Informal Cities?

(In)formal City illustration by Cristóbal Schmal

(In)formal City illustration by Cristóbal Schmal

by Ares Kalandides

For a while now, I have been working with the Goethe-Institut on a project financed by the Robert-Bosch-Stiftung called The (in)formal City, In an exchange between Johannesburg and Berlin, a team of 20 travels between the two cities to look at processes of urbanization between formality and informality. When we launched the project about a year ago, I only had a very vague idea about what informality may mean – and to be honest I still do. This blog entry is an attempt to make sense of my thoughts and to share them with you.

I think informality may mean very different things to different people in different contexts. For some it is synonymous with illegality and it includes anything outside the law. This is a legalistic point of view that until now we have completely excluded from our project. For others informality simply means the atypical, i.e. the exception to the rule in the way cities work (I will come back to this later in more detail). Then, I have found informality to be used as synonymous for everything that is not initiated by the state or big corporations and is used as synonymous to what is often (and not very fortunately) called “bottom-up”. And finally informality often denotes something closer to its etymology: anything that is not formalized. There are four different fields that transcend the above categories:

The Ruimsig settlement in Johannesburg boarding a tennis court. In the background a gated community

The Ruimsig settlement in Johannesburg boarding a tennis court. In the background a gated community

1) Informal settlements: slums, shantytowns, favelas etc. This usually refers to the dense poor housing in the periphery of large agglomerations in the global south. Usually constructed by whatever materials can be found easily (metal, cardboard, brick) and poor living conditions, these settlements can nonetheless have a very high degree of organization, not always visible for those from the outside. They are sometimes extremely vulnerable to any kind of natural disaster and as a rule they lack connection to a lot of the urban amenities, in particular sewage.

Selling maize at the taxi rank in Johannesburg

Selling maize at the taxi rank in Johannesburg

2) Informal economy. This is the one that is most often refered to in the context of  illegality. It is usually about any kind of economic activities that are not officially declared and are thus not controlled or tax. It can take many different forms: from subsistence or swap economy, sidewalk trade or waste collection. Again some type of informal economic activities may have an extremely high degree of organization (s. my blog entries on the taxi system in Johannesburg), while others are rather random.

3) Informal labour. Directly linked to the informal economy this includes any type of non-standard (I’ll come back to that later) labour relations: homeworkers, workers paid by the piece, precarious work, etc.  Some researchers consider any type of non-paid work (e.g. housework) to be informal labour.

Urban gardening in Toulouse

Urban gardening in Toulouse

4) Informal practices. Any kind of  (generally small-scale) initiatives of protest, participation, solidarity by social groups. This often includes alternative practices of space appropriation (e.g. squats, guerilla gardening) and different kinds of urban social movements.

There are two main observations I want to make here:

First of all, informality in all the above, is defined as “the other”, i.e. as the opposite of formality. Something is defined as the dominant rule and informal as the exception. The hegemon can have many different qualities: the cities of a bunch of countries in the global north are the formal ones, while all others informal; fordist paid male work is the only serious labour form, anything else is secondary. This kind of logic also creates a clear hierarchy where the rule is deemed as superior to the exception. Also, there is always the implicit or even explicit urge to regulate the aberration from the norm.

Probably what bothers me most though is the strongly legalistic approach to informality. In particular in the more affluent European countries, informality is synonymous with illegality.  It is easy to forget that the real problem is poverty and many informal practices (including the illegal ones) are just practices of survival.


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