Why 'informal settlements' are important to Latin America

Transcript of video discussion between Dr Joseph S. Tulchin and Dr Ariel C. Armony

JT:

Hello, today we’re talking to Dr Ariel Armony, Director of the Centre for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami, and he’s just been named Senior Director of International Programmes and Director for the Centre for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where he will be taking up his duties in the next few months.

But today with Dr Armony I want to talk to him about the informal city, or informal cities. Ariel, what is an informal city?

AA:

Well, informal cities can be described as settlements that are frequently characterised by organic physical patterns that are built incrementally over time as the needs and circumstances of a community change.

So this is basically an idea that these are urban areas that experience spontaneous growth, and for the most part they lack fundamental state services.

JT:

Why should we care? What is important to us as students of Latin America and urban policy throughout the world, what’s important for us to know about informal cities?

AA:

Well first of all it’s absolutely critical because 24 per cent, so almost a quarter of Latin America’s urban population is estimated to be living in informal settlements. And these figures are from 2012, so you are talking about many, many people, millions and millions of people who live in informal cities. So that is why we should care.

This is a major, major urban issue. And I want you to know that we’re not talking about an urban problem, and I will talk about that because we shouldn’t consider these [informal cities] a ‘problem’ as many people talk about them. But it’s a very important issue.

And also we should care because there are many policy challenges that have to do with informal cities. Of course policy makers care about these because we’re talking about millions of voters. And these are citizens who are living in conditions that are very precarious and they really need government services.

JT:

So, it’s a question principally of bringing government services to them, legitimising and legalising their status. Where do we begin?

AA:

We should begin with a very fundamental issue, which is for the most part when we look at maps of cities in Latin America – and this is something that viewers can do as an exercise, it’s very interesting – they will find that in many cases the areas we see, where we know there are millions of people living in informal cities, usually are presented as green spaces.

What we see is that these areas are literally off the map. We do not even include them in maps. And so one of the important elements is to start having these informal cities as part of the agenda.

A project that we started as our first report on informal cities actually does this. This is a project that the Centre for Latin American Studies has developed with the School of Architecture and the Centre for Computation of Science at the University of Miami to develop software and a series of steps to start mapping informal cities in Latin America.

So that’s the first element. We need data about these places because we know very little about them.

JT:

What are the benefits of the informal city? It’s not a problem, you said. That’s how we used to talk about shanty towns, as a problem to be eliminated or eradicated. But you suggest that there are significant benefits to us of the informal city. What would some of those be?

AA:

There is a very interesting new set of research that has been conducted over the last few years that shows, for example, that informal cities are places that see a lot of innovation in terms of culture.

Brazil is a very good example. In Brazil we have lots of new music. Funk originated in the favelas and has become a very, very important and commercially important form of music.

They are very important in terms of cultural production. They are places that are very important for social innovation. And many times the government is slow in terms of recognising and trying to deal with the challenges of regulating some of these innovations.

One good example are the motor-taxies in the favelas in Brazil. There is the need for transportation, but you can’t have cars transporting people, so there is a very vast network of motor-taxies which is a very interesting and necessary innovation.

But it is very complicated. The government is not very supportive of this kind of innovation because they want to regulate it. So we are seeing these clashes between these forms of innovation and the difficulties in turning these informal innovations to connect them to the formal economy and to regulation.

JT:

And is it fair to say that the informal city, informal settlements represent a significant source of labour for the rest of the city, for the formal economy?

AA:

Absolutely. We have people who provide services in a multitude of areas and therefore they are a very, very important component of the formal economy. And even though in many cases they actively participate in both, they are part of an informal economy that connects to the formal economy.

In light of the current discussions we have in the United States about immigration, the fact that many claim that without the immigrant labour that we get the agricultural sector in the United States will not survive. I think that we can make a parallel to the population of these informal cities. That is, without this population of the informal cities, the so-called formal cities may not be able to operate, because they provide essential services in many, many sectors.

JT:

There are important linkages between informal and formal cities that we shouldn’t ignore. Let’s go back to where you began, to the significant numbers that you mentioned – 24 per cent you said. Do you have an example of the city that has the highest per cent of informals?

AA:

We see very large informal cities in Brazil, so that’s of course in Rio, Sao Paulo. We have seen a very large increase in informal cities around Caracas. So these are some of the examples where we see a large concentration of people living in these informal settlements.

JT:

Very well. Thank you Dr Ariel Armony, Director of the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Miami for talking with us about the informal cities of Latin America.

(Photo credit:dpa)