Studying the lived experience of urban informality

I am a doctoral student in City and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania. My summer dissertation research is being supported by the CASI summer research grant. As a planner, I am interested in how urban space is constructed. In particular, how informal space is formed by the critical relationship that defines it – the state that defines legitimate use of space, and informality that negotiates the use of urban space.

My dissertation project seeks to understand how these relationships define the lived experience of urban informality in Ga-Mashie (Accra, Ghana) and Fort Kochi (Kerala, India). In both sites, the underlying informality is comparable; what is different is the lived experience of informality. The problem, simply put, is a question of why two similar cases differ in their interaction with the state, and whether this has an impact on the lived experience of informality, and how this plays out in the growth and development of these places?

Across the world, two billion of the world’s employed population worked informally in 20181, and across all developing regions of the world, just under one billion people lived in slums in 20142. These numbers hide regional variation. For example, urban employment in India was 70 per cent in the last census3, and 88 per cent in Ghana in the last Labour Force Survey4. For urban planners, the need to define and maintain a hegemony of what I call, the “planned normal” or a desired shape of the city drives practice. Urban planners employ plans, zoning regulations, and even policy instruments that shape a city’s built environment to this end. With these tools, they aim to bring into line, anything deviating from this planned normal, defining a hegemony for the city, which the city’s residents are expected to follow. In everyday life in the global south, however, the planned normal is an aberration, often confined to a few parts of the city (if at all) where regulations and formal governance institutions prevail. Instead, the dominant hegemony is organic and informal.

Given that the pandemic restricts my being in the field, this summer, I will focus on visual ethnography techniques, in particular, photo-voice with participants in Fort Kochi. Over the last two summers of fieldwork, photography played a key role in generating dialogue among my participants about the ways in which they defined, structured, and navigated everyday space in the city. Using photo-voice, I hope to generate participant narratives about everyday spatial choices and memorialised and inherited space. Doing so also allows me to structure interviews around the photographs participants have taken – why are these views of space important to them? What do they consider the defining aspects of those spaces photographed?

1 ILO. 2018. Women and men in the informal economy: A statistical picture Geneva: International Labour Organisation.

2 UN-HABITAT. 2016. Slum Almanac 2015/16: Tracking improvement in the lives of slum dwellers. Nairobi: United Nations Human Settlements Program.

3Chen, Martha, and Govindan Raveendran. 2011. Urban India 2011: Evidence. Bangalore: Indian Institute for Human Settlements.

4Baah-Boateng, William, and Joann Vanek. 2020. “Informal workers in Ghana: A Statistical Snapshot.” WEIGO Statistical Brief 21:1- 12.

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About Kimberly Noronha