Monday, May 7, 2007

Urban Planning and the Informal Sector in Developing Countries

kakilima, originally uploaded by yuna lee.

The following link provides my article appeared at Planetizen in May 2007.

Urban Planning and the Informal Sector in Developing Countries Planetizen

In case of the link is unavailable, below is the article:

Urban planning in developing countries -- particularly in cities with rapid urbanization -- is facing a problem with the informal sector. The businesses that comprise the informal sector, typically operating on streets and in other public places, are often seen as eye-sores and undesirable activities. Thus, conflicts arise between urban authorities trying to keep their cities clean and the urban informal sector operators who need space for their activities.

In many cases, authorities forcibly evict informal sector activities in the name of urban order and cleanliness. Yet, such eviction does not address the problem with the informal sector. It only relocates the problem and even exaggerates the conflicts between urban authorities and the informal sectors. Often many operators return to their places a few days after being evicted by the urban authorities.

Should urban planning accommodate the informal sector? Prior to the 1970s, there was no attention paid to economic activities carried out outside the formal economy. However, a few studies of developing countries began to explore the role of the informal sector, and the concept gained attention after a report by the International Labor Organization in the early 1970s.

Almost 40 years later, it’s difficult to ignore the importance of the informal sector in many cities, particularly in developing countries.

In many developing countries in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and Asia, the informal sector accounts for most of the total employment. For example, the informal sector in Indonesia in 2004 accounted for 64 per cent of the total employment. The proportion of informal sector employment in urban areas was even higher during the economic crisis in the late 1990s when the closure of many manufacturing and service corporations pushed the newly unemployed into informal sector.

The growth of the urban informal sector is also nourished by the influx of migrants from rural regions surrounding urban agglomerations in search of work. With the formal sector unable to accommodate such large numbers of workers, the informal sector becomes the primary source of employment. Without the economic opportunities generated by such activities, the poor would certainly become a larger burden for the urban authorities.

Two peddlers, originally uploaded by Ikhlasul Amal.

It’s also important to note that the informal sector is not only the domain of the urban poor. Many middle-class people in urban areas in developing countries greatly benefit from economic activities carried out outside the formal sectors.

The continuing study of urban informality has also revealed the important role of the informal sector in the process of urbanization. By linking various economic activities and urban spaces, the informal sector serves as a mode for urban transformation for many places. These findings seem to point to a need for new urban theories that can fully explain the phenomenon of urban informality in cities -- something mostly absent from urban theories such the urban ecology of the Chicago School and post-modern urbanism of the Los Angeles School, which are both rooted from cities in developed countries.

Yet, understanding the positive impact of the informal sector, many planners and officials still worry about the resulting urban blight. However, from urban environmental perspective, many of the problems associated with the informal sector are not attributes inherent to the informal sector but manifestations of unresponsive urban planning itself. The provision of spaces to informal sectors is an effective measure to reduce the environmental problems associated with such activities.

Accommodating – maybe even welcoming - the informal sectors in urban spaces will not only reduce the conflict between urban authorities and the informal sector, but also reduce the environmental problems associated, and eventually accelerate urban transformation and increase the quality of life in many developing urban areas.

Deden Rukmana, PhD is an assistant professor of Urban Studies at Savannah State University.

(This post was also linked at Placemaking in Space and was cited at The Orange Commune)


Anonymous said...

The UN Habitat World Urban Forum 4 (WUF 4) in Nanjing will be held later this year.

WUF 4 will be preceded by the Global Planners’ Congress in Zhenjiang, China and address the global issues of urbanisation, poverty and climate change. These two events will provide major opportunities for those engaged in planning to have a greater impact on the global agenda. A critical challenge is to increase capacity to respond to the challenges of the 21st century to plan sustainable settlements for the world's growing urban population.

The RTPI, with the support of the Commonwealth Association of Planners and Lincoln Institute, is therefore seeking to assess the existing global planning capacity in terms of legal competences, professional skills, inclusive processes, and civic leadership and vision. Its success will depend on as many people as possible who work in planning in all countries of the world providing their first hand experience and views. They have therefore prepared a web based self-diagnostic assessment of their personal experience. It can be accessed through this link:

This is a great idea and I encourage people to filll it in.

Unknown said...

Mas Deden,
I like the idea of welcoming the informal sectors in urban areas, but we have to remember the characteristic of the informal sectors (especially in Indonesia). Once you open the gate, they will flooded the urban areas and then more problems will occure. So I think we also need to set the limit in welcoming the informal sectors in urban areas, develop the rural (from which they came from) at the same time to create alternative opportunities. Just a small point.. :)

Anonymous said...

Savitri's point is valid idea. The chronic face of informal sectors in uraban center is byproduct of compounded reasons. Some of its causes are; one, core or metropolitan bias of political economy. Indonesia's development initiatives has been concentrated in few economic enclaves triggered massive migration of rural settlers to the core or urban centers. Exclusion or deprivation of vast majority of Indonesia's country side from development initiatives is primary push factor for rural-urban mobility.

Second, the unprecendeted mode of rural-urban migration is also pushed by the absence or lack or poor administration of basic services of Indonesia's periphery. People are lured to migrate to the city because of the scarcity of alternatives; from basic services to employment opportunities, in their own home places. Indonesia's development programs and political economy has been traped by the funding agency and ivestors interest.

It is in the perspective that in one hand I am with Savitri call for critical reflection about "welcoming" as construct in view of influxt of rural settler to the city. Take a look at the unprecedented growth of slum dwellers of Jakarta. Uncritical sets of mitigating paramaters to welcoming perpetuates and contributes to the balooning of the suburb poor Indonesians.

Moreover, the most critical solution I think is to reconstruct the core-periphery political economic choice. To curtle the massive influx of rural dwellers to various urban centers required economic provisions in the country site. Pembangunan yang adil dan merata (Just and equal development program) is likely to give new hope to the sprawling urban poor reality.

Lastly globalization with its neo-liberal phylosophy has dismantled space, time, and even the nation state sovereignty. To put simply the government has no power to control the influx of IMCs and other foreign funding agencies. Chambers warned us years ago about what he called "trap". His concept of trap was absolutely for the greater advantage of the investor. The other answer to skyrocketed growth of informal sector in urban center is to dismantle that trap. Development must be brought to the grass root, need driven, and dispersed to country site.