“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.

URBZ: Crafting Spaces

January 27, 2009

This is an article by Labonita Ghosh published in DNA – Daily News and Analysis (with our corrections). The image above is by Jose “Cole” Abasolo of the URBZ team. Mumbai, January 25, 2009

There is an untold story behind Japan’s regeneration after World War II, when the country was practically levelled to the ground by bombing. The Japanese government began its task of rebuilding, but concentrated mainly on putting industry back on its feet. In Tokyo, the work of housing and other development, was left to local activists and residents. Forced to find their own funds for projects, they created innovative ways of putting their savings to use. “Since the economy was intrinsically linked to urban development, this eventually led to the financial regeneration of Japan itself,” says Matias Echanove, an urban planner.

This bottom-up, or incremental, development is exactly what Echanove and his colleagues, Rahul Srivastava and Geeta Mehta, in their newly-formed organisation Urbz, are trying to promote in Mumbai. “We’ve found that neighbourhoods developed by residents themselves are more vibrant and respond more to the needs of local people than anything that been master-planned,” says Echanove. “At Urbz, we’re trying to see how we can harness this collective intelligence and apply a similar strategy to the rest of Mumbai. People often don’t know they have that ability already.” Urbz uses partners on the ground, as well as bigger collaborators like Pukar, to help residents document everything they can about their neighbourhood — and then put it in a space, like a Wikipedia site, that can be accessed by anyone around the world. Working closely with Pukar’s 400 barefoot researchers of the Youth Fellowship Programme, Urbz has been able put together an exhaustive website about Dharavi, which has received over 1 lakh hits since it was uplinked last year. “We want to collect whatever data we can — videos, photos, sounds, documents — and put them on a site where other people can add to them, have discussions about them or borrow from them,” says co-founder Mehta.

In the process, Urbz is also forcing a relook at many civic issues. The first is to find imaginative ways of preserving certain heritage neighbourhoods. Khotachiwadi, where Echanove lives, is in the middle of trying to revamp itself — by itself. The locality is a microcosm of Mumbai, with communities from all over India settled here, and leaving their imprint on homes and buildings. “The neighbourhood of Girgaum, in which Khotachiwadi is located shows tremendous diversity of habitats,” says Srivastava. “You can actually see bits of Surat, Goa or Ratnagiri here.” But owners of the heritage structures can no longer afford to maintain them. So Urbz is trying to help them generate additional income from small, economic activity –a retail outlet here, a coffee or book shop there. In the process Khotachiwadi, which has long been dismissed as a rundown area, could well transform itself into a tourist hub or a Sunday hangout for the city’s well-heeled. “The development of Khotachiwadi is very much in line with incremental development,” adds Srivastava. “Self-development was the norm for many communities in Mumbai. Places like Kalbadevi, Girgaum and Dharavi followed a process similar to what happened in Tokyo.”

In its Dharavi project, Urbz tries to question why certain kinds of use of space are dismissed by planners when they might be perfectly workable. “In Dharavi we came across the archetypal ‘tool house’ — a place where you live, work from and, when you’re not using it, rent out for some extra income,” says Srivastava. “It’s the best use of resources, and yet it gets no validation. We want to change people’s views about that.” If de-legitimising is a problem, forcing certain communities into extinction is, too.

Like the hawkers, with whom the state has been at loggerheads. “The feriwala is a Mumbai mascot,” says Echanove. “The city has been all about nomadism and movement, and the hawker’s presence has characterised it.” In other words, itinerant workers make us define urban living differently: Not in terms of fixed things, but as a constantly moving, changing and evolving entity. In a similar way, the bazaar culture in the city can never really disappear, no matter how many malls come up. “Bazaars and markets are a default,” adds Echanove. “If you don’t have anything else, you will have a bazaar. Look at Dadar. You have mall-like buildings, but full of small shops inside. Has anyone been able to shut them down?”

For Urbz, it also helps to have partners at places like Barcelona, Tokyo, Geneva, Chile and Amsterdam. Many of them bring valuable insights to similar community-master planner conflicts abroad. For instance, one of the things the Urbz team in Mumbai is trying to implement is a method by which developers (whether private or the government), when they draw up their plans, have to take the local residents’ mandate into consideration. In Geneva, urban planners are bound to do this, so projects often take as much as decades to get cleared — plans are placed, vetoed, revised and perhaps vetoed again.

In Mumbai, Urbz wants to collate people’s voices from different neighbourhoods pre-emptively, so developers can work these into their projects. The result, Urbz hopes, might be the 21st century’s answer to urban ills — the user-generated city. To help local communities develop themselves, or at least participate in whatever development is happening around them. “We like Mumbai because it is an urban jungle rather than a cultivated field,” says Echanove. “Where people tend to go the hunter-gatherer way, knowing what they want and how to get it, rather than being tied to their land and real estate. If we can figure out how to navigate this model, then many of the problems cities face today, will be resolved.” For more details visit www.urbz.org


September 4, 2008


Anthropologist Marilyn Strathern has several interesting insights on virtual and real worlds. The one we find particularly striking is her observation that both these realms are inter-subjectively connected. ‘Reality’ subsumes within it many abstractions that are ‘virtual’ to start with.

In the sphere of kinship, this interplay takes on interesting shapes. Kinship is composed of relationships between people that are imagined and structured in ways that play around the idea of nearness and distance in all kinds of ways. People who live in close proximity to each other also need to ‘imagine’ and ‘mediate’ their relationships through categorization and classification.

This can be full of painful psychological distance if the kinship ‘inter-face’ is based on categories that encourage hierarchy and distance – on the basis of gender, age or status.

Thus, people can live in the same house and be alienated from each other – with a zero-level of communication that no technological innovation can ever overcome.

She also points out that the idea of the ‘real’ itself is imbued with the weightiness of kinship categories in different ways. Thus the most ‘real’ relationships are imagined as being those of blood and family. The more distant ones – thus more ‘virtual’ – are of friendships.

However – anthropologists today have corrected many of their own pre conceptions about human modes of organization. They now acknowledge that kinship and friendship circles were equally relevant to our past histories – even for economic survival – and that to see one as more real than the other – in terms of classificatory modes – did not in anyway mean that we could not find the same level of intensity, emotional resonance and social dependence in both. In fact – since friendship spaces allowed for an expression of egalitarianism that traditional kinship did not – this world often had a lot of egalitarian resonance that provided relief to individuals caught in socially tight relations.

Today it has become easier for us to acknowledge the political values of friendship – as being as weighty and relevant to contemporary life in a double-edged way.

Societies in which traditional familial bonds are changing often represent the transformation in the idiom of friendship. It is easier for parents and children and husbands and wives to mark their modernity through the egalitarian resonances of ‘being friends’.

Virtual worlds thrive on the content of the communication that is crafted meaningfully through the imagery of friendship. It is crafted to deal with individual users through an inter-face of choice and freedom, as a world of possible friends and friendly voices. In other words, the world of communication technology is dominated by the culture of friendship.

What is equally significant is to see its impact on the way we perceive this technology. For one it renders the idea of distance as unimportant. This happens not only in the sense of transcending physical distance but by opening up a space for a connection on more egalitarian terms. That is what makes the internet such a potent political space. It is a space dominated by an alternative web of relations in which the virtual in both senses – para-real and beyond tightly knit social equations – gets to be expressed. This explains why smses being exchanged in a room or e-mails being exchanged through cabins in an office cannot be mechanically reduced to a retarded communication.

The virtual world has become a self-identified and – referential space of freedom and creativity through a more egalitarian mode of relating to people – that relies on the ‘virtual’ in a way that has always been part of any cultural history. It is as real as any other because it is fueled by human energies of communication that is motivated by the desire to connect with people in a free and flat way.

What Strathern reminds us that it is not the communication technology that is auto-producing these response. It is intensely complemented by a conscious desire to defend the ability of the technology to operate as such. This is so because it resonates so well with the political values that have become the dominant ones – especially for emerging generations.

What this suggests is that the political possibilities of friendship get tapped upon spontaneously through this fusion of social and technological forces. We don’t have to try too hard. In fact the commercial possibilities of the friendship industry are raking in the moolah for quick-thinking businesses which have understood this dimension of the internet.

But if we don’t see technology as an extension of conscious choice – in this case in the politically liberating language of egalitarian relationships – we often land up in unexpected places.

For example – literacy was often represented as the magic wand of transforming the world. The nation state was built around the energy of literacy which allowed – in the words of Benedict Anderson – to produce new emotive political imaginaries. According to Anderson – nations were new emotive abstractions that were facilitated by a new technology – literacy.

It would be useful to repeat the question that Strathern asked Anderson – what makes us think that small – scale societies and pre-national political identities didn’t need the faculty of the abstract imagination? If human relationships of the most basic kind are predicated on a culturally constructed vocabulary to actually encourage distance –(based on cultural status) then the need for uniting large political constructs through overcoming distance through communication cannot be a mere mechanical expansion of the idea.

It needs to be understood not through the technical expansion of the facility to communicate as much as its accompanying fore-ground score – the political values of the times, which may have, ironically been subverted through those very technologies. It is true that nations emerged along with the promise of various political freedoms. However, it is a different matter that they subsequently re-organized themselves on primordial identities of one kind or the other. Maybe because of the faulty slippage that took place in terms their understanding of technologies and political choices. They took the gift of literacy, modernized it through technological extensions and produced new versions of political-religious indoctrination that didn’t do much to extend the slogans that they brandied about. They controlled knowledge systems – directly or indirectly – and produced highly literate people with ancient political prejudices.

Today – as we imagine a less nationalized and territorialized world (as a political ideal – however contested) where technologies of all kinds have actually made it possible to cut through many firewalls – it is tempting once again to rely a lot on the imagined anti-bodies that exist within new communication technologies to help change the world.

What we have to be cautious about is what Strathern warns – we may imagine that we are getting globalized by a misplaced faith on the idea of distance and proximity as representing virtual and real dimensions.

We have often quoted Appadurai in this context – the fact of the matter is that locality is the inter-face through which the global gets experienced – wherever we are. The global is not the mechanical sum-total of many localities at all as a reductive understanding of communication, distance and proximity would have us think. Locality and the global are predicated on categories and modes of classification that can be anything – based on what we choose them to be.

Thus if we have to negotiate the politics of the contemporary world we have to do it through the interface of locality – even though we can see ‘global’ forces at work. Small neighbourhoods have become battlefields – without noisy warfare – just the rumble of speculation and the sound of construction.

The defenses that emerge against the war-mongers can come from unexpected directions – even virtual ones. For all of us who live half our lives in such worlds – and love it – we know that this space is not a result of cutting-edge technology alone – but the consequence of the choices that have cumulatively gone in making these technologies what they have become. The virtual world is a creative space which performs a function like a poem or story did in the past – in the primordial virtual worlds of our past lives – and the content of the poem is what we have to pay as much attention to.

The content is about ways of connecting with each other for its own sake, to use the energy unleashed through these connections in ways that we choose to.

If the dominant culture of virtual worlds is about friendship – and friendship was always gloriously virtual! – this can help transcend differences and hierarchies in all possible ways.

It can help carve a space where control and imposition is not the norm.

If the virtual world is about the reality of friendship then it opens up new ways of getting into the lives of each other.