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Panel 26. The blurred boundaries between the formal and the informal in cities


  • Felipe Valenzuela, Universidad de Playa Ancha (Chile)
  • Elizabeth Zenteno, Universidad de Playa Ancha (Chile)
  • Lautaro Ojeda, Universidad de Valparaíso (Chile)


Urban development processes in the Global South have often been characterized using the label of “informality,” referring to self-urbanization and self-housing construction practices, and also to unregulated economic activities in urban spaces. However, this concept has recently been critically examined (Marx and Kelling, 2019) as it tends to oversimplify the analysis of complex processes under the presumed dichotomy between the formal and the informal, which reflects a western- biased understanding of urban development.

Within the framework of these criticisms, it has been argued that informality not only takes place in cities of the Global South, as the ways of bypassing the state (Polese, 2021) may have different expressions in different parts of the world. Thus, the focus of the study of urban informality has been broadened to interpret development processes in cities of the Global North as well.

Furthermore, most of the research on informality refers to the processes of production and transformation of cities based on the agency and social organization of inhabitants in their own territories. However, we argue that informal practices are not exclusively exercised by residents but can also originate from how urban and housing policies and regulations are implemented.

Taking this general framework into account, in this panel we expect to receive proposals that delve into the empirical study of informal practices in the development of cities, both in the Global North and the Global South, aiming to shed light on conceptual discussions regarding informality. We have particular interest in the analysis of the relationship between “informal” practices and policy implementation.

Topics of interest are listed below, but other suggestions will be taken into account:

  • Comparative studies of recent informal urbanization processes in the Global North and South.
  • Analysis of the role played by the state in different intervention policies regarding informality: eviction, regularization, co-production.
  • Studies on the local application of urban policies and regulations and the role played by public officials and urban planners.
  • Economic strategies and practices in public urban space: tensions between formality and informality.
  • Self-management and practices of urban space appropriation in cities.
  • Formal-informal strategies of immigrant communities to inhabit cities.
  • Studies on the role of women in the construction and organization of life in informal settlements.

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