urban informality in a

global perspective:

policy, planning, + design

Over the past few decades, there has been a growing interest in informality as a major driver of urbanization and city life around the world.  Researchers, policy makers, planners, architects, development workers, artists, and activists have focused on urban informality across multiple domains: from housing and settlement, to work, infrastructure, mobility, finance, and other modes of human experience.  In most cases, urban informality emerges as a 'problem to be solved' through a variety of interventions. 

And yet, the more we study informality, the less we understand it.  On the one hand, we imagine the 'informal' to be the constitutive outside of the 'formal,' to paraphrase Chantal Mouffe, locating both along the boundary of legal oversight, government regulation, public provision, and state authority.  On the other

hand, under even mild scrutiny this binary between them breaks down or collapses altogether; formal systems operate through many informal means, while informal networks are fully entangled with official laws and institutions.  Moreover, scholars increasingly see informality as highly discursive: it has been recruited alternately into narratives of Modernity and Progress to disparage the 'unplanned' and 'unregulated,' on the one hand, and into narratives of self-determination and resistance on the other.  Still, to cast informality as merely conceptual or discursive would be to downplay the socio-spatial marginalization that it produces, and to dismiss one of the most important forces shaping the urban world today.

In this research seminar, we take a close and careful look at urban informality as it emerges across the world, examining it along several dimensions, including the conceptual, the historical, the material, and the affective.  We consider the long history of informality as a condition created through enclosure, expropriation, state formation, and privatization.  We then examine modes of informality across a broad swath of the Global North and Global South, with due attention both to informal practices among elites and the middle-class as well as working-class and poor people.  We will grapple with informality in a range of human endeavors as they relate to the city-building process, both in terms of uneven spatial production and the provision of public goods, but also as individuals and groups learn to extract advantage by exploiting the murky, fugitive legal boundaries of the formal and informal.   

Finally, we will review multiple efforts over the last half-century to intervene into urban informal systems through ideologically-driven programs, artistic endeavors, design projects, and well-intentioned technocratic 'improvement' schemes.  In the end, the purpose of this course is not to figure out how we can "fix" or "solve the problem" of urban informality, but rather to figure out how we are conceiving of "the problem" in the first place. 


--Joseph Heathcott 

© 2016 Joseph Heathcott