How the Informal City Got Its Voice Back

In a street market in Bangkok, the lives of two men – Ae, a former business manager turned earring salesman, and Niyom, a sugar cane vendor from the north – intersect as they attempt to make a living as street vendors. “I know it’s not constant, it’s not secure, my life,” says Ae, a savvy well-dressed man from a middle-class background. But to Niyom, the money he makes selling the sweet beverage means that he and his family can survive. In another part of the city, a woman and her community, evicted from their settlement, successfully lead a resettlement process that allows them to decide where and how they want to rebuild their homes. Farther away, in Accra, a group of head porters are striving to improve their lives with the help of informal savings banks.

Stories like these are the driving force behind the Informal City Dialogue, a collaborative project between the non-profit media organization Next City and the Rockefeller Foundation, an institution whose weighty influence on urbanism dates back to the 1950s, when it made a grant to a then-obscure writer named Jane Jacobs. Homing in on six cities – Accra, Bangkok, Chennai, Lima, Manila, and Nairobi – this year-long project is fostering conversations about the informal urban realm, allowing stakeholders to create narratives for their urban future and inspire positive change in their communities.

On 07.22.13 at the Center for Architecture, a large audience was treated to a screening of three short films produced by Still Life Productions for the Informal City Dialogue. The films were punctuated by lively discussions between Rockefeller Foundation Associate Director for Urban Development Benjamin de la Peña, filmmaker Ryan Hill, and Next City’s International Editor Will Doig. The program, introduced by 2013 AIANY President Jill N. Lerner, FAIA, fit nicely into her presidential theme “Global City / Global Practice,” while simultaneously offering attendees an alternative perspective – one less about the new buildings in growing cities and more about the people that inhabit them.

Both Doig and de la Peña highlighted the importance of narratives, with the former stating that, while “the statisticians have all the numbers, it’s the stories that matter” – the figures are quite astonishing. In some of these cities, as much as 80% of the economy is driven by the informal sector. Even more staggering is the fact that approximately 1.4 billion people work in this informal sector, amassing an estimated $10 trillion, making it the largest “employer” in the world. From providing a city with ambulances and leading flood recovery efforts, the informal sector is essential to the formal development of urban life.

Despite their power in numbers, though, inhabitants of informal cities live in legally ambiguous situations. Often governments ignore or actively work against them, refusing to give permits to vendors and resettling communities against their will. And even as these informal cities provide affordable goods and services, they’re simultaneously viewed as a blight on the city. Clearly, there needs to be a change in the conversations about the role of informality in cities. The informal city needs a voice.

Still Life Productions has succeeded in giving them one. To filmmaker Hill, the challenge was in creating “moving narratives around stories that do not usually make it to a mainstream audience.” His films capture the dynamic energy of these communities, painting an optimistic picture that highlights the impulse of entrepreneurship and the power of community without romanticizing poverty. The films present these communities as self-sufficient, but also make it evident that innovation and support are necessary to keep them resilient.

So what can the architectural profession gain from an understanding of the realities of the informal sector? While the speakers did not directly address this, a recurring theme throughout the discussion was the idea of contested space, with Sean Basinski, founder of New York City’s Street Vendor Project, stating that “space is always going to be contested.” Street vendors are viewed as a blight in public spaces, and informal settlements stand over what could be valuable land for developers. While the speakers asked, “Who has a right to the city?,” we may consider the question, “Who are we building for?” As de la Peña stated, in the race to build world-class cities, “throwing up glass skyscrapers isn’t always enough.”

To learn more about the project, visit:

Event: From Accra to Bangkok: Informal Cities Around the World
Location: Center for Architecture, 7.22.2013
Speakers: Diana Lind, Executive Director, Next City (moderator); Will Doig, International Editor, Next City; Benjamin de la Peña, Associate Director for Urban Development, Rockefeller Foundation; Ryan Hill, Partner, Still Life Productions; Sean Basinski, Founder and Director, The Street Vendor Project (guest speaker); and 2013 AIANY President Jill N. Lerner, FAIA (opening remarks)
Organizer: Next City and the Center for Architecture