Formalising informality


A collection that brings together different perspectives on urban informality offers the prospect of fostering a new area study



Rethinking the Informal City: Critical Perspectives from Latin America
Edited by Felipe Hernández, Peter Kellett and Lea K. Allen
2009, Berghahn Books
249 pages, hardback, plates

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

GIVEN the size of the “informal” economy in Latin America, it is about time a scholarly work brought together perspectives on informality as a concept understood more broadly.

As the contributors to Rethinking the Informal City make clear, the terms informal and formal refer not only to the physical geography of the city – and in particular the shanty towns made most famous by Rio’s favelas – but also a panoply of socio-political factors.

Rethinking the Informal City, therefore, is a timely engagement with the wider issues encompassed by a spectrum of informal phenomena that only begin with – or are at least commonly identified with – informal housing and labour.

This volume explores how informal settlements also exceed the structures of order and control that characterise our understanding of the more self-contained “formal” features of politics and society that we might associate with the state, its institutions and the institutional political process.

Chilean experience

The collection brings together contributors from such disciplines as architecture, urban planning, anthropology, cultural studies and sociology. Together, they offer alternative methods of analysis in order to study the issue of urban informality.

If the focus is strongly on Brazil – which has become almost synonymous with this theme – there are also chapters on Chile. Margarita Greene and Eduardo Rojas, for example, examine the Chilean experience of gentrification in city centres and consider solutions to this thorny problem.

As the contributors point out, although authorities understand the issues involved, they tend to focus on the physical aspects of gentrification and overlook its social aspects. As a result, they give priority to investment in infrastructure, public spaces and buildings while overlooking the poor people that use these areas.

Greene and Rojas argue that gentrification is a significant issue in public policy not only because of its impact on equality, but also because it undermines the social and political sustainability of efforts at rehabilitation themselves.

Ronaldo Ramírez also provides fascinating insights into urban informality in Havana, a city not traditionally identified with this phenomenon, allowing him to explore the broader conceptual understanding of the phrase.

The Special Period of extreme scarcity in the 1990s exacerbated existing problems in the Cuban capital and increased informal activity in housing provision and improvement through the interventions of civil society in many areas.

Rethinking the Informal City is a well-structured and valuable study that takes the theme of urban informality into new areas. While it concentrates on policy and planning, it also provides references that could offer the basis for a more structured, interdisciplinary study of the politics of informality.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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