IMG_0049Formality and informality intersect on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston. Spontaneous Occupy Boston tents share a plaza with licensed Farmers’ Market tents against the backdrop of the financial district. Image by author.

This is the first of a series of posts exploring the intersections of formality and informality in the built environment.

When we talk about informality, or informal settlements, we almost always focus on places where that informality is the status quo. And, more often than not, these discussions focus on building pathways to more formal environments, or taking steps to increase the formality of the existing systems. This focus is both valid and important – the formal organization of cities, economies, and services all have significant advantages. But fundamentally, interpreting the continuity between informality and formality is an interpretation of how people inhabit space, and how that habitation mirrors or proscribes the social and economic interactions of a community.  Over the past 15 years as I’ve explored the intersections of people and place through architecture, urban planning, and affordable housing, I have always been drawn to the vernacular – whether that be a housing typology, a turn-of-phrase, or the contents of a grocery bag.

Recently I’ve come to realize that part of what makes vernacular patterns so interesting, and so enduring, is the way in which the vernacular weaves together formal and informal elements in a constant dance. Many people working in architecture, planning, and development today enter into contexts of informality looking for elements which can be coaxed into relationship with formal systems, or used as building blocks for creating a new “formal” system. But how often do we notice, not to mention actually think about, the elements of informality that are ever-present in the “formal” environment? Beyond their presence, how often do we trace the impacts – positive or negative – or map the fluidity between formal and informal actions, systems, and structures based on perspective or perception? What is the relationship between elements of informality and the affordability of spaces that we inhabit?

IMG_0037The entrance to the Occupy Boston camp was located next to a map of the city. Establishing a “post office” brought an element of permanence and formality to the camp. Image by author.

Insertions of informality

In the fall of 2011, the question of how to interact with informality became unavoidable in some of the most formal contexts on the planet. Spontaneous informal settlements started appearing in the middle of small parks in cities across the US including NYC and Boston. Globally, informal settlements usually evolve on the edges of cities in response to a lack of affordable formal housing within a city. However, this was the result of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a political protest that soon became an urban planning conundrum for both protesters and city governments. Much has been written elsewhere about the political, social, and economic underpinnings of this protest, but regardless of one’s political leanings, the Occupy phenomenon made visible and tangible the realities of informal spontaneous settlement in the heart of several major, and very formal, cities. As the protesters’ occupation of the parks extended from days into months, and as those months crept closer and closer to winter conditions, individuals in the encampments had to start thinking of their camps more like small cities with defined ‘streets’, services, and gathering places making the informal skeleton of these camps visible through physical construction.

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After several weeks of unplanned settlement, a self-formed committee of the protesters worked with city authorities to plan a rearrangement of tents to create pathways through the camp that would be accessible for emergency services. These temporarily defined pathways, became reinforced “streets” to minimize damage to the park as the occupation continued and the weather worsened. Photo by author.     

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Community spaces such as this prayer and meditation space (right) and The People’s Library (left) were established. The library was run as a “formal” library with a system for checking out books, and also served as a meeting and communications hub. Photos by author.

The Occupy Wall Street encampments are a particularly visible example of how informality can infiltrate a formal context. But, the more one looks, the more one sees how informality and formality are constantly intersecting and feeding off of each other. In future posts I’ll explore other examples of these intersections, looking in particular for those that have a direct link to affordability, yet are easy to overlook in our daily lives.

All photos were taken by the author in November 2011 at the Occupy Boston Camp on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, Massachusetts.

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