DOI: 10.22217/upi.2018.552
The Informal American City: Deepening the Understanding of Informal Urbanism

Vinit Mukhija, Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

Keywords: Informality; Informal Urbanism; American; Misconception; Spatial Understanding


This article draws from the introduction and conclusion chapters of our edited book, The Informal American City: Beyond Taco Trucks and Day Labor (Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris 2014), which examines the “informal revolution” in American urban life. Through a series of case studies, we empirically and theoretically explore a growing phenomenon more often associated with developing countries than with industrialized ones. While informal urbanism is usually dismissed by planners and policymakers as marginal or even criminal, our case studies from across the country, including Los Angles, Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, Kansas City, Atlantic City, and New York City, challenge such narrow conceptions.

Surprisingly, even the scholarly planning and urban design literature rarely addresses informal urbanism despite its increasing presence. Therefore, we wish to depart from the conventional wisdom and examine the unexpected presence,  proliferation, and vibrancy of informal activities in different U.S. settings and cities. But rather than romantically celebrating informality, we are keen to develop more sophisticated ways to recognize, understand, and address it. We also argue for an explicitly spatial understanding of informality and its settings; and discuss how planners, policy makers, urban designers, and communities can respond to the new emerging landscape of opportunities and challenges.

Informal activities in U.S. cities are widespread and varied. Most of them are not criminal in nature, nor are they limited to instances of economic survival. And while informality has often been associated with immigrants, informal activities are pervasive and spread across different social groups, diverse urban settings, and different geographical regions of the country. Formal and informal activities may at times conflict and at times overlap or depend on one another. Case studies of such activities help reveal the logic and underlying rationality of informality, and the structural linkages between informal activities and the larger political economy of cities and regulations. They also show the contradictory nature of informality, with both potential winners and losers associated with informal activities.

Some myths and misconceptions about informality have developed over the years. One such myth is that urban informality is part and parcel of the Global South, and only appears in very poor and marginalized neighborhoods of cities of the Global North. However, urban informality of different types is now quite visible even in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods of the Global North. A second myth assumes that formal and informal activities and settings are always distinct and rigidly separated. However, we do not find such drastic separation between some formal and informal settings in cities. A third myth is that informality is a temporary phenomenon and an ephemeral construct; however, the ubiquity and persistence of many informal activities and settings tells us otherwise. Lastly, notions that informality is always a virtue, or the opposite—
it is always negative, belie the fact that informal activities are not homogenous but rather depend on context and circumstance. Rather than perpetuating these myths, planners and policy makers should deepen their understanding of informal urbanism and take into consideration their specific social and physical context, before responding to the challenges and opportunities of informal urbanism.


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