Informal Public Demands

In the last few years, the Tijuana-San Diego border has served as our laboratory from which to rethink current politics of surveillance, immigration and labour, the polarization of informal and formal systems of urbanisation and the widening gap between wealth and poverty. This particular site is a point of entry to investigate zones of conflict and marginality across the globe; and our contention is that the most compelling practices of urban intervention that advance social and economic inclusion are emerging not from sites of economic power but from sites of scarcity, where the collision between top-down and bottom-up urban development is most dramatic.

One aspect of our work together (as a political theorist and an architect) focuses on the sociological effects of bottom-up development, how the circulation of norms and beliefs in shared spaces generate patterns of group life, for better and for worse. We have learnt from Antanas Mockus, the visionary former mayor of Bogotá, that engaging the city at this informal, normative level is essential to transforming cities. In tandem, we are investigating the physical manifestations of social informality, particularly among people navigating conditions of scarcity, and the emergence of informal settlements, economic flows and general strategies of collective survival.

These bottom-up phenomena have exploded in the last years, with the rapid urbanisation of the world’s population, and the proliferation of slums on the peripheries of global cities everywhere. And we have witnessed how small border neighbourhoods have produced practices of adaptation and resiliency that transgress imposed political and economic forces, pointing to other ways of constructing a city, and other ways of performing citizenship. We have been investigating how these bottom-up practices—operating outside of formal institutions—can help us formulate alternative economies of development and urbanisation.

The ultimate goal of our practical work together is to seek ways by which this knowledge can “trickle up” to transform top-down urban policy. We are not developing theories of informality that let formal institutions off the hook, in terms of social welfare and inclusive governance. In fact, most of our research and practical work explores the way exemplary municipalities—like Medellín, Colombia—have committed to co-producing the city, investing top-down resources and capacities to support the intelligent efficacy of bottom-up processes.

We must question the role of architecture and urban planning in engaging the major problems of urban development today

A primary site of intervention today is curating interfaces between institutions and the community-based knowledge embedded in marginalised neighbourhoods. We insist that it is only through a meeting of knowledges [sic] that we can instigate a new civic imagination. This begins with critical intervention into our own practices and research protocols—cultivating epistemic humility, learning to speak in languages that communicate beyond our own professional knowledge silos, and learning to listen and recognise the value of alternative ways of seeing and doing.

On one hand, we must question the role of architecture and urban planning in engaging the major problems of urban development today, as well as the social and political sciences, and their obsession with quantified data as the only way to measure social inequity without giving us any qualitative way out of the problem. In other words, it is not enough only to reveal the socio-economic histories and injustices that have produced these crises, but it is essential that theory and practice become instruments to construct specific strategies for transcending them.  A new urban political economy can emerge at collision between the top-down and the bottom-up. Design can encroach into the fragmented and discriminatory policies and economics that have produced these collisions. Besides being researchers and designers of form, buildings and objects, architects and designers can be designers of political processes, urban pedagogy, alternative economic models and collaborations across institutions and jurisdictions to assure accessibility and socio-economic justice. The project of rethinking urban inequality today is not primarily an architectural or artistic project but a political one, a project that architects and artists can mobilize.

Many practitioners and academics have been uncertain about the distinction between formal and informal urban dynamics. The informal is a dangerous word for some who suggest that formal and informal categories do not exist, that they are mutually inclusive and that this polarization has not been fruitful in the construction of a more emancipatory consensus-based democratic agenda for the city. As long as urban inequality and conflict still exists in the city, we will witness bottom-up resistance and resilience in the shape of counter-urban tactics of adaptation, and in some cases transgression to imposed urban, economic and political agendas.

We understand the risk of perpetuating an oppositional relationship between formal and informal categories, but we want to begin by acknowledging their difference. There has been a tendency across specialised creative fields to evade binary relations as a point of departure in the construction of new conceptual paradigms, probably due to the fact that it is still driven by the heritage of a cultural ideology that elevated concepts such as cultural relativism, hybrid identities and the blurring of differential categories. While much of this “postmodern” scholarship and practice presented us with these new procedures to negotiate the established hierarchical and rational structures of modern thinking, it also exerted damage in illuminating conflict in the advancement of exclusionary neoliberal political economies since the early 1980s to now. We think it is time to penetrate the mechanisms that have produced today’s socio-economic crisis, and it is here where the dialectic between formal and informal systems becomes a device to visualize conflict, enabling new strategies to mediate the top-down and the bottom-up.

Scepticism towards the formal-informal binary has also produced, primarily in the fields of architecture, an indifference to the socio-economic and political conditions that complicate architectural form today. This denigration of the “bottom-up” has been the DNA of “autonomy” in architecture, whose recurring avant-garde utopian dream throughout history has always been to give formal order to the chaos of social difference by imposing structural and compositional strategies that somehow bring political, cultural and aesthetic unity to a society gone amok. While we agree with recent political stances in architecture to return to a notion of autonomy in order to resist the aesthetic relativism behind the speculative commercial logic of hyper-capitalism, we are critical of the nostalgic return to a top-down autonomous and self-referential language as the only way out of this continued “postmodern nightmare”. And while we also agree with how autonomy’s critique has been oriented to the bottom-up consumerist politics of neoliberalism, we equally condemn its abandonment of bottom-up social movements and the contested space between the public and the private, whose antagonism is at the centre of the “political” in urbanisation today. After all, without a progressive welfare state to support a public and social agenda at a massive scale, anti-democratic governments, autocratic dictatorships and corporate power will fill the void.

For these reasons, the misunderstanding of formal-informal relations can only lead to urban paradigms that unify and materialize the consensus politics of neoliberal global capital, into an apolitical formalist project of beautification, whose relentless homogeneity and parametric veneer hide the conflicts that drive today’s urban crisis and negate the multiplicity of socio-economic relations that should inspire new, more experimental architectural paradigms.

The project of rethinking urban inequality today is not primarily an architectural or artistic project but a political one, a project that architects and artists can mobilise

The political economy of urban growth has widened the gap between rich and poor, and has produced dramatic marginalization at the periphery of major urban centres. This uneven urbanisation is at the heart of today’s socio-economic crisis, and its effects on human life have worsened as many governments around the world continue to unplug from marginalised communities and hand development over to privatization.

Privatization has turned the city into a site of consumption and display. Yet, at the margins, neighbourhoods have been sustaining themselves with the logics of local productivity, generating a different notion of the “political” and the “economic”. These stealth practices reside at the intersection between formal and informal urbanisations and the conflicts between top-down policy and bottom-up social contingency and survival, informally redefining existing norms of ownership in the city today. It is from these informal settlements worldwide that a new politics of urban growth for the contemporary city is being shaped, often off the radar of those who formally define the categories of urban development.

Take the example of two women, responding to lack of child care, who rent a three-bedroom apartment and transform it into a day-care facility, which in turn is recognised by a community-based organization that camouflages that activity, while supporting it with knowledge and economic resources, channelling and redirecting subsidies and other cash flows. Some will dismiss this activity as “illegal”, but we would like to recognise the ubiquity and potential of scaling up these informal acts to elevate local-scale economic and social creativity. We want to frame this agency and stealth knowledge as an operative tool to rethink economic development at local and small scales, and ultimately to help us reimagine typologies of housing and public space.

Instead of a fixed category or style, we see the informal as a set of urban practices that transgress imposed political boundaries and top-down economic models. It is not an aesthetic category but a praxis. We are interested in emergent urban configurations produced from social emergency, and the performative role of individuals constructing their own spaces, and their economic relations. We want to translate the operative processes behind these informal practices into new tactics of urban intervention to challenge existing, formal protocols of economic development.

Our research in recent years has focused on the most compelling cases of informal urbanisation across Latin America, and how to translate them into new paradigms of housing, infrastructure, property and citizenship, inspiring “other” modes of intervention into the contemporary city. Many cities across the continent have rethought public infrastructure by enabling inclusive political and civic processes that negotiate interfaces between the top-down and bottom-up, tapping into diverse social networks, informal economies and imaginative forms of public participation.

There is a lineage of progressive municipal examples across the continent. They include: São Paulo’s SESCs (Social Service of Commerce/ Serviço Social do Comércio); Curitiba’s renowned bus rapid transit (BRT) system, which is emblematic of intelligent mass transportation; Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting; Bogota’s urban pedagogies; and Medellin’s social urbanism. In the last few years, we have been developing what could be described as “translation” projects to appropriate these Latin American models and adapt their engagement with the informal to our own distinctive cross-border context, as tools to transform urban and environmental policy

Medellín and Bogota have been of particular importance to us:

Medellín for its collaborative model of governance and intervention; and Bogotá for its strategies of infiltrating the behavioural patterns of civic dysfunction with performative gestures designed to change social norms and belief systems from the bottom up. We have been partnering with former Medellín mayor, Sergio Fajardo, and his director of urban projects, Alejandro Echeverri, who was responsible for many of the city’s most important interventions. We have also engaged with Antanas Mockus, the former mayor of Bogotá, and his research team at Corpovisionarios. Translating and appropriating the models of Medellín and Bogotá, particularly the informal dimensions of these models, has been essential in rethinking our own research and practice.

Medellín was the most violent city in the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but has gained much global attention in recent years for the transformations that took place there. On the one hand, it is gratifying that Medellin’s architectural and infrastructural interventions have been acknowledged, for they were built in the most vulnerable sites across that city, and have made a significant positive impact on reducing poverty and crime. On the other hand, there is a tendency to miss the radical tactics of the mayors who effected these major shifts by characterizing the transformations in a smooth neoliberal language of economic development stewarded by public-private partnerships that expanded public transport, opened markets and attracted foreign investment.

What the conventional narrative misses is the role of the bottom-up in the long history of urbanisation in Medellín. The historically marginalised informal comunas of the city were not simply needy recipients of top-down planning, but were agents in an inclusive process of co-production.

It is from these informal settlements worldwide that a new politics of urban growth for the contemporary city is being shaped, often off the radar of those who formally define the categories of urban development

Ultimately, it is not by emulating buildings and transport systems that cities across the globe can approximate the inclusive urbanisation that transformed Medellín, and improved quality of life for the most vulnerable demographics over the last two decades. The key is to understand process: how the city managed to reorient resources on such a massive scale toward sites of greatest need. What must a city do to pull off such an unprecedented accomplishment? How did government need to transform? What kinds of institutional intersections were necessary? How were these interventions funded? What was the role of the bottom-up in enabling these interventions to succeed and sustain themselves over time?

These are the questions we wanted to pursue, so that Medellín might become intelligible, not only as a set of structures but primarily as an imaginative set of political and civic processes.  We worked closely with Echeverri and interviewed dozens of individuals involved in Medellín’s political and civic processes, from the mayor to social workers, from artists and academics to civic philanthropists, since what happened there was a complex process of negotiation and collaboration across institutions and publics. We translated these stories and anecdotes, identified connections, traced the ideas and tendencies across time and through diverse geographies, incrementally stitching them together and visualizing their complexity in a relational map, called the Medellín Diagram (opposite page).

Antanas Mockus, a philosopher and former university rector, was twice elected mayor of Bogotá—in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, during a period of intense violence and urban chaos. Mockus approaches informality in sociological terms, helping us to think about the informal dimensions of social coordination and governance in the city. He insisted that before transforming the physical city, we needed first to transform social behaviour, to change hearts from the bottom-up. And he developed an urban pedagogy of distinctive performative interventions to demonstrate precisely what he meant, inspiring generations of civic actors, urbanists and artists across Latin America—and the world—to think more creatively about transforming urban behaviour.

In 2013, we brought Mockus and his think tank Corpovisionarios to the San Diego-Tijuana border region to help us cultivate a new cross-border citizenship culture. With Ford Foundation support, we produced a Binational Citizenship Culture Survey to measure what Mockus calls “citizenship culture”. Corpovisionarios has applied their survey in dozens of cities, primarily in Latin America, to measure public trust and social coordination. Our San Diego-Tijuana survey contained a “binational” module intended to measure trust and shared aspirations between the two cities. Our claim has always been that the border wall ultimately cannot disrupt the normative, social, economic and environmental flows that define our region. The purpose of the survey was to identify these informal flows to compel a new era of public self-knowledge and cross-border municipal collaboration.

Over the years, a series of mayors in San Diego and Tijuana have signed agreements, promising to collaborate on shared concerns such as environment, economy, risk management and so forth. But Mockus insists that it makes no sense to sign formal agreements if citizens themselves don’t “interiorize” a new civic consciousness. While we are indeed working with the mayors to build new relations of trust and cooperation from the top down, we are primarily interested in identifying the informal dynamics that bind these two cities together from the bottom-up, through which a new regional collective consciousness can emerge.

Bogota and Medellin, and the urban transformations across Latin American that inspired them, were activated by what we have called a “civic imagination”, a way of thinking collectively about urban life that we have lost, not only in the United States but also incrementally across Europe during the recent years of austerity. They teach us that progressive municipalities still exist—and that the question today is not about eliminating government but reinventing it, reorganizing it in more efficient, inclusive ways. It is not a question of distrusting the top-down but recalibrating it with bottom-up sensibilities and knowledges.


We maintain that urban transformation begins at the social and behavioural level, intervening into the dysfunctional and hierarchical social norms that situate relations in civil society. Only then can governance and physical intervention produce meaningful and sustainable change. As such, our call for an informal public begins with a set of normative demands, followed by demands for more democratic and collaborative forms of governance, culminating in a set of policy demands focused on the equitable physical transformation of the city. These demands are summarised as follows:

  • To transform cultural practices of social exclusion and the corresponding denigration of public goods by cultivating new urban norms of human dignity and equality, and to shame their violation;
  • To advance a language of “a right to the city” to stimulate a new sense of possibility in communities long marginalised from the planning agendas of today’s cities;
  • To enable more inclusive and meaningful systems of political representation and civic engagement at the scale of neighbourhoods, tactically re-calibrating individual and collective interests;
  • To produce new forms of local governance, along with the social protection systems that provide guarantees for marginalised communities, and to protect their right to control their own modes of production and share the profits of urbanisation to prevent gentrification;
  • To rethink existing models of property by redefining affordability and the value of social participation, augmenting the role of communities in co-producing housing, and enabling a more inclusive idea of ownership;
  • To mobilise social networks into new spatial and economic infrastructures that benefit local communities in the long term, beyond the short-term problem solving of private developers or institutions of charity;
  • To sponsor mediating agencies that can curate the interface between top-down, government-led infrastructural support and the creative bottom-up intelligence and sweat equity of communities and activists;
  • To close the gap between the abstraction of large-scale planning logics and the specificity of everyday practices;
  • To challenge the autonomy of buildings, often conceived as self-referential systems, benefiting the two-dimensionality of the object and indifferent to socio-economic temporalities embedded in the city. How to engage the temporalization of space found in informal urbanisation’s management of time, people, spaces, and resources?
  • To question exclusionary recipes of land use, understanding zoning not as the punitive tool that prevents socialization but instead as a generative tool that organises and anticipates local social and economic activity at the scale of neighbourhoods;
  • To politicize density, no longer measured as an abstract amount of objects per measure but as an amount of socio-economic exchanges per measure;
  • To retrofit the large with the small: the micro-social and economic contingencies of the informal will transform the homogeneous largeness of official urbanisation into more sustainable, plural, and complex environments;
  • To elevate the incremental low-cost layering of urban development found in informal urbanisation in order to generate new paradigms of public infrastructure, beyond the dominance of private development alone and its exorbitant budgets;
  • To reimagine exclusionary logics that shape jurisdiction: conventional government protocols give primacy to the abstraction of administrative boundaries over the social and environmental boundaries that informality negotiates as devices to construct community;
  • To challenge the idea of public space as an ambiguous and neutral place of beautification: we must move the discussion from the neutrality of the institutional public to the specificity of urban rights; and
  • To layer public space with protocols, designing not only physical systems but also the collaborative socio-economic and cultural programming and management to assure accessibility and sustainability in the long term.

The informal public is the site from which to generate “other” ways of constructing the city; and its role today is to mediate a two-way journey, between top-down and bottom-up dynamics: in one direction, how specific, bottom-up urban alterations by creative acts of citizenship can have enough resolution and political agency to trickle upward to transform institutional structures; and, in the other direction, how top-down resources can reach sites of marginalisation, transforming normative ideas of infrastructure by absorbing the creative intelligence embedded in informal dynamics. This critical interface between top-down and bottom-up is essential at a time when the extreme left and right have joined forces in their mistrust of government. Among the most important sites of intervention in our time is the opaque, exclusionary and dysfunctional bureaucracy that characterises many cities in the world. The informal public can shape the agenda for the future of the city, demanding more efficient, transparent, inclusive and collaborative governance, and a restoration of the linkages between government, social networks and cultural institutions that can reorient the surplus value of urbanisation to the common good

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