Fast urbanization is a common feature of many developing human societies. In many cases, past and present, explosive population growth in cities outstrips the rate of
provision of housing and urban services and leads to the formation of informal settlements or slums. Slums are extremely varied in terms of their histories, infrastructure and rates of change, but they share certain common features: informal land use, lack of physical accesses and nonexistent or poor quality urban services. Currently, about 1 billion people worldwide live in slums, a number that could triple by 2050 if no practical solutions are enacted to reverse this trend. Underlying most problems of slums is the issue of lack of physical accesses to places of work and residence. This prevents residents and businesses from having an address, obtaining basic services such as water and sanitation, and being helped in times of emergency. Here we show how the physical layout of any neighborhood can be classified quantitatively in terms of its access topology in a way that is independent of its geometry. Topological indices capturing levels of access to structures within a city block can then be used to define a constrained optimization problem, whose solution generates an access network that makes each structure in the settlement accessible to services with minimal disruption and cost. We discuss the general applicability of these techniques to several informal settlements in developing cities and demonstrate various technical aspects of our solutions. Finally, we discuss how these techniques could be used on a large scale to speed up human development processes in cities throughout the world while respecting their local identity and history.