(In)formal= (Il)legal= (Un)planned: a story of negatives


Informal= Local= Informed: one of many positives

This post focuses on the informal sector in cities and it’s many positive contributions. It is a continuation from “Whose side are we on?”– a post that talks about what seeing like the State means and its impact on design of cities. It navigates through topics of formal/ informal and legibility/illegibility as well.

The informal sector is most commonly associated with a visual and statistic of poverty. Not just poverty of money (measured as it was in the 1960s and ’70s with economic indicators) but poverty of well being, opportunity and of livelihoods. This is perhaps why it remains illegible and invisible.

We live in the 21st Century today and though the informal may have been formally recognised, the attitude towards the working class is anything but positive. Around 60% of Delhi lives informally in jhuggi jhopris, unauthorized colonies and other ‘unplanned’ ways. Without the informal , the formal can’t survive. Without the ‘nukkad ki dukaan’ or ‘momowala’  , the daily routine of a person living in a planned housing, working in the formal sector is incomplete and impossible. But rarely do we recognise and appreciate them for their resourcefullness and practical knowledge. 

Nabeel Hamdi in “The Intelligence of Informality” focuses on the idea of emergent characteristics which are common in the informally planned areas of cities in developing countries:

The ability to organise and become sophisticated- to move from one kind of order to a higher level of order- is what scientists call “emergence”

  1. People are not passive recipients, but active participants in their own daily life’s struggles and solutions. People have the capacity to form networks, local organisations among their own communities and partnerships with formal structures. From getting water and electricity to exerting political influence, complex informal and formal partnerships emerge to enable provision of services and goods among other things. This then implies that architects, planners and sociologists (among others) need to redefine their practice to assess how much structure is required for emergence. It is within that delicate structure that one can then see a whole new order of problem solving emerge from within communities.
  2. Collective local wisdom of people and organisations is what leads to intelligent practice.  Local solutions maybe small scale, but are the most appropriate and sustainable. Moreover, the butterfly effect is only eventual  to be realised at a global scale. Practice is then about crafting linkages between unlikely partners and organisations and building dense interconnected networks. (Think program building and interpretation) In this manner, we professionals become more involved in systems thinking than problem solving.
  3. Cities get their complex life and order from the interaction between top down planning, with its formal laws and structure and all the bottom up self organizing collectivism. But more than the formal imposed solutions, it is instead the trickle-up effect of self-organised systems that produce the biggest changes

“It is a way of working with the given, making small changes, giving time and giving agency to those involved rather than leading the process from the outside” says Nabeel Hamdi.

John Habraken theorised simply that instead of building houses, build ‘support structures’ within which people can make their own houses. How much structure one provides and in what form should be negotiable and would depend on the social and political context. Fairly recently we have seen the works of Alejandro Aravena which exemplified these ideas (his Half-House design for instance).  The following TED Talk by him gives insight into the idea of designers being system thinkers. 


On a more personal account, I want to share some learnings as part of our Experimental Housing Design Studio last year. Without delving into too much technical detail about the design as a whole and housing statistics, I only want to dip into a particular thought process of looking at housing as transformable design. In any housing society, it is a common observation  to see illegal house extensions and transformations done by home owners according to their personal needs. But as designers, these very real part of our realities become invisible if we unquestioningly see like the State. To think of the built house as a one time designed, rigid entity would be unreal. As soon as one acknowledges that residents will transform their house sooner or later (expanding into balconies, verandahs, shafts and upper floors building once the ground floor person expands) and designs in a manner that retains proper light and ventilation in spite of transformation, it is a thought process that is open to people’s future needs and building capacity.

Source: Kanchan Joneja

“So the purpose of design, trying to understand and trying to give an answer to the “3S” menace, scale, speed, and scarcity, is to channel people’s own building capacity. ” says Alejandro Aravena 

What all these ideas of (re)looking at the positives of the informal also convey is the need for professionals like architects and planners to redefine their ways of seeing, thinking and designing. If we were to shrink ourselves from the God’s eye view of designing and a top down approach in planning to be more engaged with communities and involved in systemic solutions rather than direct problem solving, that would probably be a more relevant thing to do in today’s time. In a city like Delhi, where 63% of the housing is self-constructed, there is definitely a need for professionals to intervene in innovative ways and democratize the access to design.

I plan to elaborate more on this in a blog post with ideas from my Dissertation titled “The Future Role of Architects in the Building Industry and Society: How can architects in India reinvent themselves in the future?”  

I know it’s been a long time since I wrote, I’ve been testing waters and my own thoughts in the professional world. 🙂 Stay tuned!


  1. The Placemakers Guide to Building Community by Nabeel Hamdi
  2. The Intelligence of Informality by Nabeel Hamdi
  3. Alejandro Aravena TED Talk: My architectural philosophy? Bring the community into the process
  4. Spatial Agency: This website is a database that shows visually the connections between various topics and people http://www.spatialagency.net/database/nabeel.hamdi

Related (and on my reading list)

  • In the Public Interest: Evictions, Citizenship, and Inequality in Contemporary Delhi by Gautam Bhan
  • The Structure of the Ordinary , Form and Control in the Built Environment by John Habraken
  • The Control of Complexity by John Habraken
  • Housing Without Houses: Participation, Flexibility, Enablement by Nabeel Hamdi