Informality in Urban Environment

Much has been said and written on informality of the economy and human settlements mostly in countries of Asia, the Far East, Northern and Southern Africa and Latin America, regions that are subsumed under the term “Global South”. As a question of political economy, informality in urban spaces usually is seen as the darker side of economical development in capitalist terms and as an obstacle in the free spread of effective market inclusion of certain parts of a countries´ population. A legalist approach demands legalization to improve the excluded´opportunity structures, while an approach of cultural pluralism would understand informality as creative self-help response of the “forgotten” and see the evolving social ties and existing strong bonds in informal settlements as specific social and cultural capital.

A main reference point in the debate on informality is the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto who considers the legalization of work and property of “the poor” as the key solution for an overall success of capitalism in matters of urban planning. In this regard the UN-Habitat reports (2003) and the World Bank Report can be named as influential actors in the debate. These positions relate informality to poverty; the informal sector continues to be “the margin” or even some sector “extra”-legal.

But not only the numeric fact that almost half of the urban population in the named regions, or 32% of the global urban population lives in what is called “informal” human settlements (UN 2006) should awaken doubts on the adequateness of the center-margin model of spatial representation. Moreover, the controversial debate and the persistent material obstacles to provide affordable housing under “formal” standards demands scholars to search for the reasons of urban division and inequality in the deeper socio-political construction of legality.

Could informality also be seen as a ruling principle of urban politics? Could it be understood as a category of inequality – a relation constructed by the more powerful actors in urban political and economical society that has the power to define the dividing lines between formality and informality? Can we find proves of what Ananya Roy called “elite informality”?

This year’s INURA Conference organizers invite to discuss informality from the perspective of its production and practice: Mexico City, its power structures and different forms of inequality and exclusion give enlightening examples of the mutual interdependence of formality and informality.

Looking at the phenomenon of “ambulantaje” (street vendors) in the center, for example, we can see an economical practice that usually is labeled “informal”. But looking closer at this informality could help to understand the negotiation process of local shopholders of the historic center with politicians pushing towards an “illegalization” of the “ambulantes”.

Further in the city’s south a so-called “irregular settlement” has been relocated as politicians pointed to the ecological fragility of the zone and upheld the necessity to cope with construction restrictions. Shortly after the eviction real estate investors developed the area and established middle-class homes. The grassroots contestations are well worth to be examples of informality from the perspective of politics of inequality.

A third example: As Mexico City is growing, rural migrants settle on the urban fringes where land is still – due to “informal” practices of selling plots – affordable or even undeveloped. Those settlements lack all basic services until via public formalization processes, they become “legalized”. But, as has happened in the far east of the urban area, in Valle de Chalco, the legalization of land opens access for investors and their financial power, forced eviction or resettlements hit those inhabitants that had been there first. Furthermore, the densification of ecologically precarious zones brings with it serious hazards – for example by inundations, landslides and earthquakes – for the life and dwelling especially in self-constructed homes.

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INURA 2011

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