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TBC: Bridging the Formal/Informal Divide

An informal settlement in Mumbai

An informal settlement in Mumbai. Photo: Christine McLaren

“TBC,” our new series, explores where, why, how, and with whom conversations about our urban future are continuing around the world.

Of all the issues affecting cities around the world today, there is one that will likely influence the course of urban history and development more than most: the divide between the formal and informal city.

Many living in the developed world hardly have this issue on their radar, as informal systems tend to exist there on a smaller scale than in the developing world. But the fact of the matter is that the bulk of the world’s urban growth is not happening in the New Yorks and Londons of the world. It is happening in the Karachis, Delhis, Lagoses, and Jakartas—cities where enormous swathes of the population live in informal settlements (otherwise known as slums, shanty towns, or favelas) and work in the informal economy. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, informal workers who work outside the formal taxed and regulated economy account for a whopping 60 percent of the global workforce with rates reaching 75 and even 90 percent in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. That means 1.8 billion people worldwide without job security, social security, or access to credit. Most of these informal workers—without whom the formal city could never function—survive on less than the equivalent of two dollars per day, and more than 45 percent of the urban population in developing regions lives in slums without the support of formal infrastructure or services.

But there is no doubt that a global movement for bridging the formal and informal worlds has taken off in recent years. Increasingly, the conversation around informality in cities is turning from one of how to clean up and formalize the informal, to one of how to legitimize and embrace it and the immense potential it holds as an essential part of city.

In his conclusion to their recent Informal City Dialogues series, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, Next City’s international editor Will Doig put it beautifully:

“The sheer size of this burgeoning informal realm makes it all the more ridiculous that its inhabitants are, more often than not, left out of the process of planning cities and shaping policy. The typical pattern goes something like this: The city devises a scheme that, at best, ignores the needs of the informal realm, or at worst aggressively pushes it out of the way. Informal workers or settlers are scattered. A protest ensues, and they recoup some of what they lost. But rarely is the informal realm sought out during the process to contribute to what could be an inclusive solution.

“We’ve spent the past year trying to provide a space where some of these people’s voices could be heard . . . One common thread emerged: A desire to be seen as legitimate citizens of their cities. By the numbers, they clearly are. All that’s missing is the official recognition of them as such . . . Rather than a problem to be solved, [the informal realm] is a source of strength and an immeasurable resource to be tapped.”

This concept permeated nearly every aspect of the Mumbai Lab. It was most directly tackled in the Bridging series, which brought together artists, athletes, and professionals from both the formal and informal sectors to learn from each other; and in Meet in the Middle—a 10-part panel series that put grassroots thinkers and top-down city officials on the same platform to discuss solutions to the split-city dichotomy and how to scale up informal systems. But it also deeply infused programs like Transformers, where informal street artists were invited to transform the Lab structure with their artwork each week, and conduct workshops to teach citizens their craft; and Unwrapping Mumbai, which included everything from blindfolded tours of Mumbai’s largest slum, Dharavi, and a play put on by Dharavi youth about their dreams for the city’s future.

I recently asked Doig who and what he is following to keep abreast of the movement around informal city rights. A few of his personal go-tos include the blog of Transparent Chennai, an organization that creates, aggregates, and disseminates data and research around civic issues facing the poor in Chennai, most of which could be widely applicable to other cities; the Global Urbanist, which has a small section dedicated to reporting on the informal economy around the world; Sustainable Cities, one of the fairly institutional, but fascinating blogs of the World Bank; and one of my own personal favorites, Urban Africa, a project of the African Centre for Cities. Of course, the Informal City Dialogues themselves are an astonishingly well-reported and curated set of articles on this that should not be missed. They have recently been compiled into the Informal Cities Reader, including articles, videos, and beautiful photos.

Other great resources that I follow myself at the recommendation of many embedded in the global conversation around informality include the Inclusive Cities project, which has an incredible e-mail newsletter with news on discussions and movement in the political sector on informal workers rights; highly politically active organizations such as WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), and Slum Dwellers International, all of whom put out regular and spectacularly researched reports; the international alliance of street vendors, StreetNet, whose website has an amazing newsbox conglomerating news related to hawkers’ and street vendors’ rights around the world; and URBZ, the Mumbai-based research organization that organizes workshops, conferences, and research projects aimed at understanding local systems, experience, and expertise within informal neighborhoods.

But this is just a small starting point for this enormous conversation. Where else is it happening? Who else should we be watching, reading, and engaging with to keep up on this incredibly important global movement? You tell us. Add your resources in the comment section below.