Recently I have been reading literature on informality as an element defining the shape and the social life of cities. This literature defends that in order to understand the development and growth of cities we have to look not only on the official policies promoted by local authorities but also to informal practices in housing, waste management, water and energy provision as well as in economic exchange. By informal practices we understand actions that non state actors develop to provide these services whithout the support of the state or even against the state. The impact of these practices in the development of cities is clear in expanding cities of the developing world, where new informal settlements emerge and become new neighbourhoods within the city with lack of basic services. The most known case are the Favelas of Rio de Janerio and other Brasilian cities, but we can find this kind of informal settlements in all cities of developing countries, such as Buenos Aires, Mumbai, or Johannesburg. Thus, urban slums are the result of the increasing process of urbanisation that humanity is facing.
With the development of these neighbourhoods, the city is not only expanding phisically in an unplanned manner, but also new economic activities, forms of local organisation and networks of solidarity are developed. In some of these neighbourhoods there is a complex system of workshops and small factories that are embedded in the textile production of the country. This sort of industrial districts are strongly aprreciated as elements of economic growth, up to the point that some autors with neoliberal perspective, like Eduardo De Soto, show them as the result of the social forces able to create economic activity when the state is not present. Other authors have emphasized the role of the communities living in this places and their conflictual relation with local authorities for the improvement of their living conditions. Colin MacFarlane, for instance, has worked extensively on informal practices in Mumbai, as was reported in a previous post in this blog.
In fact, many cities in developing countries are promoting extensive plans for urban development in order to become relevant nodes in the global economy. Often, instead of promoting the formalisation or inclusion of these neighbourhoods, official city planning promotes high-income districts shops and infrastructures for specific added-value economic sectors, is planned, with the eviction and continued conflict with the existing communities. In this context, urban researchers are increasingly interested in how these neighbourhoods organise collective answers to obtain resources (water, energy, and waste management) and how they become politicised and fight for political responses to its situation. In a recent article, Felicity Kitchin depicts this situation in Johannesburg, while Rachel Smith in This Big City blog depicts the situation in Mumbai. For a more academic perspective, you can take a look to the works of Anania Roy on a more theoretical perspective, and Colin MacFarlane for the case of Mumbai, amongst others.
Following other authors, I suggest that the approach to analyse informality in cities is also useful to understand urban development in developed countries, specially in the framework of the financial crisis. In frist place, in cities of developed countries we see experiences of informality. In Spain, during the economic boom of the last decade Madrid saw the emergence of a slum in the outskirts of the city, in Cañada Real Galiana. The creation of this slum, (reported in this blog in catalan six years ago and analysed in the independent more recently, 2011), has meant the existence of a ‘city’ of 30,000 inhabitants that is not recognized by the authorities. The situation resembles the one of the seventies when in Madrid and Barcelona new neighbourhoods emerged out of the blue with informal settlments that were removed or heavily controlled by the francoist authorities: the infamous phenomenon of barraquismo.
But with the crisis, we can witness yet another form of informality. Apart from the re-emergence of informal settlements within the city (for example poor population living in abandoned factories in Poblenou, the old industiral neighbourhoood of Barcelona), impoverished middle-classes are increasingly promoting informal practices, squatting abandoned houses, creating urban gardens in abandoned private land and organising collectively together to promote new forms of use of the city.
In this regard, we must understand the formality/informality not as dychotomic variable that corrrelates with developed/undeveloped cities but as two forms of urban development that coexist in all cities worldwide and are more or less relevant depending on different factors, such as the capacity of the civil society to organise, and the need of solving material and inmaterial needs(Although it reflects my personal opinion, this post is the result of collective thoughts within the informality reading group at the Center for Metropolitan Studies of the Technische Universität Berlin, I would like to thank the participants for the insightful debates)