“Informal neighbourhoods” or “neighbouroods in-formation”?

April 21, 2010

New Babylon by Constant Nieuwenhuys

Now that many commentators have replaced the word “slum” (the s… word) by the phrase “informal settlement”, we are compelled to wonder what do we really mean by the term “informal”. Do we mean unconventional? Unofficial? Unplanned? Undesigned? Or do we mean its form is imperfect, not fully formed, maybe even formless? All at once or a mix of the above?

Is it simply everything outside the formal, in which case we start asking what exactly is the formal? Is it really possible to conceive a pure formal settlement at work, like a machine or a perfectly orchestrated system? With no traces of what we call informal processes intrinsic to them?

Modernism pushed this vision to the extreme and some even tried to engineer urban systems in the same way as Henry Ford had organized his assembly line. A human scale of relating to space was the main casualty of such thinking, with some cities becoming as alienating as factories. Think of generic central business districts, master planned suburbia stretching along miles of roads, and satellite towns with rows of mass-produced buildings meant for the economically marginalized. This is the urban history of many cities and the future of so many more. The forces that produce hyperformal habitats dominate the urban development (i.e.: real estate market) of emerging megacities throughout Asia and so many other parts of the world.

But however much we organize, masterplan, regulate, institutionalize, and police our cities they remain a mix of systemic order and spontaneous, improvised, “informal” responses and actions, rooted in human emotions, needs and imagination. And this holds true on both sides of the imaginary line between the formal and the informal city.

Almost every commentary on formal processes, spaces and activities acknowledge that an ideal-typical formal equation does not exist in real life. Similarly, all those who have studied informal processes point out to the presence of structures and power equations, which approximate what happens in formal contexts. There is an inbuilt element of circular reasoning which is unavoidable when entering this discursive space. This becomes even more complex when understanding urban worlds especially in dealing with the huge variety of spaces most cities are made of. A variation punctuated by economic disparity, aspiration, hierarchy, equalities and inequalities and specific histories. These structuring forces are present in all forms of habitats, yet there is an enduring tendency to refer to some neighbourhoods as informal settlements.

The word “informal” may be more politically correct than the “s… word”, but at the end of the day it is equally dismissive and misleading, especially when it is meant to describe an extremely diverse range of habitats and living arrangements across the world. “Tales of two cities” have for too long dominated narratives of urban development in emerging countries. There isn’t some “other”, “informal” space. Instead, there are multiple urban histories and trajectories that must be recognized and respected.

Seeing this requires zooming down to the small picture –that always helps with the big picture as well. Rather than labeling entire neighborhoods “informal”, we should pay attention to what we see at the street level (and sensing what we can’t see). To illustrate our argument, we would like to take you to Dharavi’s Mahatma Gandhi Road, where we spend lots of time, working on and thinking about the potential futures of this iconic post-industrial Mumbai neighborhood.

Dharavi MG Road

Dharavi keeps on escaping simple definitions. First it was marked as a slum (the “largest in Asia”, if you recall the headlines from the 1980s onwards). Slowly researchers, the media and parts of the public started to question if Dharavi could really be called a slum. After all, it was composed of a diverse fabric including villages, municipal chawls, high-rises, self-standing houses built by rich merchants, transit camps as well as self-helped and incrementally developed structures. It was an economic miracle full of traders and producers, so far from any clichéd image of how an impoverished neighbourhood is supposed to look like. Moreover, the residents of Dharavi, an older settlement compared to other similar neighbourhoods in Mumbai – managed to lift themselves out of poverty in spite of the lack of infrastructure and public services. Today many of them have reached middle classdom and gone beyond.

On MG Road, we see bustling commercial activities with shops expanding onto the street, people buying, selling and chatting, tool-houses along the road where all kinds of goods are being manufactured and assembled, wholesale retailers, repair shops, restaurants and tea stalls, butchers and fish markets, temples, churches and mosques, crowded gyms and function halls, services ranging from hairdressers to fortune tellers, and so much more.

There is a lot happening in that stretch. The density of activities and the flow of people is so large that it may be easy think of it as a big mess where things get done and undone in an improvised and haphazardly manner. In reality, just like any other street bazaar in the world, MG Road has its own developmental dynamics, organizational principles, constraining factors, control mechanisms, evasion tactics, and collective memory. As soon as you start looking at these processes, the word informal looses all meaning.

In fact, one could interpret the work of anthropologist Keith Hart, who coined the term ‘informal economy’ to qualify gambling in Ghana in the 1970s, as a demonstration of the fact that the shadowy world of gambling based transactions are also an ‘economy’. The emphasis can as easily be placed on the word ‘economy’, instead of ‘informal’. From this perspective, the term ‘informal economy’ attempts to dignify all transactions outside the space of a regulated and controlled economy by acknowledging that these are also economic transactions, which follow certain rules and are rooted in some form of rationality.

After its conception, the term followed all kinds of journeys. It got loosely converged with the use of the term informal as used in organizational studies or management and then became the basis of creating an abstract set of terms for economic activities as a whole, dividing that world into informal and formal sectors (though with an acknowledgment that they are always full of internal contradictions). Such a conceptual path leads you to the term informal settlement – which simply does not do justice to the world of urban habitats as we argued above.

The term puts so-called ‘informal settlements’ on the brink as it represents them as candidates for formalization through redevelopment. How many times has the lack of infrastructure in some neighbourhoods (usually due to prejudice or civic mismanagement) become an excuse to label entire neighbourhoods as ‘informal’ and therefore in need of redevelopment, when often all they needed was investment in certain amenities, a legitimacy of status and a deeper understanding of existing land uses?

We feel that the word ‘informal’ has now become another catchword that can be affixed to all kinds of terms to give them a superficial edge: informal settlements, informal networks, informal cities, informal design. The term has not been adequately thought through and glosses over many dimensions of lived reality.

If we want to describe the cities of today, especially the parts that fall out of the grid or creep through it, we need to invent new terms that express not so much their form but rather the way they evolve. That is why we would rather describe MG Road as being constantly ‘in-formation’ rather than informal.

Saying that a habitat is ‘in-formation’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it is incomplete. Instead, the term echoes Kevin Lynch’s description of cities as “evolving learning ecologies” (1981 p.115) and seeks to capture the capacity of certain urban spaces to evolve continuously and adapt to the context. The hyphen between ‘in and ‘formation’ is there to emphasize the dynamic production of urban forms and its perpetual incremental improvement and conservation.

The terms in-formation also invokes the word ‘information’ in its system-theory sense as “any type of pattern that influences the formation or transformation of other patterns” (Wikipedia). If urbanists, architects, policy-makers, self-helpers, users and commentators, can stop describing some neighbourhood as ‘informal’ (and therefore in need of formalization) and understand how economic, social and cultural patterns influence the formation of physical habitats in planned as well as unplanned neighbourhoods, we will be that much closer to solving some of the most important challenges of our urban world.

Examining and learning from the way fellow humans use space across geographies and histories is without any doubt the most exciting trigger for creative intervention and architectural innovation.


  1. [...] este post, en el que también se hace referencia al concepto de neighbourhood information, en este sentido, el artículo también plantea el tema de la complejidad, las tipologías [...]

    Pingback by User citizen « Diario de Un Inmigrante Digital — August 7, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

  2. do u feel that informality is an appropriate tool to study urbanism of todays so called “formal” environment, especially looking at indian cities as case examples.

    Comment by shivani — September 23, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

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