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THEINFORMALTURN

The Informal Turn


YASSER ELSHESHTAWY Informal urbanism is not a new subject in urban studies yet it has recently been receiving increased focus among researchers as well as policy-makers what one may describe as an informal turn in urban theory. This is evidenced in publications such as The Ludic City by Quentin Stevens (2007), Jerey Hous (2010) Insurgent Public Space: Guerilla Urbanism and the Remaking of the Contemporary Cities or Kim Doveys (2009) Becoming Places. What these publications have in common is that they focus on the everyday practices of ordinary citizens, forcing a recongured relationship between those in power and the inhabitants of cities. Various institutions are recognizing this as well. In a 2007 meeting organized by the Holcim Foundation concerning Sustainable Urbanism, one sub-theme dealt with informal urbanism describing it as the intermingling of formal and informal modes of organization which promotes a split condition, leaving its traces in the very fabric of the city. Accordingly this confounds practiced renditions of urban governance which adhere to top-down approaches without due attention given to bottom-up processes of self-regulation.1 Similar themes were also explored during the 2010 International Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam which had as its theme Open City: Designing Co-existence.2 At the level of policy numerous publications by United Nations organizations such as Habitat and ESCWA have been looking at the extent to which informal settlements, for instance, have become means of survival for urban residents (e.g. UN-Habitat, 2007). Similarly, eorts by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Germanys GTZ are targeting slum upgrading projects in Cairo by empowering their inhabitants (GTZ, 2009).
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Such interest raises the question as to why at this particular moment has there been this increased activity. Historically, calls for informality can be traced back to the 1960s when The Situationists and others questioned received urbanism theories promoted by the modernists (Sadler, 1999). But in the twenty-first century certain changes in the nature of cities and governance can be looked at as factors contributing to a renewed interest in this issue. For one thing, there is the much cited statistic about an increasingly urbanizing world where for the first time in recent human history more people live in cities than in rural areas, with the resultant proliferation of megacities and increased migration to urban centres. Mike Daviss Planet of Slums (2007) offered a stark and unflattering assessment of these developments. Obviously, many cities cannot cope with such an influx and thus alternative strategies for inhabiting urban spaces need to be devised. On the other hand, an increasingly politically aware populace is searching for ways that would undermine neoliberal tendencies promoting the privatization of urban public space, for instance. Closely related to this point is the notion of globalization and a realization that cities throughout the world are becoming homogenized entities. Informal strategies provide a counterpoint to these globalizing tendencies by offering an expressive and individualized outlet for citizens. Informality thus enables researchers, professionals and public officials to re-examine the nature of cities and the extent to which residents and migrants seek to carve out liveable spaces that would mitigate homogenizing and oppressive tendencies. One could also make the argument that the recent financial
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crisis has put the spotlight on the excesses of spectacular urbanism and that a more downto-earth approach favouring the everyday and the mundane would be more pertinent (Elsheshtawy, forthcoming). Furthermore, one could argue that conventional top down planning approaches do not adequately capture the complexities of everyday life and the extent to which city residents negotiate urban spaces in their daily lives, in the process both reconstituting and re-appropriating physical spaces. Through this they impose an alternative order, one that overcomes the limitations and constraints posed by the built environment. This can take many forms informal market places, outdoor vendors, formation of gathering places in abandoned sites, informal housing and impromptu soccer games in parking lots or abandoned building sites. Bordering on illegality, such practices are barely tolerated and in some instances actively persecuted. This follows a desire to sanitize city spaces thus making them more palatable to the demands of a global economy and the perception of tourists as they become stage sets for an imagined order that discourages the accidental and the unusual. Yet, an understanding of informal settings and the degree to which the urban environment can provide a framework that would allow for the unfolding of unplanned events and activities is crucial for sustaining vibrant urban settings. For many urbanists and observers of urban life, informality has become the defining characteristic of cityness (e.g. Simone, 2010). Drawing on the work of Lefebvre and others, they extol the virtues of the accidental and the unpredictable. Henri Lefebvre (1991), for example, argued that all forms of social experience are constituted in and through space. It is in urban spaces that the scope of what people experience as everyday life continually develops. His notion of the social oeuvre, for instance, elevates the role of chance encounters, social mixing, exploration of the unfamiliar and risk. He notes that
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through such interactions there is a discovery of diverse needs. Thus, as Lefebvre puts it, the urban becomes what it always was: a place of desire, permanent disequilibrium, seat of the dissolution of normalities and constraints, the moment of play and the unpredictable (p. 129). He distinguished between two simultaneous realities that exist within everyday life: the quotidian, the timeless, humble, repetitive natural rhythms of life; and the modern, the always new and constantly changing habits that are shaped by technology and worldliness. In a similar vein Michel de Certeau (1984) conceptualized how people operate within urban spaces advocating the power of city residents to challenge officially sanctioned urbanism strategies practised by those in power by using tactics, i.e. transitory and ephemeral urban activities. Through these they are able to change the organization of spaces they are the art of the weak and constitute an incursion into the field of the powerful. The work of Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett, and more recently Michael Sorkin, as well as Sharon Zukin (Jacobs, 1961; Sennett, 1977; Sorkin, 2009; Zukin, 2010), while not explicitly dealing with informal urbanism, nevertheless continues this research tradition. Having established a theoretical background of sorts, this issue of Built Environment seeks to make a contribution to the notion of informality in cities, offering examples of cutting edge research concerning this subject. Contributors have addressed this in a number of ways showing not just the subjects versatility and diversity, but also allowing for some common themes to emerge in spite of geographical, methodological and theoretical differences. For instance both Mahyar Arefi in his exploration of the Pinar settlement in Istanbul and Kim Dovey and Ross King in their examination of Southeast Asian informal residential formations are seeking an underlying order, a typology of sorts. In that way they are acknowledging, and legitimizing, these alternative modes of habitation. In a similar manner but focusing
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on socio-economic factors are Tom Anyambas interrogation of Nairobi and Gareth Doherty and Moises Silvas exploration of Rios infamous favelas. Both are trying to unravel the negative connotations associated with informality by providing an in-depth look at two cases. While Anyamba attempts to situate the emergence of informality in Nairobi, setting this within a larger political context (post-colonialism), Doherty and Silva are placing their inquiry within an ongoing debate in Brazil concerning favelas and their place within a modern society. Their concise and sharp article seeks to question the notion of informality itself by provocatively suggesting that binary distinctions are not relevant. Informal urbanism as a strategy of survival and assertion of an ethnic identity is a theme that unites both Petra Kuppingers study of an Islamic community centre in Stuttgart and my own mapping project of Abu Dhabis urban spaces and their use by a marginalized segment of society. Kuppingers research about the transformation of a mosque shows both the resilience and the ingenuity of an ethnic minority in Western Europe. Her exploration is particularly timely given the recent debates about minarets in Switzerland as well as the role of Moslem migrants within European societies. My study of the informal use of public spaces in Abu Dhabi, attempts to shed light on the extent to which migrant communities, even within a limiting and restrictive context such as the Arabian Gulf, are able to carve out spaces that defy the official narrative imposed by a dominating minority. Again, the subject is timely given concerns about the rights of labourers within an Arabian Gulf context, showing the extent to which they are not always confined to toiling within the abject conditions of labour camps (e.g. Elsheshtawy, 2008). At the level of methodology some papers have called for the use of ethnography as a research tool that by its very nature would allow for a deep and rich understanding of informal processes. In particular, Doherty and
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Moises and Kuppinger have explicitly used ethnographic methodologies in presenting their cases. Their depiction of everyday life and activities in true anthropological fashion offers a refreshing and much needed insight. Mapping techniques for understanding informality at a larger scale within an under researched context, which I attempted to do, as well as the typological inquiry developed by Dovey and King, could also be construed as innovative methodologies for tackling this subject. The papers in this issue have for the most part focused on specific cases set within a city. Thus, Arefi presents the district of Pinar within the overall context of Istanbul; Doherty and Silva discuss the well-known favela of Rocinha within the city of Rio de Janeiro; Tom Anyamba focuses on the district of Buru Buru in Nairobi; Petra Kuppinger sheds light on an industrial district in the city of Stuttgart. My own interrogation of Abu Dhabi is not dedicated to a specific case, but uncovers modes of informality spread throughout the city in a series of vignettes. Standing out in this collection is Doveys and Kings discussion concerning forms of informality. Their approach necessitates not so much a focus on a specific case or city. Instead, they are using broad brush-strokes of various modes of informality drawing on a large repertoire of cities, settlements and neighbourhoods. The result is a rich tapestry that has the potential for further in-depth investigations. Because of the broad ranging nature of this article it starts the collection in this issue. Subsequent papers are grouped according to the themes discussed in this introduction. Informal urbanism, as these papers show, enriches the lives of city inhabitants and in many ways strengthens the liveability of cities. To illustrate this point further I conclude with an example from Berlin namely the Mediaspree Project. The Spree is a river running through Berlin, alongside its once infamous wall, which divided the city into East and West. Waterfronts are always
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valuable real estate and as such it was no surprise that the Berlin government aimed at turning this into an investment opportunity by selling the land along the river to investors foreign and German. A series of high-rise towers, that would have turned this area into a private space for office workers and corporations, was proposed. Promptly, a group of activists rallied against this project. They did not just stop there but took their protest a step further and occupied a stretch of empty land along the river that had been slated for development and turned it into an informal public place. One enters through an opening in the wall and is faced with a series of temporary structures. The concrete fence/wall is painted with colourful drawings and text. The ground is covered in sand, thus making the space resemble a beach. There is an African feel to the space suggested by the nature of the paintings, the music

emanating from the cafeteria and also the name of the space YAAM which stands for Young African Arts Market (figures 1 to 3). Naturally, the government did not approve of this, but it seems to have been tolerated given that there is an overall depression of the real estate market and many investors are waiting until the environment improves. But, more significantly, the activists have secured the support of the Green Party, which has been invited to plant trees, for example. In addition they have also been lobbying for a change in building regulations to enable people to enjoy the river. Thus, they were able to secure regulations specifying that a distance of 10 m to 50 m from the river should be maintained as public space. Such efforts exist to varying degrees in other parts of the world whereby residents take matters into their own hand and create a kind of alternative urbanity within a citys

Figures 1 and 2.The Young African Arts Market YAAM. A communal space set apart from the city.
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Figure 3.Fringe settings exist along the river constructed by activists.

fringe spaces, that defies what they perceive as an infringement of peoples right to access public amenities such as rivers. Similar to what the authors in this issue have been investigating this case demonstrates the increasingly blurred boundaries between formal and informal, the potentially positive quality of informal urbanism, and a realization that a truly sustainable urban environment cannot be nurtured and maintained without letting city inhabitants have a say in how space can be used and modified. Otherwise, the obsessive desire for order may ultimately, and inadvertently, lead to an oppressive environment.

REFERENCES
Davis, Mike (2007) Planet of Slums. London: Verso. de Certeau, Michel (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life (translated by Steven Rendell). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Dovey, Kim (2009) Becoming Places: Urbanism/Architecture/Identity/Power. London: Routledge. Elsheshtawy, Yasser (2008) Transitory sites: mapping Dubais forgotten urban public spaces. The International Journal of Urban & Regional Research, 32(4), pp. 968988. Elsheshtawy, Yasser (forthcoming, 2011) Little space/big space: everyday urbanism in Dubai. Brown Journal of World Aairs. GTZ (2009) Cairos Informal Areas: Between Urban Challenges and Hidden Potentials. Cairo: GTZ. Hou, Jerey (2010) Insurgent Public Space: Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities. London: Routledge. Jacobs, Jane (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House. Lefebvre, Henry (1991) Critique of Everyday Life. London: Verso. Sadler, Simon (1999) The Situationist City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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NOTES

1.http://www.holcimfoundation.org/T460/ F07WKInf.htm. Accessed 12 January 2011. 2.http://iabr.nl/EN/activities/exhibitions_ and_events/IABR---InternationalArchitecture-Biennale-Rotterdam_0.php. Accessed 12 January 2011.
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Sennett, Richard (1977) The Fall of Public Man. New York: Knopf. Simone, Abdoumaliq (2010) City Life from Jakarta to Dakar: Movements at the Crossroads. London: Routledge. Sorkin, Michael (2009) Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. London: Reaktion Books. Stevens, Quentin (2007) The Ludic City: Exploring the Potential of Public Spaces. London: Routledge. UN-Habitat (2007) The State of the Worlds Cities Report 2006/2007. London: Earthscan. Zukin, Sharon (2010) Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. New York: Oxford University Press.

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