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What: Informal urbanism is defined as the production of urbanization independent of formal frameworks and assistance (if they exist). Informal urbanism emerged as an alternative path of city construction in the wake of a still ongoing massive migration from rural to urban environments and the lack of better housing for some social groups. Informal urbanism comes in many forms, but in most cases emerges due to the absence, insufficiency or unaffordability of dwelling options by low-income populations in the formal sector. In many countries informal urbanism is the dominant force of urbanization, mainly because there is simply no other alternative. Therefore, the binaries of “informal” versus “formal” cannot be understand as absolutes, they are working definitions of an urban reality that has varying degrees of formality.

Informal urbanism ranges from the penniless rural migrant who builds his home in an emerging community to the speculator or developer who subdivides land without complying with all regulations. The “informal” cannot be equated with “illegal”, since the “informal” may be the only possible way of urbanization in cities where no other options are available; the “informal” cannot be equated with “inferior” or “marginal”, since there are many examples where informal communities are superior over dysfunctional public housing projects. The “informal” cannot be equated with “poor”, since middle class families (even millionaires) can be found in non-formal neighborhoods. Informal urbanism is an urban phenomenon that defies clichés; its only common denominator is its origin. Typically it draws criticism from governing entities, which focus on its negative aspects, but it can draw cautious praise by select academics, practitioners and community members who find hidden values through closer study.

In this discussion, the ‘Hub on Informal Urbanism’ takes a neutral stance—it solely provides a platform for exchange for academics studying the phenomenon of informal urbanization. The ‘Hub on Informal Urbanism’ seeks an interdisciplinary perspective that views physical, social, cultural, economic, environmental, governance and policy issues as interdependent. Research on ‘Informal Urbanism’ can be generally categorized into two activities: 1) studying existing informal urbanization, including giving recommendations for the improvement of citywide upgrading programs and integration policies and 2) studying future informal urbanization, including the development of anticipatory strategies for arriving low income populations.

Why: The goal of the hub is to enable academics to make a useful contribution to practices and policies that improve the lives of those living in informal conditions. Currently, municipal attitudes towards informal urbanism range from eradication to neglect to grudging tolerance; sometimes to improvement and rarely to anticipation. This hub will investigate and propose appropriate processes of engagement for academics and professionals to improve and anticipate informal urbanization. This production of knowledge will improve research and education methodologies on the topic of informal urbanism as well as provide a window for academics to influence UN-Habitat programs and mainstream academic ideas into UN policy.

Who: The hub embraces an inclusive, inter-disciplinary and inter-regional approach to the investigation of informal urbanism. Many academics are working on issues related to informal urbanism from a variety of perspectives and much can be gained by sharing innovative practices across urban disciplines.
The phenomenon of informal urbanism is geographically diverse and the hub would like to engage with institutions from around the globe to exchange regional approaches and best practices.

How: The hub will serve as a platform for academic exchange and collaboration on topics related to informal urbanism. It is important that the hub grows organically over time in response to the discussions generated by exchange between members. A phased development approach is proposed as a means to guide this development. Phase 1: Academic Exchange will facilitate member exchange and discussion through annual conferences. Phase 2: Coordinated Research will use coordinated research initiatives to further investigate research questions identified by member institutions and UN-Habitat in phase one. Depending on the outcomes of phase one and two, Phase 3: Academic & Professional Collaboration could progress to collaboration between academic institutions and UN-Habitat or other partner institutions on relevant projects.


Hub Coordinator

Christian Werthmann is a Professor at the Institute of Landscape Architecture, Leibniz University Hannover. He is a trained landscape architect with extensive professional and academic experience in Europe and the United States. In his academic work, he researches the implementation of ecological infrastructure in heavily urbanized areas, especially in the non-formal cities of the Global South- a line of research that he initiated as an Associate Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Recent research is concerned with the development of landscape strategies for post-disaster management in Port-au-Prince in Haiti and pre-emptive urbanization strategies for the landslide prone hills of Medellin in Colombia. In 2010 Werthmann was awarded the Hans Fischer Senior Fellowship by the Technical University of Munich for his innovative research. He also curates symposia, most recently the Metropolis Nonformal symposia at the Technical University in Munich (2011 and 2013) that initiated the exchange activities of the UNI Hub on Informal Urbanism.

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