(In)formal practices and city-making

Industrieby Ares Kalandides[i]

The discussion on informal practices in city-making involves a large variety of places rendering it almost impossible to make any general assumptions. In this presentation I propose to look at three completely different examples of practices in city-making before thinking about what would be useful questions to ask ourselves.

Example 1: Urban gardening in Toulouse

Official planning for gardening projects in Toulouse

Official planning for gardening projects in Toulouse

In 2011 a group of (mostly immigrant) women asked the city for a permit to cultivate a small piece of land squeezed between a social housing estate and a dike of the Garonne river. The city, which has a set of rules for the function of communal gardens, accepted and  “La Ruche” was born as a small lively community of people who, assisted by a professional cultivate the land. There are more than thirty people from the estate involved in the project, but also some who come from other parts of the city to work here. The garden is open to the public – that is one of the rules of the city for communal gardens – but only those that work there can pick vegetables. Jean, a botanist and gardener, is interested in rare or old varieties of vegetables as much as in the common experience of working the earth.  (For more photos of  La Ruche s. blog entry: http://wp.me/p1m7wX-1nW)

Example 2: Public toilets in Diepsloot, Johannesburg

Diepsloot with the school in the foreground

Diepsloot with the school in the foreground

Diepsloot is a vast informal settlement in the north of Johannesburg. The shacks are built from scraps of metal, wood and cardboard, kept together in the most adventurous methods. The tidy street-names seem quite absurd at the corners of dirt paths, where children play around with malodorous rivulets. WASSUP (Water, Amenities, Sanitation Services, Upgrading Program) is a community based programme that repairs and maintains communal ablution facilities in Diepsloot’s Extension 1, home to an estimated 50,000 people living in shacks. WASSUP was an initiative of Global Studio Johannesburg 2007-2009 when students proposed solutions to reduce the pollution of the Jukskei river that runs through the centre of Diepsloot.

Public toilets in Diepsloot

Public toilets in Diepsloot

WASSUP, made up from community leaders and minority groups, is now maintaining a series of public toilets in the area, some of which have been decorated by the Diepsloot Art & Culture Network. Johannesburg Water provides sewage from the public booth, but WASSUP is responsible for the function of the booth itself.

Example 3: Formal planning and citizens’ participation in Berlin, Tempelhof

Current uses in the former Tempelhof airport

Current uses in the former Tempelhof airport

The airfield of the former Tempelhof airport is one of the largest landscaping areas in central Berlin today with a total surface of about 370 ha. Following the closure of the airport in 2008 several plans were design and rejected, reflecting the lack of development pressure by the real estate sector at the time. This gives the city the luxury of both space and time to try out innovative planning processes, in particular trial-and-error through interim uses. Three themed fields in the outer ring of the field (urban gardening, culture and sports/wellness) have been defined as experimental interim use spaces, while the totality of the centre is to keep its meadow character. Interim uses for the three fields are chosen by competition, while the best projects may be integrated in the final plans. A large building project is to take place in the south-west edge of the area with a location reserved for a large library.  Yet the main feature of “Tempelhofer Freiheit”, as the project is called, is this of a vast inner city field, with a clear open view across it.

Major player behind this project is the Berlin senate (i.e. the state government) with the planning department (Senatsverwaltung für Stadtentwicklung und Umweltschutz). It initiated and monitors the process, which has been an interesting experience in open-end planning. Residents, associations and other initiatives participate in a strictly defined framework of rules, presenting and implementing their own projects. Here is a combination of central planning that leaves space for individual projects, which in themselves may or may not be innovative. The stress here is placed on the process and its capacity to integrate solutions that appear on the way.

Temporary gardens at Tempelhofer Freiheit

Temporary gardens at Tempelhofer Freiheit

“Tempelhofer Freiheit” is rather exceptional, partly because of its size and central position and partly because of the lack of development pressure. It permits experiments in landscaping and gardening while simultaneously setting clear rules.

Citizens’ protests as well as the local politics have been instrumental in pushing the state towards incorporating temporary uses and opening the field to a broader population. The protesters draw their power, partly through their links to international “right-to-the-city” movements that actively reclaim public space and partly from certain local political parties that have been highly supportive of their cause.

Some thoughts and suggestions for a research methodology

How can we compare the politicized claims for participation in a highly regulated environment with strong central planning (as in the case of Berlin) with citizen initiatives in the particular conditions of post-Apartheid urbanization in Johannesburg? People’s motivations and needs, the cultural and planning contexts are so different that it is hardly possible to make useful comparisons. I would like to propose a series of questions that may help us think about informality across very different geographical areas.

First of all, I cannot stress enough the importance of central planning in urban development. I strongly believe that planning is and remains a task of the state (at its different scales), which is the only guarantor for democratic control and whose task is to propose comprehensive solutions. This is far from saying that the state is the only relevant player, but I’ll come back to this further below. Planning and building remain the most privileged and most “material” ways of city-making. There are however other elements:

a) everyday routines or even one-off actions, b) cultural or economic activities, c) larger-than-local connections, d) representations and mental images.

All of them contribute to the constant formation of the urban, sometimes in conflicting and sometimes in mutually supportive ways. The above involves a vast array of actors: a) the state (at different levels), b) the citizen, c) the resident, d) the visitor, e) different types of collective bodies (e.g. businesses, NGOs), social groups, etc.

However, all of the above actors are implicated in different institutional frameworks and with unequal resources. Their proximity to central power and to centres of decision-making is extremely unequal.

Secondly, It may be useful to make a distinction between “conscious city-making” (as through planning, academic reflexion or activism, individually or collectively) and unconscious one (i.e. while simply going about our daily routines and routes). The unconscious may turn into conscious under particular conditions – e.g. threat. Collective action is one way of increasing individual resources and gaining higher levels of power. People may chose collective action to get out of their isolation (in particular in times of crisis), to get a feeling of belonging to a group. Collective action has direct effects on the individual.

Thirdly, we usually use the term “informal” city-making to refer to practices outside the state institutional framework. We also hear the words top-down or bottom-up to refer to actions directed by the state or that come from the society, respectively. That such a distinction is false to begin with is obvious, as the two are intertwined (the state is not outside the society). Is bottom-up anything that does not come from the state?  I think that what matters most is the relationship that actors have with any kind of power (political, economic, intellectual, the elites etc.). Between the formal and the informal there are exchanges and constantly moving borders. What happens, for example, when the state includes efficient participatory practices into the official planning process? Do these suddenly become top-down? The interesting part for me is to examine the respective resources of involved players and the dynamics of power relations among them. Diepsloot is an example of the interplay between formal and informal processes. The existence of the settlement is due to a very formal urbanization policy as part of the Apartheid system, and the exchange between informal self-aid projects and official planning. It is also interesting to examine the “elasticity of institutions” and their capacity to incorporate informal actions/practices. But even such elasticity usually depends on the relative power of different actors in relation to these institutions.

Summing up, I find it interesting to focus on bi-directional passages: from unconscious to conscious city-making, from individual to collective action, from non-institutionalized practices to formalisation and from the local to the supra-local.

In particular I think we should examine: a) The institutional framework and its “elasticity”, b) the local needs and motivations of individuals or groups involved, c) the resources of and power relations among players, d) the effects of collective action on individuals (feelings of belonging), e) the different geographical scales at which different players operate, f) The role of intermediaries in these passages (planners, activists etc.)

We need to look at formal/informal and top-down/bottom-up not as conflicting poles but as “dialectic pairs”.  Informal practices have their own position in a complex system of different players operating at different scales. They do not replace any of them.

[i] This is an updated version of a presentation I gave at the Onassis cultural centre in Athens on  2nd October 2013. The round table was called “The dynamics of the formal city and the prospects of improvised urban practices”. http://www.sgt.gr/en/programme/event/1344

Watch here (in English) http://www.sgt.gr/players/rethinkathens/20131002/en/


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3 Responses to (In)formal practices and city-making

  1. Tilman says:

    Thanks for the blog entry. I would share your opinion on the state, besides the argument lacks a bit the reason. Is the state always the provider for democratic control? Isn’t there a certain sphere of undemocratic practice by state authorities (you already mentioned this point)? Futhermore, I don’t know if the distinction between conscious and unconscious city-making is helpful. Even in the “conscious” processes of planning, there are so many unconscious things embedded – power relations, former struggles, limited ways of thinking, etc. Also, consciousness has a higher cultural value as unsciousness and by using this terms to describe planning, we reproduce this cultural values. I wouldn’t use it – as I wouldn’t use the other dichotomies, too. In my work on the bureaucratic field I have used a definition or a describtion or definition Bourdieu gave: The whole formal (or work by rules) only can exist by a continous bypassing of the formal or the rule.

  2. Hanna Lutz says:

    From my point of view, the idea of and the term “un-conscious city-making” is excellent (though I understand your doubts when you use the expression of “planning” instead of “city-making” in this context since they have different meanings in my opinion). One example of “un-conscious city-making” becoming “conscious city-making” (or planning) would be the collective use of cycling tracks where actually are none over years – and when urban planners look at these cycling habits to eventually build a “real/formal” track just there.
    In a nutshell: I like the term/the idea because it describes the actual power of informal practices that didn’t initially intent to enforce planning actions.

  3. renardteipelke says:

    I personally like the phrasing of “unconscious city-making”. I would see the concept of “central planning” as it is ascribed here to Berlin in more facets: For me, central planning can be found most often in countries that have either a history of communist government (cf. Southeast Asia) or were French colonies – Berlin is rather an example for a decentralized type of planning system. I understand what you want to express, but I am not sure if the word “central” really fits. Concerning formal and informal, one could also think about the state using actually informal ways of planning to do planning – for instance letting things develop their own way without interfering – for better or for worse. This aspect fits well into your thoughts of the last paragraph.

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