The Informal City


If this paper had been written two decades ago, one would only have written about informal settlements for that is how the informal city was perceived. However, today the informal sector in Asian cities provides a large range of services, not only to informal settlements but also to the formal sector. These services include water, transport, generation of jobs and skills, solid waste management, education and health facilities, and warehousing and storage for trade and commerce. There is intensive interaction between the formal and informal sectors and they service each others needs increasingly.

This paper will deal with the physical and social changes that have taken place over the past two decades in informal settlements and in the informal provision of services and jobs.  It will also deal with changes in the perceptions of government and other formal sector actors in the informal city drama and how these relate to the Habitat agenda. The city of Karachi will be considered as a case study to illustrate the issues that the paper identifies as important.


2.1 Changes in the Nature of Settlements

There is no need to give the reasons that lead to the development of informal settlements. These reasons have been given again and again and are well understood. All that needs to be said is that in spite of two Habitat conferences and the 1987 UN Year for the Shelterless, the building and the bulldozing of informal settlements increases every year, if not in percentage terms then certainly in scale1.

However, the nature of settlements and their location has changed over time and it is necessary to understand this change and what it means to the city as a whole. The earliest settlements were developed on private land as land rentals or through unorganised invasions of state and private land by migrants from the rural areas. These developments took place between 30 to 40 years ago and were within or just outside major Asian cities which were comparatively small cities at that time. Most of these settlements have ceased to be. They have been replaced by commercial complexes and residential apartment blocks. They are now within the inner city and their residents have relocated elsewhere. The settlements that do survive are under threat of eviction.

The next phase of development of informal settlements was through illegal but organised subdivision of state and private land. These settlements are farther from the city centre and the extent of their de-facto security of tenure, which the majority of them seem to have, depends very much on government policies. Due to their favourable location, their densities are increasing and in many cities they are becoming extremely congested.

The cities of Asia have expanded into the rural areas and this expansion continues. This means that villages become urbanised and agricultural land is informally subdivided and sold to the poorer and lower-middle income residents of the city. Due to inflation and the increasing difficulty of acquiring land for house building, land prices have increased considerably. As such, the lots in these new subdivisions are becoming increasingly smaller, access roads narrower, and open space non-existent2. In addition, these ad hoc subdivisions are causing considerable ecological damage.

Given the increasing cost of land, informal settlements are continuing to develop in ecologically dangerous areas such as areas that are prone to flooding and land slides, waste lands and old quarries. Where such areas lie within the city, the residents are removed since the areas are considered dangerous, and through building of appropriate infrastructure they are made safe and constructed upon by formal sector developers and/or state agencies.

Large scale relocation settlements have also been developed in many Third World Asian cities. These settlements are often 20 to 30 kilometres away from the city centre and poor residents from bulldozed areas are relocated here. Although these are formally planned settlements, their residents build their homes in a process similar to that of informal settlements. In addition, they more often than not, have no social or physical infrastructure. This also they acquire in a manner similar to that of informal settlements. One can safely say that these are the informal settlements of tomorrow. Their main problem is the absence of an efficient and cheap transport system that can take them to their places of work which are within the inner city or on its periphery.

All the settlements described above have been created and developed through middlemen. It was they who brought low income residents as renters on private land. It was they who arranged for the subdivision and sale of state and private land by establishing an informal understanding with corrupt government officials. It was they who often negotiated with government and politicians for infrastructure and protection against demolition. It was they who today negotiate with agricultural sector landlords and state officials for acquiring agricultural land, planning its subdivision, often in defience of state laws, and arranging the necessary financial deals. This immense knowledge of identifying appropriate beneficiaries, planning and delivering services at affordable prices, and negotiating with relevant interest groups, is an asset that state agencies do not possess. Without this asset they cannot deliver land and services to the poor.

2.2 Social and Physical Changes

Major social and physical changes have taken place in the informal settlements that have survived and these changes have often been transferred to new settlements that have been created. For an informal settlement to survive there are two basic requirements. One, security of tenure, and two, infrastructure, especially water and electricity. To acquire these communities have had to organise themselves and form associations. In many countries giving a formal shape to the organisation is necessary so that it can be taken seriously. As such, many organisations are legal persons and have elections, audits and rules and regulations. This brings about a major cultural change in poor communities and establishes a more equitable relationship with state and formal sector organisations.

Over the years communities have also learnt that they cannot acquire infrastructure and tenure security simply by lobbying politicians. Where a level of de facto security is available, they invest large sums of money in building their own infrastructure and improving their homes over time as they feel these investments increase their tenure security in addition to providing a better environment. Their struggle for tenure security brings them in conflict against a powerful developer’s lobby supported by bureaucrats and politicians that wish to evict them and build on their land. It also brings them in conflict against a lobby of consultants, contractors and government planners who promote insensitive projects which ultimately displace them. Therefore, increasingly residents of informal settlements opt for taking the matter to court or seeking the support of the press. These actions again create a new type of leadership in these settlements and bring the informal settlement closer to the formal processes. A number of important judgments have been given by the courts in this process which are considered “pro-poor” and are important precedents for future court actions.

It has been observed that in the processes described above, those settlements which have external support have a greater chance of success. For example, where NGOs and professionals have given technical support to communities, infrastructure quality has been much better and its cost has been cheaper. Insensitive government projects that displace people have also been abandoned or altered if communities have been able to present estimates of damage that the projects would cause along with viable alternatives. Again, such estimates and alternatives have invariably been prepared by concerned professionals and NGOs. Also, in the struggle of informal settlements against the land hungry, politician-bureaucrat-developer nexus, the press and NGOs have played an important role and communities are learning to access this support increasingly.

However, the most important change that has taken place in informal settlements is that trade, commerce, manufacturing and education has developed in them. This, along with the struggle against the various lobbies that operate against them, has produced a large number of leaders and activists who are constantly in touch with formal sector agencies and service providers. What is also important is that this leadership and its activists belong to the second generation of informal settlement residents. Unlike their parents or grand-parents they are not pioneers. They have a claim on the city and have an urban culture. Hence, it is not in their nature to accept marginalisation quietly, and much of the violence and conflict that Asian cities face today is the result of the marginalisation of the second generation of informal settlement dwellers.

The state agencies, more often than not, do not know how to relate to this new leadership. This is because the manner in which the state thinks and functions has not undergone more than just cosmetic changes whereas sociological change in the informal settlements is immense. Because of this state functionaries are uncomfortable with the new leadership and it is this leadership that is increasingly determining the economy and the politics of low income settlements.

  1. –  Monte Cassim: The Housing Demand-Supply in Asian Metropolises:Dawood College-Aga Khan Program, Karachi.
    –  Kenneth Fernandes: Forced Evictions and Housing Right Absuses in Asia 1996-97: City Press, Karachi.
  2. Arif Hasan: Seven Reports on Housing: OPP-RTI, Karachi, 1992

One Comment

  1. you are legend bro. your research proved the only way to get my thesis done. i am from UET lahore. thanks again bro. i cant leave this site without thanking you.

    Posted December 8, 2019 at 3:02 am | PermalinkReply

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