While reading some of the posts from last week, I couldn’t help but ask myself again ‘What is informality?’ The more I learn about the subject, the more difficult it becomes to give a straightforward answer.
To expand, and piggyback on Paula’s thoughts, although slums are usually informal settlements, not all informal settlements are “slums”. In this same respect, informality is not necessarily equivalent to the action squatting. According to Caldeira and Holston (2008), this generalized definition of “slum”, also adopted by Mike Davis in “Planet of Slums” (2006), homogenizes and stigmatizes all non-formal shelter practices. The urban poor now have to deal with another form of social exclusion and many of these working and living neighborhoods, and communities, are reduced to eviction and demolition.
In 2009, I attended a conference titled “Peripheries,” organized by Prof. of Urban Planning Teresa Caldeira, and Professor of Geogrophy James Holston, in 2009 (UC Berkeley). The conference aimed to understand and deconstruct the label of “peripheries” by searching new perspectives and understandings of different social and urban formations contingent upon this idea. During the entirety of the conference the use of a plural “peripheries” was stressed over a singular “periphery”. In the same way, I am inclined to use the term “informalities” vs. informality. Castells states the following: “Since the informal economy does not result from the intrinsic characteristic of activities, but from the social definition of state intervention, the boundaries of the informal economy will substantially vary in different contexts and historical circumstances.” Stepping away from the term’s stigmatization, there is not only one type of “informality” but various “informalities”. I will argue that informality is not solely geography (First and Third World, periphery and core, etc.), nor poverty, inequality, illegality, marginality, isolation, nor resistance. To paraphrase Castells, informality is not a product but a process, constantly in the making, shifting and redefining relationships (in may cases dependent and essential) with the “formal”. Contingent on this, “informalities” are strategies used by individuals and communities to achieve mobility and claim their rights and recognition.
Depending on the politics of place, informality adapts, takes on different forms: It can be achieved in a loud or silent manner. Alsayadd states, “while political participation in some Latin American countries contexts often sustained important gains, in a place like Egypt the conditions were exactly the opposite […] to achieve political invisibility was the best strategy […]”. It can empower, but at the same time, can be used for exploitation, domination and hegemony. Yiftachel and Yakobi research on Israel, mentioned by Alsayyad, shows that “informality allows the segregation and control of a subject ethnic group,” in this case, informality is utilized to maximize Jewish control.
Is informality to be the new paradigm? Regarding the latter, Castells asserts “informal enterprise appears to lie at the core of the flexible production and decentralization networks that form the emerging model of industrial management.” Peter Ward encourages the fomentation of social infrastructure and community participation seen in the Mexican side colonias, as a solution to solve urban and housing problems in the Fist World. In parallel, Jose Castillo’s research on Mexico City points out that informal developments in Mexico City have grown so much that they can now be considered the norm rather than the exception. Castillo declares that there are many lessons to be learned from these “urbanisms of the informal” amongst which, diversity, plurality, tolerance, innovation, adaptation and citizen participation represent a more desirable model to formal planning.
And so, I return to a main question- how should the formal sector respond to informality? Should it ‘respond’ at all?