Informality in Cities: Perspectives from Asia-Seminar Series

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    Online seminar (Zoom)
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  • Subject:

    Informality in Cities: Perspectives from Asia

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  • Host:

    SDGs Collaborative Research Unit

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Depending on one’s methodological perspective, informality may evoke multiple meanings. In discussions on cities, informality presents a powerful lens to make sense of everyday life, politics, economies, infrastructures, and planning, to name a few. As well, it allows for exploring the concepts of governance, state-society boundaries, sovereignty, and strategies of survival. While informality has been studied within cities in the Global South and through postcolonial histories, it is being included in other contexts as well. Perspectives from cities in Asia have a lot to contribute to these conversations. Drawing from their research on informality in cities in China, India, Thailand, and the Philippines, our speakers share their insights.


Yue Zhang (Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago)
Wataru Kusaka (Associate Professor, Nagoya University)
Tamaki Endo (Associate Professor, Saitama University)

Nazia Hussain (Project Assistant Professor, IFI, University of Tokyo) as moderator

In a conversation hosted by the SDGs unit and moderated by Dr. Nazia Hussain, Dr. Yue Zhang, Dr. Wataru Kusaka, and Dr. Tamaki Endo discussed challenges confronting cities in Asia, a region at the forefront of urbanization. This was the second of the four-part series on aspects related to challenges of governance, and precarious living in an increasingly urban world.

In her talk titled, “Varieties of Urbanism: Perspectives from the Informal Housing Sector in China and India”, Dr. Zhang made the case that, as the world experiences rapid urbanization, a defining phenomenon in the Global South is the expansion of informal housing settlements beyond the government control or regulation. This is a critical policy issue and challenges our understanding of what constitutes a city. Asian cities provide a rich ground for investigating this issue.

In her presentation, she discussed the formation, governance, and redevelopment of two types of informal settlements in China and India, namely, urban villages in Guangzhou and squatter settlements in Mumbai. As a product of the Chinese local government’s selective land expropriation, urban villages are rural enclaves encircled by urban expansion. The majority of residents in the villages are migrant workers without local household status (hukou). Squatter settlements are self-built housing on illegally occupied public or private land. As the “vote banks” for political parties, these communities provide votes for politicians in exchange for services and protection. Guangzhou and Mumbai launched projects to redevelop the informal settlements in recent decades. While their mechanisms of redevelopment are different, the processes of redevelopment in both cities are contentious and face challenges.

The comparison demonstrates that informality is highly differentiated in terms of spatial form, land tenure, and everyday governance. While informality is often considered the symptom of underdevelopment and a result of low state capacity, there is a symbiotic relationship between the state and informality. On the one hand, informality is the unintended consequence of certain state policies. On the other hand, the state actively negotiates with and uses the informal sector for governing purposes. Without real efforts of inclusive development, the state intervention to redevelop and formalize informal settlements only produces new spatial and social inequalities. The research also reveals that urbanization is not a linear process. Lastly, that in the context of urbanization in the Global South, the definition of the “urban” is contested and needs to be understood in the broader development goals and strategies of states.

In his presentation titled, “Neoliberal Governmentality in Metro Manila: Spatial, Legal and Moral Division of the Urban Poor”, Dr. Kusaka discussed why the urban poor in Metro Manila have come to call for “discipline” despite their own non-law-abiding ways of lives. His fieldwork in the early 2000s found that informal settlers and street vendors appealed to the values of “dignity” and “livelihoods”, and defended their informal lives against the state’s forced eviction. However, along with the rapid economic growth led by the global economy in the 2010s, many informal urban spaces were demolished and an increasing number of the poor have moved to resettlements sites in suburbs. Moreover, President Rodrigo Duterte’s discourse of “discipline” coupled with iron hand violence has resonated with the majority of the urban poor, which is seen in their support to his “war on drugs” and draconian quarantine against the pandemic. It is striking to see how young informal settlers passionately call for punishment against drug users and quarantine offenders as undisciplined “evil others” in the name of “discipline.”

Dr. Kusaka made the case that such changes in the urban poor’s agency, subjectivities and sociality are attributable to neoliberal governmentality, that urges people to espouse the ethos of “discipline” as “good citizens” who are independent from the state and skillful in the market. Reform-oriented urban governance and resettlement programs in the 2010s can be understood as instruments of the neoliberal governmentality. Therefore, the attempt of the state, the private sector, and the NGOs to gentrify the city while organizing, civilizing, and resettling the poor through reform-oriented participatory programs has facilitated the creation of the new subjectivity among the struggling urban poor, who proclaim to be “good citizens” and antagonize those who adhere to culture and lives in slums.

In the final presentation titled, “Urban Informality at Crossroad?: Dynamics between Inclusion and Exclusion in Case of Bangkok”, Dr. Endo argued that with rapid economic development, Bangkok and BMR (Bangkok Mega Region) have become global hubs of finance, production and consumption, attracting global investors and emerging upper class, but at the same time, exhibiting continuous expansion of the informal economy and settlements. As the result, the city is showing multi-layered stratification, and inequality within Bangkok has been widening since 2010s. Adding to that, recent private-led development is drastically changing the city’s landscape and therefore accelerating this phenomenon.

From the perspective of the urban poor, urban informality –either in terms of occupations or residences- provide multiple functions such as absorbing the shocks from urban risks, enabling flexible adjustments for their needs in the survival of urban life, and creating opportunities for social mobility and upgrading, etc. Due to the fact that the majority of the labor force in Thailand is still in the informal employment, there has been a policy shift to expand social security coverage, especially for the self-employed. It can be said that these are the attempts to include informal economy workers into the formal mechanisms. However, if taking a look at actual urban governance and urban redevelopment projects led by private sectors, one can identify that the spaces for informality are rapidly eroded by evicting vendors, fresh markets and slum communities. The middle class joins the discourse of ‘protecting modern beautiful city’ through SNS and support this harsh attitude towards urban informality.

Dr. Endo made the case that the urban economy cannot be sustained without the labor of the urban poor who are surely one of the contributors for macro economy. However, ‘informality,’ which has been an alternative mechanism for their survival, because of the lack of formal institutional supports, is now under threat. This might cause the destruction of social networks, limit resource allocations for the urban poor, and therefore create social conflicts among social classes. Finding balance among interests of multiple actors in urban redevelopment and governance will be key for the well-being of residents and make the city livable.