Cities and the Urban Informal Economy: Rethinking Development, Urban Design and Planning

Since the emergence of the concept of the ‘urban informal economy’ in the early 1970s, there have been multiple interpretations as well as applications of this concept for urban development in newly industrializing nations. And yet, many important questions still remain to be addressed. The persistence and, in fact, the continuing growth of the urban informal economy around the world has, on the one hand, revealed the complex livelihood patterns of the working poor; but on the other hand, this trend has also brought to fore many new challenges for designers, urban planners, and social activists who care about good and sustainable city form, equitable and efficient city planning, and bottom-up strategies for good governance. What requires close scrutiny are: regulations, policies, taxation, spatial planning, design principles , and institutions through which development strategies affect the lives of the working poor in the urban informal economy. Conversely, the structure and function of cities’ informal economies has profound impact on the spatial, economic, and political development of cites. Yet, the conventional concepts and techniques of Urban Design and Planning seldom directly address the challenges and contributions of the informal economy as a key driving force which influences quality of urban life. In fact, traditional approaches continue to assume the urban informal economy as a transitory outcome which would wither away as cites and nations modernize spatially, economically, socially, and politically.

This interdisciplinary course, led by an urban designer, an urban planner, and a leading global advocate for the urban working poor, intends to scrutinize the different theories and their applications, since the early 1970s, to better understand and influence the informal economy. The objective is to transcend conventional disciplinary approaches with innovative, multidisciplinary thinking regarding how to valorize and enhance the contribution of the urban working poor to good city form, equitable city planning, and democratic urban governance.

This course will introduce the students to both theoretical frameworks and empirical findings to better understand the structure and functions of the urban informal economy, and then assess the effectiveness of past interventions by designers, planners, and social activists to enhance the quality of life of the working poor in the urban informal economy. The ultimate goal is to assist students to transcend conventional thinking with innovative possibilities for more a more humane, sustainable, and convivial cites where the working poor are valued as assets, not a problem. Towards that goal, the course is organized in three modules by three senior faculty across three Institutions (HKS, DUSP-MIT, and GSD). The instructors will be present together  synchronously for the start of the class and then at the end of each module where they will discuss the issues presented ion that module. They will also be all present for other synchronous sessions, which are relevant for their collective interactions but at least for 5 sessions -the end of each module as well as the start and summary class.

Course structure: Each module consists of asynchronous lectures and synchronous class discussions. Pre-recorded lectures, reading, and other materials will be made available through Canvas for students to work on their own time. The class will meet on Thursdays from 10 to 11.30 am for live discussions with the instructor of the module; students are expected to attend this session. The synchronous session will be a combination of lectures , workshops, and discussion (collective as well as in break out rooms). This will vary in each module. Each week an instructor will lead the synchronous meeting. More details will be shared on the syllabus.

Note: the instructor will offer live course presentations on 01/19-01/21. To access the detailed schedule and Zoom links, please visit the Live Course Presentations Website. If you need assistance, please contact Estefanía Ibáñez