Post by Silvia Soonets [Proyectos Arqui 5] on Caracas

Adriana’s last post, More Definitions: Informality vs. Informalities, made me think, once more, about the meaning of informality. I’m not talking in an academic or philosophical sense, but from the practical approach of someone that it is supposed to offer solutions to the problem. What does informality mean? Has this meaning any impact in our decisions as designers?

There are, certainly, many informalities, and most, but not all, of them are related with poverty and developing countries. The high class settlements South East Caracas and the street vendors in LA are only two examples of these exceptions.

Caracas is a showcase of any kind of informality we can think of: regular (traditional?) slums, street vendors and varied informal economic activities everyway, rich zones very beautiful but built according the same principles of a slum, the new vertical slums inside occupied buildings, non-regulated buildings in “formal” areas, and new slums protected and encouraged by the governments. Actually, formal and informal areas are nowadays so interconnected that I have started to believe we should stop caring about its limits or its differences.

Adriana asks how (and if) the formal sector should respond to informality. I would suggest do not think of them in terms of dichotomy:

As long as we accept the informal settlement not as a strange object but simply as part of the city our solutions and projects will be better, and the pendulum between simple and “poor” solutions and speculation and experimentation with the poverty will reach some equilibrium.

During the last decade we have been using some techniques and strategies to approach the informal settlements, by example consulting the community, knowing the settlement in detail, having all the projects approved and preserving the social network. Good intentions apart, often them only stress the differences between the formal and informal sectors, and delay the solutions of technical problems that should be tackled in a much more straightforward way. In despite of the particular character or circumstances of each settlement they share many problems, and it should not be necessary so extensive and detailed studies.

On the other hand, people living in formal areas are as entitled as their informal neighbors to be consulted and informed. Traditionally architects consult very little, but as more and more of us have the opportunity of work in informal areas, it’s becoming easier to transfer some of the techniques we use there to other parts of the city. Maybe with similar strategies and attitudes we will end with a more integrated and inclusive city.

Still the issues of land tenure, permits and regulations remains as the only true limits between the two zones, but the difference is quickly leveling. We already faced a trial regarding a construction without permit well inside an informal settlement. At the end we were declared innocent as the permit was not possible to obtain, but the case shows how thin the line between formal and informal is. And lately, the government with its aggressive housing plan has built a number of dwellings out of regulation in some of the main avenues.

Now legal or illegal, formal or informal, do not depend on the conditions of the land or the configuration of the settlement but on which entity is building.

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