The project

Commercial street in slum in Mumbai (Photo: R.R.)

Commercial street in Mumbai informal settlement (Photo: R.R.)

Scientific and intellectual background of the project

In the “BOOK” section, we described the logic of enquiry pursued by this book. The tremendous challenges represented by rapid urbanisation of the global south and the challenges of dwelling in transition and advanced economies affected by crises and rampant inequity demand that planning professionals all over the world engage with issues of informal urbanisation. We therefore believe that there is a growing audience interested in issues of informal urbanisation among planners, decision-makers, teachers, students and others concerned with urban development.

Within this framework there are two main drivers for this project:

  • Lack of cross-national comparative work that seeks to understand the meaning of informal urbanisation in different socio-political contexts and in relation to theories of rights and justice and processes of democratization.
  • Lack of cross-national comparative studies that focus on informal urbanisation as a political phenomenon with different meanings in different socio-political contexts.

We believe that an edited volume describing the meaning and the role of informal urbanisation in different socio-political contexts in relation to theories of justice and rights will greatly advance our understanding of this phenomenon and might help strengthen comparative cross-national research agendas within a common framework. It may also enable policy-makers, planners and designers to think about informal urbanisation as a multi-dimensional phenomenon embedded in specific political contexts. Moreover, it will provide an opportunity for planning educators to incorporate the discussion about informal urbanisation into planning curricula around the world. This is a crucial point for us, as we believe that not sufficient attention is being given in planning and design schools towards what may well be one of the greatest challenges of our time: how to provide healthy, socially and economically sustainable dwellings to millions of rural workers migrating to cities in the global south within the democratic enterprise?

Therefore, one of the main objectives of this book is to be a course book and create an impact on planning education by providing enough comparative material to situate the discussion in different contexts.

The body of literature on informal urbanisation is enormous and varied in scope and quality. Great attention has been given to:

  • Structural improvement/slum upgrading (physical infrastructure and urban facilities) (an eminently ‘practical’ approach based on experiences of slum reform, mainly propagated by the World Bank in the 1990s and 2000s. Habitat International is the main vehicle for publications on this theme. The slum upgrading approach was criticised by many, including (Werlin, 1999, Abbott, 2002)
  • Formalisation of land rights (De Soto, 2000, Banik, 2008, Bromley, 2009, Durand-Lasserve and Selod, 2009)
  • Market-driven eviction and land speculation (Greene, 2003, Durand-Lasserve, 2006, Fix, 2001)
  • Community building and empowerment (Mansuri and Rao, 2004)

Evidently, these themes are intertwined and complement each other. This short inventory indicates that, although there is ample literature connecting informal urbanisation to a struggle for rights, there is a gap in literature concerning the linkages between theories of rights and spatial justice and varying understandings of informal urbanisation in context. We are convinced that this comparative exercise would enlighten the action of planners and decisions-makers and would mobilise and legitimise action in different contexts.

Scope and contents

This book aims to showcase a number of analysis and understandings of informal urbanisation produced by planners, sociologists and human geographers from different parts of the world. The focus will fall on how urban thinkers understand the meaning of informal urbanisation in the struggle for democracy and inclusion, adopting the common perspective of justice, ‘rights to rights’ and the ‘right to the city’. By making strong connections between local realities and this common analytical framework, we expect to arrive at novel understandings and insights.

Ideas will be sewn together by (i) inviting authors to react to a common framework of analysis and (ii) by making connections explicit with introduction and concluding chapters written by the editors and guest writers. By actively briefing authors, we expect to strengthen the coherence of their responses and to incite dialogue among them, hopefully leading to a consistent collection of essays. We are bidding for funds elsewhere to organise a colloquium gathering authors in one place in order to facilitate cross-fertilisation of ideas and strengthen a common understanding of the task.

Based on diverse case studies from around the world, the book will showcase urban thinkers familiar with different socio-political realities in the global south, of which we can make a tentative typology based on the state of democracy and the ‘Rule of Law Index’ published by The World Justice Project (Agrast et al., 2013)[1]:

  • Middle-income countries with transition or mixed economies where aspirations to positive rights are recognised, but where democratic institutions are deficient or where the rule of law is defective . The degree of informality in urban development is variable, but informal urbanisation is not necessarily the prevalent mode of urbanisation. Countries in Latin America, a few countries in the Middle East, South-East Asia, as well as South Africa could be included in this category.

Transition economies in Eastern Europe are a case in question. Although they cannot be classified as “developing” economies, they might exhibit features pertaining to developing countries (weak rule of law, weak planning frameworks, exclusion from formal forms of democratic participation). Finally, countries in Southern Europe which are seen as fully developed, such as Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece have been showing signs that states are failing to provide decent housing to their citizens, and new forms of informal urbanisation, self-help and contestation are flourishing.

  • Low-income countries with principles of democratic rule and developing economies where informal urbanisation is the prevalent mode of urbanisation, because of lack of economic development, deficiency of democratic mechanisms and lack of institutional capacity. In short, democracy is defective or incipient and the rule of law is weak. Positive rights are barely recognisable as being provided by the State. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central America and many others would fall into this category.

These two categories are a rough simplification and by no means express the rich variety of existing socio-economic development paths, democracy, regard to the rule of law and access to positive rights. These categories are merely intended to frame the discussion in relation to the capacity of States to actively promote public goods, of which healthy, sustainable and affordable living environments are expressions. A short description of specific political systems and existing planning institutions for countries in this study should allow the reader to situate the cases in relation to the parameters discussed here. The book is designed to present and explore this variety and invite readers to reflect on the importance of the rule of law, economic development and the role of governments in creating and maintaining public goods and promoting sustainable urbanisation.

Main research questions

The main questions to be answered by this book are:

  • What does informal urbanisation mean in relation to specific political contexts in terms of struggles for democracy, positive rights and the empowerment of disenfranchised citizens?
  • How does informal urbanisation contribute to the enfranchisement of citizens in different socio-political contexts and to processes of democratisation?
  • Taking theories of democracy, justice and rights as guiding frameworks, how to describe each particular context of urbanisation?
  • What is the ideological position of different governments in relation to informal urbanisation and how do these different positions affect the quality of responses? What is the legal stance of informal settlements and citizens engaging in informal urbanisation?
  • Is informal urbanisation being used instrumentally by governments to improve citizens’ life chances?
  • What are current attitudes towards informal urbanisation within existing legal and planning systems? Are informal dwellers criminalised, shunned or otherwise penalised? Are they supported in their struggles?
  • What are specific planning tools and practices dealing with informal urbanisation and how do they perform in terms of the theoretical framework being proposed in this book?

Furthermore, the book will seek answers to the following questions in relation to each of the case study chapters. Some of them are restatements of the main research questions that aim to clarify the context:

  1. What are main drivers of urbanisation in the context described? What are general characteristics of urbanisation in terms of urbanisation rate, pace and nature? Why is there informal urbanisation in the context described?
  2. What are particular demographic, politic and socio-economic characteristics of cases under scrutiny? How do they lead to informality?
  3. What are main political and economic struggles that have influenced housing provision and affordability in the case study?
  4. What kinds of institutional responses to informal urbanisation exist in the context described? What are particular planning instruments used to deal with it? What is the legal status of informal settlements and of dwellers?
  5. What kinds of positive rights are informal dwellers entitled to/aware of/seeking for? How does the political legal system respond to popular demands in each context?
  6. Is civil society organised? Is it possible to describe governance arrangements in terms of how the public sector, the private sector and civil society interact when seeking responses to informal urbanisation?

[1] It is not the intention of this work to dwell on the taxonomy of development and the rule of law, of which much has been said by the IMF, the United Nations and the World Bank. For a comprehensive discussion on this taxonomy please see VÁZQUEZ, S. T. & SUMNER, A. 2013. Revisiting the Meaning of Development: A Multidimensional Taxonomy of Developing Countries. The Journal of Development Studies, 49, 1728-1745.


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