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Informal Cities

Debris from destroyed building in foreground. Partially destroyed building in background.

Informal Cities seeks to generate an interdisciplinary understanding of the role of the informal in the survival and development of cities in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The informal has long been defined – academically and practically – as being the opposite of the formal and acceptable. Informal activities are considered to be those taking place outside of the official rules and regulations of government, public administration, politics, and markets, and outside of dominant cultural practices. They are also thought to require reform through state action to include their practitioners in (and eliminate their activities from) the modern city.

While recent critiques argue for an understanding of the informal as a legitimate form of practice inextricably entwined with the formal, policy makers and administrators continue to ignore/eradicate the informal practices and knowledge of low income communities.

Working group members have variously studied the structures and interactions of the informal, focusing on governance, markets, labour, settlements, infrastructural development, health care, disaster response, and cultural practices. The group seeks to integrate these different topical and disciplinary bases of knowledge into a holistic discussion of urban informality.


  • Tina Hilgers, Political Science


  • João Roquer, MA in Political Science

If you're interested in joining this working group, please contact João at

Key questions

  • What is the informal? Why do researchers need to work with the term “informal”? What function does it have for doing research? For understanding urban practices?
  • How do informal practices structure governance? How are they structured by governance?
  • What role does the informal play in city-building? How does it play into the development of infrastructures – both the hard infrastructures of housing, transportation, water, electricity, etc. and the soft infrastructures of social, knowledge, service, and aid networks?
  • How does informal labour structure urban markets?
  • How do informal activities and practices interact with violence? The institutional and structural violence of state neglect? The violence of inequality and marginalization (race, gender, ethnicity) in the market? The violence of gangs and organized crime?
  • Is the informal a tool of resistance? Or is it something to be resisted?

Group members and expertise

  • James Freeman (Geography) – politics of informal construction, use, and governance of space in the favelas of Brazil
  • Kevin Gould (Geography) – assembly of land markets through entangled formal and informal processes in Guatemala
  • Kregg Hetherington (Anthropology; Ethnography Lab) – clash of formal/informal, bureaucratic/activist practices and ideas about the governance of agriculture in Paraguay
  • Tina Hilgers (Political Science) – formal/informal/illicit approaches to mundane and critical events in low-income communities in Brazil, Jamaica, and Colombia
  • Omar Adrián Nuño Íñiguez (MSc, Geography) – interactions between formal/informal disaster response and reconstruction practices in post-earthquake Southern Chile
  • Nora Jaffary (History) – clash of formal/dominant vs. informal/illegal medical and religious practices in colonial and post-colonial Mexico
  • Greg Labrosse (PhD, Humanities) – informal production of urban cultural space in low-income communities in Colombia
  • Luis Londoño (PhD, History) – formal and informal justice and punishment in the history of murder and emotions in 19th century Mexico
  • Jean François Mayer (Political Science) – consequences of, and resistance to, precariousness and violence in informal work in Brazil, Jamaica, and Colombia
  • Rubens Lima Moraes (PhD, Political Science) – informal practices of low-income activists marginalized in participatory water management institutions in Brazil
  • Camila Patiño Sanchez (PhD, Anthropology) – informal electricity and water infrastructure projects in urban and peri-urban settlements in Colombia
  • Luisa Seidl (MA, Political Science) – informal domestic employees’ resistance to violence in the workplace in Brazil


  • Speakers’ series: Hybrid events in the fall and winter terms with invited speakers in virtual attendance
  • Reading group: Meetings in the fall and winter terms to discuss issues in the literature
  • Workshop: Year-end meeting with a keynote speaker and with discussion of student and faculty work in progress
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