The ideologies of informality: Informal urbanization in the architectural and planning discourses

The neighbourhood of Cabucu in Sao Paulo is largely the result of informal urbanization. Photo: R. Rocco 2012.

The neighbourhood of Cabucu in Sao Paulo is largely the result of informal urbanization. Photo: R. Rocco 2012.

The ideologies of informality: Informal urbanization in the architectural and planning discourses

 (*Paper accepted for publication in Third World Quarterly, Fall 2013)

Ir. Jan van Ballegooijen, MSc., Crimson Architectural Historians, Rotterdam/ Dr. Roberto Rocco, Section Spatial Planning and Strategy, TU Delft

 Jan van Ballegoijen (Crimson Rotterdam) and Roberto Rocco (TUDelft) are writing a series of papers that discuss informal urbanisation, citizenship and democratisation in Brazil. They hope to contribute to the discussion on the meaning of informal urbanisation today, and the role governments ought to play in providing what they call ‘positive rights’ to citizens.

The first paper discusses how urban informality in the developing world has been understood in the West, and how it has been incorporated in the discourse of urban architects and planners in the developed world. It proposes a genealogy of this understanding through the identification of discourses with major ideological currents. It explains the evolution of the relationship between the understanding of urban informality with anarchism; empowerment of the urban poor and finally as a neo-liberal discourse against State intervention. They have found that, although the incorporation of urban informality in urban architectural discourses is presented as a relative novelty in contemporary urban architecture discourses, it is in reality at least 60 years old, dating back from John Turner’s writings about the barriadas of Lima. From a progressive and empowering understanding of how grassroots are able to take their lives into their own hands, it has become a tool for neoliberal discourses defending the dismissal of the State as a valid articulator of urban development.

In 1963, the British architect and community organizer John F.C. Turner introduced the phenomenon of informal urbanization in developing countries to a Western audience through numerous publications in the magazine ‘Architectural Design’. Since then, several currents of thinkers, urban planners and urban designers in Europe and North America have picked up the ideas expressed by Turner and have looked at informal urbanization as a key element for empowerment of the individual in face of an ever more present State, as well as an example of urban vitality and form. However, the transferability of practices and concepts derived from informal urbanization into developed contexts presents several problems. Not the least, informal urbanization dwells on the absence of the State in urban development and specially the housing sector. This is a highly contentious arena, because the discourse on informal urbanization frequently acquires ideological overtones, promoting distinctive conceptions of the role of the State in urban development.

While countries in the West may experience slow economic and population growth or even decline, rapid urbanisation is a dramatic reality in the global south.  But it is not only the transferability of ideas about informal urbanisation to the West that worries the authors. Due to the economic, cultural and academic preponderance of the West, some of the discourses and understandings of informal urbanization conceived in the West find their way back into debates in the developing world and influence policymaking there. This creates ‘misplaced ideas’[i], whereby ideas are imported from the West into the developing world with little critique, twisting the meaning and the role of informal urbanisation in developing societies.

Instead of embodying the counter-image of modernity as many have claimed in the past, informal settlements are now increasingly presented among urban designers and planners everywhere as an improbable future model of the modern metropolis. In short, informality is increasingly mystified as an ideal image of anti-authoritarianism, and a flexible, aesthetically desirable and perhaps unavoidable form of urbanization.

This phenomenon has been described by Roy[ii] as ‘the aestheticization of poverty’, meaning that urban informality is disconnected from its political and economic circuits and is merely viewed upon as an aesthetic or spatial phenomenon. Urban informality is then framed as ‘vernacular’, ‘innocent’ and ‘authentic’. The problem with the aestheticization of urban informality is that urban problems are being depoliticized, ignoring the injustice, hardship and political exclusion the urban poor are facing every day.

In the first section of the paper, they trace the origins of the appeal of informal urbanization to Turner, publishing in the 1960s, precisely when Latin American metropolises started to ‘explode’ due to internal rural migration. Informality became then a preponderant way of urbanization in the region. They describe how Turner equates informal development with self-help, autonomy and grassroots empowerment, combined with an aversion to institutional intervention, loosely rooted in anarchist thinking.

In the second section, they discuss how these ideas were appropriated by urban architects in the second half of the twentieth century and used to contest the excessively prescriptive nature of the Modernist movement and State-based planning. They show how these ideas fuel discussions on the empowerment of the urban poor against domination and oppression and an aversion to State intervention, first from an anarchist/liberal leftist ideology that slowly morphs into neo-liberal ideas about freedom from what is claimed to be an excessively regulatory State. In the third section, they describe how contemporary urban architects have again appropriated these ideas in defence of a novel understanding of the ‘mechanisms that make cities tick’. They too have understood informal developments in third world cities as examples of empowerment and ‘bottom-up’ urbanization, but also as an illustration of spontaneous growth that has intrinsic qualities, supposedly ‘lost’ by formal planning and design.

In the last section, they summarise their critique on the latter current and argue that the discourse on informal urbanization has a high risk of deriving towards a neo-liberal tool for the disavowal of the State as a legitimate and effective agent in urban development.

This paper has been accepted for publication in ‘Third World Quartely’ in the Fall 2013.


[i] Paraphrasing Brazilian literary critic Roberto Schwarz in R. Schwarz. Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture: Critical Studies in Latin American and Iberian Culture (New York: Verso, 1992).

[ii] A. Roy and N. Alsayaad in Urban Informality: transnational perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America and South Asia (New York: Lexington, 2004).

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