How do you analyze informality in a city that is basically all informal? A city where informality is the norm and not the exception? My visit to Cairo was quite enlightening because of its complexity and range of the “informal”.

What defines informality? What are the standards used to define it? Informality can be the result and response to the constraints of a system. In the case of Cairo, it has become the paradigm, one that s difficult to understand based on “western standards” but a paradigm that drives an entire population nonetheless. With the formal becoming informal (or informalized), and the informal, formal (or formalized), where does the “legitimate city” lie?

In constant evolution, Cairo challenges this black and white dichotomy of formal and informal, and thus, reflects the complexity and intricate relationships between the latter. In this regards, the nomenclature and categorization of the informal have a direct influence on the perceptions; they dictate the type of intervention and measure taken, and redefine the right to the city of inhabitants. The definition of what is “informal” varies from day to day and place to place, and is in great respect dependent on the “formal”. To paraphrase Castelles and Portes, informality is not a product but a process, constantly in the making, shifting and redefining relationships with the “formal”.[1] As such, it is necessary to focus on the sociopolitical dynamics underlying the production of social conditions that quite often surround informality. By looking at informality as a product, or as a mere issue of form and morphological conditions, we ignore critical factors related to the process.

Dr. Dina, professor in the Institute of Architecture and Housing at the Housing and Building National Research in Cairo, states that contrary to the existing stigma, there are various advantages to living in informal settlements- social networks, “walkability”, self-sufficiency (self-belt and self-policing) , sense of safety, participation in the community, work-home proximity, identity, and solidarity are some of the key point… This is not to romanticize on the conditions of the dwellings, such as the poor quality or lack of services and infrastructure (including public transportation), the poor ventilation and lighting of some of the housing, etc., nevertheless as Dr Dina affirms, in informal areas, “measures of livability go beyond the initial cost of housing.”

Mototaxis- informal transportation system in the settlements

At the other extreme of Cairo, one observes the new towns/satellite cities (part of Cairo’s strategic planning as explained previously), in addition to an explosion of gated communities that have become the norm for housing for the upper classes in the city. Contingent on this, many of these gated communities-with their bricolage of aesthetics and architecture- are informal themselves; for one, they are illegally constructed over repurchased agricultural land intended for agricultural production only.

Villas-walled communities+small oasis of the affluent in Cairo

On a parallel note, the entire aesthetics of the city are a reflection of this “other” paradigm of informality: the facades and roof top of buildings are composed of various layers adorned with satellite dishes, curtains, brise-soleils, Ramadan decorations, hanging clothing, signage, and of course the AC boxes.

Dr. Dina Shehayeb, states that the most striking visual differences in form and density between “formal” and “informal,” result from the restraints imposed on informal areas due to the absence of the state’s support and unsanctioned locations. Contingent on this, Dr. Khaled Abdelhalm, an architect working for GTZ in the Participatory Development Program in Urban Areas (PDP), states the following: “By leaving the people to build or organize their markets informally, the government is able to accuse them of violating laws and regulations at any time. It is an indirect way to control as well as a way to reduce people’s demands and expectations of quality services, because they are informal.” So can we begin to think of informality not only as a way of survival or resistance but as a way to control?

1. Castells, Manuel and Alejandro Portes, “World Underneath: the Origins Dynamics and Effects of the Informal Economy,” in The Informal Economy, MD: John Hopkins University Press (Baltimore), 1989, pp. 11-37

2 thoughts on “RESILIENCE, Defining a New Paradigm through Informality

  1. I’m Anna Tozzi, an Italian anthropologist who has lived in Cairo city of the dead for 10 years in order to make a fieldwork on the local culture. I totally confirm your considerations about the informal settlement and your thoughts about the opposition formal/informal. However, I have to precise the local community of Cairo historical cemeteries is not formed totally by urban poor. As the scholar El Kadi has showed in her book it is formed mostly by low middle class. Just as example, the owner of the flat where I have been resident, is the owner of the entire 3 store building.

    • Hi Anna,
      Thank you for your comment. Just to clarify on a quick point, although we do distinguish formal and informal, I do not think that it is necessarily as black or white- there is a big gamma of gray that is extremely dependent on context and the politics of place. That said, I wouldn’t be so bold as to talk about a dichotomy of formal/informal. But that is simply a clarification to part of your comment and besides the main point. You bring about an interesting clarification regarding the populations and use of space in the cemeteries/ adjacencies- and would love to hear more about it. As in all informal settlements, although we may generalize on the economic status of the residents, not all residents are “urban poor”- there are many residents who are actual landowners, and actively and quite successfully participate in a local economy (both formal and informal)…
      In any case, and to reiterate, we would be delighted to hear more on your perspective and observations regarding the “city of the dead”!
      Best, Adriana

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