Public action in an informal context : mission possible !

Laure Criqui, September 2016

Monde pluriel

This paper demonstrates that, despite the informality of the neighborhoods, public control is present through the extension of essential public services (water, electricity). The author then highlights the fact that this arrival of services is already a « form of acceptance and normalization of informal districts by the public authorities ».

In Delhi, only 25 percent of the population lives in neighborhoods that meet the standards of the master plan, i.e., the rest of the city has developed on land defined as non-urbanizable, and is therefore considered « informal. In Lima, two-thirds of the city has emerged from community occupations and self-construction of land in the absence of a master plan. And yet, official service rates are about 75% for water and 90% for electricity in Delhi, 92% and 98% in Lima. This discrepancy in figures means that there is a significant margin of « informal » neighborhoods where operators officially connect to service networks, in other words, that public action for urban improvement is possible there.

Thus, contrary to the idea that informality is a priori an obstacle to intervention and beyond the control of the public authorities, a form of official action, and in particular the extension of services, is possible there. Let us take up again what « informal » means in the context of rapidly developing cities: neighborhoods appear and are built without taking into account planning or urban development documents. They develop « out of plan.

In practice, this means two things: first, that they are often not included on official maps and are therefore unknown; second, that the norms, institutions and procedures for public action are neither relevant nor applied. How then does official intervention through formal actors combine with an informal context?

First of all, the operators cannot take the risk that their action is itself considered illegal in order to intervene in offending neighborhoods. They depend on authorizations, more or less tacit or formal, from the public authorities, which legitimize and protect their action. Informality generates a first tension that often leads the authorities to take ad hoc decisions and negotiate with themselves: political declarations of urgency to extend certain networks, creation of derogatory programs for certain neighborhoods, invention of temporary recognition documents independent of any land regularization, issuance of work permits that ignore or contradict administrative procedures, identification of areas to be connected on Google Maps without referring to the urban plan… These frameworks are not stabilized, but allow the operators to act on an ad hoc basis. Although it emanates from the «  formal  » public sphere, it is an equivocal legal bricolage, neither illegal nor completely legal. In order to allow interventions in an informal context, the authorities are thus led to adapt the norms, and thus to abandon or at least relax the usual formal framework of public decision.

Secondly, in the field, service operators are faced with a relative unknown when they intervene in informal settlements: they do not know the modalities of occupation of the space, the behaviors of the populations… Initially, they need to collect information in order to elaborate their connection projects: cartography, topographical survey, census of the inhabitants… information that will also be necessary later on to distribute the bills, carry out maintenance, etc. Then, in a completely autonomous way from the public authorities, they will send employees to number the streets and houses to be connected, and thus realize an informal addressing system. In other cases, they use neighborhood plans drawn up by the inhabitants themselves, without any legal value or correspondence to the urban plan. On this basis, they draw up the layout of the networks, request the construction of related works such as retaining walls or gutters, and initiate the deployment of the infrastructures. These plans, which are completely informal, become true identity documents for the neighborhoods, the maps on which the city is built and the reference institutions for official action, while the «  informal  » status of the neighborhoods remains unregulated.

Finally, one cannot ignore the fact that once water and sanitation pipes or electricity poles have been officially installed, it is unlikely that they will ever be moved. In other words, through the extension of networks, service providers are helping to physically consolidate neighborhoods and their roads, but also to provide a form of public recognition for settlements, however informal. The distribution of bills, for example, is a process that institutionalizes the presence of neighborhoods: it relies on a system of addressing or identification of the neighborhoods, it provides an official document to the inhabitants that they can use with other public entities as proof of residence, and it marks the entry and the beginning of a public relationship between the inhabitants and the representatives of the state that are the operators. Neither the legal framework of the operators’ intervention, nor the regular or irregular land status of the neighborhoods interferes in this process. The mere arrival of services is already a form of acceptance and normalization of informal settlements by the public authorities.

To equip informal urbanization, independently of urban regularization actions, operators grope in regulatory gray areas and cobble together institutional solutions that are themselves not very formal. In a roundabout way, the extension of service networks marks the entry of public authorities into these neighborhoods. Indeed, the main official service operators, whether public or private, represent them, are their armed wing, pursue a mission of general interest, and are both holders of official authority and dependent on political decisions, more or less tacit. Elected officials, municipal civil servants and planners are constrained by the official regulatory framework and often fear losing control - which is illusory - by recognizing informal urbanization. Service operators, on the other hand, follow a sectoral logic; in this sense, they are relieved of direct political responsibility: it does not matter to them that the area to be connected is informal! What matters is to extend the coverage on the one hand, and to ensure the proper functioning and financial balance of the network on the other. These real manufacturers of the city and their tactics ultimately preside over the consolidation and sustainable improvement of living conditions in the informal settlements.

Since most urbanization is unplanned, it is a dead end to use the planning framework to guide public action. The standards, maps and procedures are fundamentally inadequate. But this does not mean that public action has to be paralyzed, far from it. The panoply of tools on which the operators rely is proving its worth on a daily basis: community mapping, addressing, alignment of networks with the existing road network alone… Does their lack of formality or formalization really invalidate them? The question is obviously a rhetorical one: this informal bricolage in the field is both effective and innovative, and planning and urban regularization exercises would undoubtedly benefit from being inspired by this flexibility rather than being caught up in the formal constraints of the formalization of urbanization.


To access the PDF version of the issue of the magazine Tous Urbains, n°15