization’. “He wanted to get the essential message out,” says Roberts. “He was ahead of the game in many ways, thinking about how to take the complex global assessment and pull out the material that is relevant to local actors and put it in something that’s much more accessible.”

Roberts says that what drove Satterthwaite was his desire to reach the biggest possible audience to have the greatest opportunity for change. She says this approach helped inspire the Summary for Urban Policymakers initiative, through which a range of actors including IPCC authors translated the findings of the IPCC’s 6th assessment cycle into language relevant to subnational governments and businesses to promote action in urban areas.

“David was consistent in pushing, in all the ways that mattered, for urbanisation to be taken seriously,” says fellow IPCC member David Dodman. He says Satterthwaite’s influence can be seen in the increasing strength of the IPCC’s coverage of urban issues and the fact that the 7th assessment cycle now under way will include a special report on cities and climate change, to be published in 2027.

Dodman notes that the term ‘informal settlements’ appears prominently and repeatedly in the government-approved synthesis of the 6th Assessment Report. He says that would have been unlikely without Satterthwaite pushing for the urban agenda in the IPCC and carefully cultivating an evidence base through ‘Environment and Urbanization’ and some other publications. 

Roberts foresees an even greater role for the journal in the IPCC’s 7th assessment. “It will probably be one of the go-to journals for the author teams,” she says. “I would imagine that, for the special report on cities, ‘Environment and Urbanization’ is going to be an indispensable source of information, because how do you get this local knowledge that hasn’t been prioritised in the peer-reviewed press? 

“Now we are at a point where we desperately need it,” she says “’Environment and Urbanization’ is one of the few places that has created these vast archives of local action.”

From a personal standpoint, Roberts credits Satterthwaite with so much more. From their first meeting in 1999, he provided ongoing support, sending opportunities her way. This contributed to her becoming the first local government official and first woman from Africa to be an IPCC co-chair.

“He throws pebbles in the pond and by the time the ripples reach the shore, they are a tidal wave of change,” she says. “I don’t think he realises how many revolutions he sparks along the way.”

The next generation

Anna Walnycki first encountered Satterthwaite in 2008 when she was a master’s student in the Development Planning Unit at University College London (UCL). He was teaching a module that included a memorable lecture called ‘Bugs and shit’, on health challenges in informal settlements. 

“His approach to teaching was very different to anyone else at UCL,” says Walnycki. “Because it was so grounded in practice – his experience. He was able to take you right there; take you to that city, take you to that slum, take you to that settlement.”

She attributes this to Satterthwaite and Mitlin’s closeness with their partners: visiting often, staying in their homes and forming deep friendships. “That kind of proximity just meant that there was a really nuanced, detailed understanding of what was going on locally.”

In 2000, Satterthwaite had accepted an invitation from the Development Planning Unit to teach part-time, taking over a module on cities and sustainable development and developing a new module on climate change and cities with David Dodman. He was later appointed as visiting professor.

Satterthwaite’s lectures focused on how research and learning can effect change, says Walnycki. “The papers he would ask you to write would never be ‘reflect on environmental challenges in Bogota’,” she says. “It would be ‘write me a letter to persuade the mayor of Bogota that he needs to tackle these three things linked to climate change’.” 

Walnycki went on to get a PhD and in 2013 began working with Satterthwaite at IIED, where she is now a principal researcher. In one of her projects, funded by the German government and involving a consortium of partners, she is working with Jorge Hardoy’s daughter Jojo in Argentina.

“We are setting up urban labs in Latin America where we are trying to develop climate interventions that promote slum upgrading but also decarbonisation,” says Walnycki. “There is so much foundational stuff that came from the work David did with IIED-América Latina (IIED-AL) 20 years ago that is still central to this work that we are doing together now.”

Satterthwaite had continued to visit Argentina after Jorge Hardoy died in 1993, engaging with Hardoy’s wife Picu’s action research in informal settlements, and supporting her as she took over the leadership of IIED-AL. In time, the Hardoys’ daughter Jojo, a trained geographer, began working with the organisation and today is its director. She says: “Over all these years, David for me was sort of a tutor in many ways. He has always been supporting us to write and publish things with IIED, participate in seminars and workshops, finding funds to support our work.”

IIED-AL’s part of the current project is bringing residents of informal settlements together with local government officials and other groups to work out how to embed climate action within upgrading processes in those settlements. 

Jojo Hardoy says that, crucially, the project is providing the budget, time and space to allow these groups to learn how to do things differently. “To learn, we have to do,” she says. “It is very hard to change mindsets if you are not actually doing something. Just to theorise is not enough.”

Hardoy says this approach reflects Satterthwaite’s influence on IIED’s ways of working with vulnerable communities in informal settlements. “If you don’t have resources and budget to work together and change things it is very difficult to change mindsets, because everything just stays on a paper. It’s all in the air.”

A master communicator

For Gordon McGranahan, former head of IIED’s Human Settlements Group, one of the striking things about Satterthwaite is his ability to understand and translate people’s meaning. He recalls being at events where someone would be speaking about their work but the audience would be struggling to understand.

“David would give a three-minute summary and all of a sudden they’d understand what the person had been saying,” he says. “And he’d do that in research too.”

It’s a talent that many of Satterthwaite’s associates mention, this ability to take information from observations and conversations and turn it into something that makes sense both to international audiences and to people working on the ground in low-income settlements. Crucially, says McGranahan, Satterthwaite can describe people’s work in ways that enables them to understand it better themselves. 

“David never obscures his meaning in confounding words or confusing intentions,” says Debra Roberts, of Satterthwaite’s speaking and writing style. “He is always very direct, which I think is important. His research is always very precise. It’s calculated. It’s measured. It has all the qualities of world-class research but you can read it and understand it.”

A group of men and women standing around a table are interviewed by a man with a camera and microphone.

The 2004 Volvo Environment Prize winning laureates, including Satterthwaite, are interviewed by journalists (Photo: The Volvo Environment Prize Foundation)

As well as shepherding hundreds of papers into ‘Environment and Urbanization’, Satterthwaite’s prodigious output includes his own academic papers, several books co-authored with Jorge Hardoy and Diana Mitlin, and reports on behalf of UN agencies and other organisations. 

Key publications included ‘The Poor Die Young’ (1990), which Satterthwaite co-wrote with Hardoy and Sandy Cairncross, on the links between poor housing and health in cities in the global South. Two years later, Satterthwaite co-wrote ‘Our Planet, Our Health’, the report of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Health and the Environment. This helped ensure that environmental health issues were included in Agenda 21, the output of the Earth Summit in 1992.

Two decades later, Satterwaite and Mitlin co-wrote two influential books, one on the nature of urban poverty in the global South, and one about the effectiveness of different approaches for reducing poverty there. Both have become key texts for researchers, students, policymakers and practitioners working on urban development.

“It’s remarkable how much people still cite him – he’s always in references,” says Cecilia Tacoli, a senior associate at IIED who collaborated with Satterthwaite on research and taught on his course at University College London. Indeed, the Google Scholar database lists Satterthwaite as an author on 538 publications that have been cited in other work nearly 43,000 times‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬. 

A group of people in business clothes. Three are holding bunches of flowers.

Receiving the Volvo Environment Prize 

This prodigious output has shaped policy and practice around the world. It has been recognised with prestigious awards. In 2004, Satterthwaite was a recipient of the Volvo Environment Prize for his research on the urban environment in the global South. Three years later, he was part of the IPCC team that shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

“David has been incredibly influential in multiple spheres,” says David Dodman of Erasmus University Rotterdam. “He has engaged with and influenced how nongovernmental organisations do things. He has engaged with and influenced how global policy processes – whether it is the UN-Habitat process or the IPCC process – do things. And he has engaged in the academic space and the space around ideas about urbanisation.”

Dodman says that while Satterthwaite was often sceptical about initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals or the Sustainable Development Goals, “there’s probably more of his fingerprints on them that he might know, because people were listening to him and his critiques of them at the time.”

Fifty years later

David Satterthwaite’s announcement came as a shock. It was the late 1990s, and he had secured significant funding from a privatised water company with a terrible environmental record. As part of the deal, all IIED staff would be required to have the company’s logo sewn onto their clothing. One colleague sought legal advice to see what could be done to stop it.

It was, of course, April Fool’s Day. For all the seriousness of his research topics, and his occasional fits of temper, Satterthwaite’s colleagues say he was fun to work with – and never conventional.

“He will say faintly outrageous things but to deadly serious effect,” says Dodman. “Where I’ve seen him on things like World Bank or IPCC panels, where everybody else was dressed formally and watching their words carefully, he was always able to dress more casually and be both quite softly spoken but say what nobody else would dare to say. He had a sort of confidence that he didn’t need to fit in with the establishment.”

The freewheeling spirit of the early 1970s remained through half a century of research. In a parallel universe, there is a David Satterthwaite who never met Barbara Ward and went back to Canada to pursue a career in the music industry. What would Satterthwaite tell him if they could somehow speak? “So sorry,” he says. “What opportunities you missed.”

Satterthwaite no longer plays his guitar. “Parkinson’s has made that impossible,” he says, in an email from his care home. But it hasn’t stopped him working. Despite officially retiring in 2021, he remains a senior associate at IIED, where he curates a blog on urbanisation and the historic growth of cities. He continues to work with long-term partners around the world.

“After all the years, he is one who has this continuity since the very beginning, the spark of the Habitat process in 1976, and is following the process up to now,” says Somsook Boonyabancha. “Even last year [2023], I went to see him and we still talked a lot about work. He wants to know who is doing what. His attention, his interest, his concern are still there, as fresh as the very first time I met him.”

A cow and two goats eat grass surrounded by waste. There are houses and people in the background.

Mathare informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya (Photo: Ninara, via FlickrCC BY 2.0)

There is plenty to keep him busy. Fifty years since Satterthwaite’s chance encounter with Ward shunted his life in an entirely new direction, many problems remain. One in seven people worldwide still live in informal settlements. Most lack adequate housing, water supplies and sanitation. 

But Satterthwaite sees positives, from progressive mayors to community-led initiatives and the work of innovative leaders like Boonyabancha in Thailand and Jane Weru, who runs the Akiba Mashinani Trust, the funding vehicle of Muungano wa Wanavijiji, the Kenyan Homeless People’s Federation.

“We’ve got examples of not only how to do very successful community upgrading, but how to do it at scale,” he says. “We should be celebrating those federations, who are doing amazing things with very little money.” 

Satterthwaite is concerned that the federations of the urban poor will miss out on new flows of finance into the global South to address climate change, as they are not seen as traditional implementers of climate projects. “National governments boast about putting more money to it, but not about setting up the systems that allow it be effective,” he says. “However, I think that the federations’ example has at least encouraged some institutions to move in this direction.”

And what would Barbara Ward say if she were alive today? “She would say what she said in 1976 when she was asked how she could be optimistic with all the disastrous things happening. She said: ‘We have a duty to hope’.”

Satterthwaite has spent half a century emulating Ward’s attitude and her approach to sustainable development. He has planted many seeds of hope. You can find them in the pages of ‘Environment and Urbanization’, in his many books and blog posts, and in the minds of countless students, researchers, government officials and development practitioners. By now, those seeds surely outnumber the trees he planted in Canada, all those years ago.