Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Postcolonialising Informality?

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Postcolonialising Informality?

Article excerpt


As Ananya Roy (2005, page 148) observes, "informality is back on the agenda of international development and urban planning." (1) Hernando de Soto's (2000) arguments about formalising informal property contribute one important strand to current debates. De Soto is an economist, whose work on informality dates from the 1980s, illustrating the observation by Jose Castillo (2001, page 105) that it was mainly social scientists who led work on informality for some decades, after the earlier preeminence of architects and urbanists such as John Turner and Charles Abrams. There is now, however, a resurgence of interest from architecture, described as the product of a renewed social and environmental activism (Hernandez and Kellett, 2010; Saunders, 2008). For Nezar AlSayyad (2004), informality is "a new paradigm for understanding urban culture" (page 9).

This new literature on informality adopts a more explicitly theoretical approach than some earlier work, drawing on postcolonial and poststructuralist approaches in a search for "new geographies of theory" (Roy, 2009a, page 819). The emerging postcolonial urban studies literature has however tended to neglect Latin America, concentrating instead on South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. In this paper I therefore examine some of the recent work on informality in Latin America that resonates with other scholarship at the intersection of postcolonial and urban studies. I argue that, despite an avowed intent to challenge the exclusions of (in)formality, the result can, ironically, be to perpetuate them.

Postcolonial (urban) studies and Latin America

From one perspective a focus on informality is inherently suspect. Jennifer Robinson (2006b) regards it as compromised by association with "mega-city and developmentalist approaches [that] extend to the entire city the characterisation of those parts that are lacking in all sorts of facilities and services" (page 123). Such partial visions, emphasising lack, classify cities in the Global South as essentially inferior to those of the West. Portraying megacities as sites of impoverishment in a "noir futuristic urban genre of decline and despair" consolidates a hierarchy of difference, making them the binary counterpart to global cities and perpetuating "colonial paternalism" (page 5). Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe (2005) have criticised Michael Watts (2005), for instance, for depicting the 'slum' as the key characteristic of contemporary African cities. In a similar vein, Vyjayanthi Rao (2006) deplores the way the "slum" has come to serve as shorthand for a "teleology of dysfunction" (page 231) in South/ Asian cities.

The division between global and megacities is reproduced at a different scale by the formal/informal dichotomy. To challenge this binary, Saskia Sassen (2005) looks to "a re-reading of the city through representations of its post-colonial relationship to topography" (page 84)--'topography' referring here to approaches that divide informal settlements from the rest of the city. Tom Angotti (2006) lambasts Mike Davis's (2006) 'apocalyptic' Planet of Slums for fomenting simplistic dualisms that ignore the multiple connections between formal and informal. He describes such binary thinking as 'urban orientalism' (Angotti, 2009).

The most systematic critique of the notion of the informal as a "bounded space" is offered by Roy (2011, page 233). Informality is, rather, an expression of variability in what is regarded as legal or illegal, and as such it "connects the seemingly separated geographies of slum and suburb" (page 233). Much of a city may flout planning regulations, and the state may disregard its own laws when it finds it convenient to do so, but only certain claims to land are designated illegitimate. Selective enforcement of planning norms testifies to a "calculated" informality, a "system of deregulation" that is also "a mode of regulation" (Roy, 2009b, page 83). …

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