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Informal Urbanism : Changing Perspective on the Urban Reality

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Informal urbanism refers to urbanization that takes place outside of the formal realms of urban growth. It is a phenomenon that is seen especially in developing countries with emerging economies, such as in Jamaica. For the reader with a limited familiarity of what urbanization is and what is defined as urban, this can be defined in the simplest of terms as the increase in population and size of urban areas.  Urban areas are those spaces that surround cities and form a part of its structure with a higher density of built infrastructure and services such as residences, healthcare facilities, and commercial buildings, among others. This higher density is normally comparable to the lower densities within rural areas and small towns. To form a practical image, imagine the cityscape of Kingston versus the small town of Linstead in St. Catherine.

Varying Perspectives

So, at the beginning of the article, I was gearing to introduce the concept of informal urbanism, in an effort to highlight an alternative perspective on the urban reality here in Jamaica.  It has been heavily debated in recent years as to how to treat the various forms of informality that dominate the Jamaican economy and landscape. So let’s take a trek down another less trodden route for a second to highlight how informality shows in Jamaica. Many citizens and residents of Jamaica should be able to immediately identify a few categories of informal urbanism in the form of trade and agricultural activity, informal settlements, architecture, and construction. Some persons are of the view that informality in all forms needs to be purged, leaving only the formally planned situations behind. Others may believe that informality should be regulated in an effort to formalize the informal sectors and adapt them within the formal economy. And even yet, there is another, a less explored perspective which seeks to understand the informal (informal urbanism) as it is, in an effort to extract innovation from the informal.

Exploration vs Limitation

This perspective requires that extensive study on the social, economic, environmental, and cultural forces at play that gives rise to urbanism be done. Questions to be answered may be related to the root causes or stimulants of informal activity, the forms it takes, its functionality, and its expression of cultural authenticity. Other questions may vary along the spectrum of informality vs illegality, are they one and the same, and what, if any, are the alternatives to informal urban activity? This is by no means a suggestion to romanticize the oppressive forces that may drive informality, but to be able to truly quantify the ways in which valuable lessons can be learned from informal urbanism. Although complex and more organic in nature, there is still much to be learned about the development of the informal sector in Jamaica. Can informality be a catalyst for growth?

In several follow up articles, I will attempt to explore some of these questions in stages with conversations about topics such as informal trade, settlement, urban innovation and development, the informal economy, and other controversial issues that may come up. Stay tuned.

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