The Financial Mail
August 2013

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“The tension between the formal and the informal is a constant presence in SA society, economics and politics. Often understood through terms such as "informal settlement" and "informal trade", informality is always recognised as that which is beyond regulations or "standard" procedures. The term also alludes to illicit or illegal activity, corrupt ways and dodgy deals.

Though some practices vaguely outside the law or a regulation can be illegal and dangerous, the negative rap the informal sector receives may not be wholly fair.

The so-called "second economy" provides substantial earning opportunity, promotes entrepreneurship and largely empowers those unable to access or afford the mainstream.

The drive to better understand the informal sector is supported by the German foundation Robert Bosch Stiftung, which this year funded a research exchange for students in architecture and urbanisation from Johannesburg and Berlin.

Developed in partnership with the Goethe-Institut by the Johannesburg-based organisation 26'10 South Architects, the University of Johannesburg and Berlin's Inopolis, the exchange allows residents of two very different cities to look at informality through their respective lenses and bring diverse but compatible ideas to the proverbial table.

In the developing world, colonialists often regarded with misgivings the informality that was rooted in the cultures and ways of local populations, with the coloniser introducing order, or formality, through rigid city grids, schooling, religion, capitalism and so forth.

Formality also existed historically in powerful European cities. The demolition by Baron Haussmann of labyrinthine medieval Paris to create a city of graceful uniformity and civilisation, which facilitated greater military control, is often cited as a forerunner of 20th century Modernism. It epitomises the destruction of the unknown or "chaotic" in the name of order.

Modernist planners and architects used their disciplines to control nature, manage populations and counteract that which was "unsanitary" and congested.

Despite their best and often brutal attempts, informality thrives throughout the entire developing world. The SA Local Economic Development Network notes that SA's informal economy equates to 28% of GDP - close to 70% of the total contribution of the mining sector.

Similarly, Census 2011 demonstrates that close to 2m SA households live principally in informal structures. Without the ability for residents to earn an income through the informal economy, poverty in SA would be extreme; similarly, residents without access to formal housing would be destitute.

For these reasons informality has become an important field in urban and architectural studies. It is difficult to study and understand that which falls outside convention, but informality centres largely on two variables easy to promote, support and replicate with the right backing and willingness: ingenuity and true human resource.

Successful examples of architects working together with informal communities across the world are becoming too numerous to mention. Highlights include Elemental's Incremental Housing in Chile, Urban Think Tank's Torre David project in Caracas, and the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Center's housing in India and Kenya. Also, the Colombian cities of Medellín and Bogotá have reinvented themselves by supporting and enabling forms of informality.

In SA small steps have been made to recognise the role of informality in our diverse society and economy. The policy shift from the eradication to the upgrade of informal settlements is based on the premise that successful, sustainable communities are created by investing in the dramatic improvement of social and physical infrastructure in informal settlements rather than by providing houses or displacing residents.

However, the proposed Licensing of Businesses Bill could have a drastic impact on informal cross-border trade, rendering many traders without an income in the name of formalisation.

Political delineation aside, informal settlement dwellers and informal traders face daily threats and abuse from government and police. Illegal electricity and water connections, criminals and crime are found in informal environments, and informal traders might dissuade investment by making an area look unkempt. Better planning and management by all tiers of government can go a long way towards counteracting illegal activity. If adequate infrastructure were supplied and responsible policing occurred, a reliance on the illegal by some residents would no longer be necessary.

Understanding the breadth of informality and how to engage with it offers enormous potential for young professionals to assist in improving urban living conditions throughout the world.

In July the Johannesburg-based contingent of the Johannesburg-Berlin exchange visited Berlin for two weeks.

While many students and young professionals left Berlin with the opinion that the city offered no insights into informality, others saw the extent of projects presented to them as redefining their understanding of what is meant by this difficult term.

Many agree that diverse forms of informality exist in Berlin in the shape of a community group, an ad hoc artists' space, a tented refugee camp or a park where bottle recycling and drug dealing take place. Participants saw them as either having been formed out of a particular desire to fill an institutional, communal or governmental void, or using informality to present alternatives to current situations.

The Prinzessinnengarten, a community garden occupying an open lot in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, was interesting to the Johannesburg participants. It presented community-scale urban farming as a means to bring Berlin residents together to learn and share knowledge about growing fruit and vegetables in a city where the majority of people live in apartments.

A second highlight was visiting Berlin's decommissioned Tempelhof Airport, where breathtakingly vast expanses of airstrip and fields have been opened to the public as a park - 138 "pioneers" have instituted informal projects in three delineated areas there. They are selected regularly by a jury, and, for example, include informal sports facilities, gardens and kindergarten spaces.

"Pioneers" are leased their free land for a fixed period and incur only operational costs. Basic structures are often constructed, but nothing permanent is allowed. Here informality is given free rein within a rigid institutional framework.

This gave the Johannesburg participants cause for reflection.

In SA, expressions of informality can be quick, temporary and highly effective, innovative and inexpensive. They empower individuals or communities until the wheels of bureaucracy finally provide for them, and allow groups to occupy spaces and depict alternatives to the ways in which society functions.

Informality provides the city with great flexibility, allowing residents without houses to house themselves, those who fall out of formal employment to continue earning money and those without formal skills to continue to contribute to their communities.

In November, the Berlin-based participants will visit Johannesburg, where they will spend time working in an informal settlement.

The differences will be stark, the learning experience significant and the potential benefits for both cities invaluable.”