Understanding urban informality

What is urban informality? In spite of the ubiquitous presence of this term in the literature on cities around the world, the ways in which it is used to explain and analyze urban realities varies across different disciplinary, methodological and intellectual traditions. Associated for a long time with illegality and marginalization, informality is now increasingly celebrated by scholars as a representation of the agency, tenacity, creativity and ingenuity of city dwellers. Yet, it often still continues to be presented and analyzed in opposition to ‘formality’ and investigated within rather than across specific domains.

In order to work towards a broader understanding of the different concepts, theories and realities of urban informality, on 13 and 14 April the Institute for Development Policy and Management’s (IDPM) Global Urbanism working group and the Global Urban Research Centre (GURC) at the University of Manchester brought together a group of established academics, early career scholars, post-docs and PhD students. These included geographers, political scientists, sociologists, economists and development practitioners from around the world.

Over the course of the two days, research was presented on urban informality in places ranging from Karachi to Kigali and from Nigeria to Nicaragua. The organization of the panels into themes of economic informality, political informality and spatial informality allowed for discussions that crossed not only geographical but also disciplinary borders. At the same time, they revealed the importance of history, context, scale and temporality when studying urban informality. Some presenters highlighted the class, gender and ethnic dimensions of urban informality, while others stressed the importance of studying informality in relation to environmental issues.

The concept of informality as necessarily relational and representing a continuum of various degrees of informality, ranging from informal to formalized negotiated practices that co-exist with and underpin formal practices and institutions within society as well as the state cut across all presentations, while the importance of theoretically distinguishing between ‘political informality’ and the ‘politics of informality’ was also noted.

To consolidate the findings and discussions of the workshop the conveners foresee a compilation of the presentations into a special journal issue as well as an edited book. These publications will surely contribute to expanding our understanding of urban informality in the world today.


Sylvia Croese holds a PhD in Sociology from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, where she is currently a post-doctoral research fellow. She has written and conducted extensive research in and on Angola as a researcher and consultant and has an interest in issues related to China-Africa relations, housing and urban development, local governance and electoral politics.

Image via flickr user David Whillans


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