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Photo montage by Dionsio Gonzales

Continuing the dialogical debate between FAVELissues writers about the conflation of informality and slums at the glocal scale.

Following Lubiana’s post about urban informality as a form of protesting economic inequality and my own post praising the social relations engendered by informal spaces both in Occupied space and favelas, Sylvia Soonets, from Proyectos Arqui 5 in Caracas, passionately cautioned against romanticizing informal housing settlements based on political sympathizes or allegiances to various local–global Occupy protest movements. She is right to critique discourses that seem to characterize slums as sanitized bastions of the creative and resourceful human spirit. A romantic portrayal of poverty manifested as slum was not my intention. Instead I voiced enthusiasm for resistance to the hegemonic ordering of the city in forms that benefits the few at the expense of the many. A healthy debate concerning the doubts raised by Soonets is productive, for it touches on current debates and critiques in urbanist literature questioning the trendiness of slum studies as well as sensationalism in popular media.

The encampments of Occupiers (turned squatters?) in cities across Europe and North America (inspired by movements in Latin America and North Africa) make visible, in a purposefully spatial manner, economic inequality in the ‘Global North.’ Unplanned slum settlements that are ubiquitous to the cityscapes of many ‘Global South’ cities are a continual reminder of unwarranted inequality in the world over. In fact the persistence of the dichotomous socio-spatial categories city/slum–formal/informal signifies a codependent relationship; that one does not exist without the other.

Prominent Latin Americanist Alan Gilbert has long been critical of development discourse and recently has questioned the continued use of the slum as an analytical category from which to study urban poverty [1]. The danger of validating the slum as a legitimate object of study and policy risks essentializing the urban poor as well as encouraging the modern developmentalist idea of a city without slums. The idea of a city without slums fortunately has not taken center stage in Latin America, but it has had disastrous effects in India’s mega cities where politicians, bureaucrats, property developers and planners call for the demolition of slums and ‘resettlement’ of their residents. But only a fraction of the resident population is ever resettled and almost always to the periphery of the cities, disconnected from work and opportunity. Often the land from which they were evicted, based on faux devotion to the Millennium Development Goals and distorted logic rooted in environmental concerns, is later commercially developed [2,3]. Effectively the government, who graciously removes the unsightly slums all in the name of sustainable development, subsidizes glitzy malls and luxury condominiums built in their absence.

Soonets is writing from her experience in Caracas; and she paints a picture of a city under threat of massive ‘invasion’, where whoever builds whatever wherever they want. It sounds like the opposite extreme of Delhi, the ‘city without slums’. In a be-careful-what-you-wish-for tone, she warns us not to “feed the monster”. Like, Opalach, I do empathize with her frustration (I have no personal basis for what Caracas feels like), and a lawless city without order or reason does not sound fun. I do however push back on the implication that informality is without order, reason or organization. Indeed, within the architectural discipline, informal tends to refer to anything constructed without the formal participation of an architect or city planner. I would also point to the opposite end of the spectrum, to the hyper-planned city Brasilia, where the belief that architects and engineers could erase inequality through modernist planning utterly failed to achieve its objectives [4]. Brasilia is evidence that even with a blank slate, a city may never be a planned city. The hegemonic social order (and resistance to that order) as well as politics, corruption, unforeseen events and organic social organizing will always shape space independent of policy and regulation. Lastly I ask, what makes us fear being overrun by slums and why?

The massive Plaza of the Three Powers, empty as per usual in Brasilia, capital of Brazil.

Slum is an abstraction, a social construct rooted in inequity, difference and a disdain for poverty. The concept necessitates an other, a social group that may deserve respect, dignity, and help, but always framed by their subaltern status. The other really does become a monstrous category: dirty, dangerous, structurally unsound, unsustainable and rife with social ills. Neither the analytical category nor its concrete real form creates the difference nor deepens the inequality, but it does codify the otherness. There are naturally many examples of resistance to these images, originating both within and outside of the slum. And in cities such as Medellin and Rio de Janeiro, where governments have financed sustained projects not to eradicate slums but to greater integrate them into the socioeconomic fabric of the city, the very idea of slum may be changing.


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  1. D Simon. 2011. Situating Slums. City; 15:6 (674-685).
  2. P Arabindoo. 2011. Rhetoric of the ‘slum’: Rethinking urban poverty. City; 15:6 (636-646).
  3. DA Ghertner. 2011. The Nuisance of slums: Environmental law and the production of slum illegality in India. In J Anjaria and C McFarlane (eds), Urban Navigations: Politics, Space and the City in South Asia. New Delhi, Routlege, pp 23-49.
  4. JC Scott. 1998. The high Modernist city: An experiment and a critique. In: Seeing Like a State: how certain schemes to improve the human condition fail. Yale University Press.

4 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of the Informal?: slum as an analytical category

  1. Pingback: Are There Many “Informalities”? Reflections from my past work… «

  2. Pingback: Remaking Rio: favela tourism and the tourist narrative: part I «

  3. Pingback: More Marketing for Innovations from Informal Settlements! | Place Management & Branding

  4. Pingback: “Philly Painting”- Favela Painting «

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