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Illustration: Urban Informalities

Urban Informalities

Many cities around the world self-build without top-down control. What do these processes have in common with complexity?

Cities around the world are growing without the capacity for top-down control. Informal urbanism is an example of bottom-up processes that shape the city. Can these processes be harnessed in ways that make them more effective and productive?

Self-Built Settlements

Across the globe there are many areas where urban planning plays only the most minimal of roles. Instead, people themselves are responsible for creating their own homes, and the aggregate actions of these individuals result in what are known as 'informal settlements' or 'urban informalities'. These are in contrast to the 'planned' areas of housing and neighborhoods in cities that are controlled from the top down. For a long time, such settlements were overlooked or pushed to the sidelines, considered to be chaotic and disorderly. They were characterized as 'slums' in need of clean up or retrofitting.

Only over time have planners begun to recognize that such informalities may offer valuable lessons: that their bottom-up organization results in unexpected order, and that robust patterns emerge despite the seeming lack of coordination between individuals in these settlements. Urban thinkers interested in complexity have begun to look at these settlements for signs of order, efficiency, and resilience, and to try to understand how coordinated patterns emerge over time, in iterative modifications.

As part of this, thinkers have looked to older settlement patterns that yielded emergent order: settlements that pre-date controlled planning but are characterized by a kind of organic 'fit' between the environment and its settlers. An early contribution to this effort, a book called 'Architecture without Architects' (1972) by Bernard Rudofsky, did not reference complexity explicitly,  but did note how harmonious patterns emerge within such settlements despite the fact that there is no central control.

This area of research can therefore be divided into two parts: urban thinkers who aim to learn from traditional settlements, built slowly and incrementally over generations that achieve  harmonious, coherent features, and those interested in how the much faster-paced settlements - built in the face of population shifts that have drawn people, en-masse into cities - nonetheless display emergent structure.

Finally, a number of researchers have attempted to draw from both these areas to see how new planning policies might apply 'lessons learnt' from these examples of bottom-up settlements, in order to infuse more vitality - but also autonomy - into new developments.

Rule-Based Settlements

Today, urban development are typically regulated by various planning rules and codes, which set limits and constraints around what can and cannot happen: areas of limited function (zoning), limitations on built form (building set-backs, height restrictions, etc.), mandatory ancillary requirements (parking spaces per dwelling unit), and much more.

One key characteristic of these constraints and limits is that they are determined by planners and then 'set' for a particular area or building type. Rules are imposed from the planner's office and do not vary to accommodate emerging conditions on the ground.

By contrast, are much older rules that came in another form: relational rules that were codes of building behavior that were much more context dependent. Effectively, what could be built hinged, somewhat, on what had been built around you before.  This local, unfolding history steered what was built, what the 'next step' was, in terms of urban growth. Each construction, in turn, placed constraints on what could happen next.

If this sounds familiar it should, as it echoes, in many ways, the manner in which cellular automata models unfold over time. There is a rule set, but it is a rule-set that is deployed in a relational context. Unlike in master zoning plans, there are no 'rules' that if a cell is located in specific position on the lattice  it needs to observe certain behaviors associated with that square.  Instead cell behaviors are constrained only by the emerging neighboring context, which is never set or pre-determined.

Example:  if we look at this image of a Greek village, we can note that the street character is unified and holistic, despite the fact that there are many individual properties.  In his book, "Mediterranean Urbanism', Besim Hakim discusses this unity in terms of a series of urban 'rules' that constrain what neighbors can and cannot (or their Degrees of Freedom).

What is noteworthy in this study is that, unlike in contemporary planning, the nature of these rules is contextual. A rule might pertain to where a door or window can be placed, but only insofar as this has an impact on doors and windows pre-existing in the neighboring context. In this way, building specificity proceeds iteratively. These locally codified Rules constraints are then supplemented with tacit rules around the means of construction. By using local building methods and materials, ones proven successful over countless generations, each individual builder constrains their material and construction choices in accordance with local practices. For most of human history there was no need to make such rules explicit, as construction technologies were quite regional. As a result, construction practices can be said to have been tested over time, and thereby 'evolved' to produce a coherent fit within their context.

In a similar vein, Mustafa Ben Hamouche analyzes the emergence of Muslim cities.  He states that urban structure is the result of a number of tacit rules that, while not necessarily codified, provided a general normative understanding around the ethos of construction. In addition to the kinds of relational rules explored by Hakim, Hamouche points to how the nature of inheritance practices served to divide building sites.  Alongside of this, Islamic law gave priority for those holding neighboring properties to obtain a kind of 'right of first refusal' should adjacent property become available. This resulted in an ongoing process of both disaggregation (inheritance divisions), and aggregation (adjacent property fusions). Iterated over each passing generation, these dynamics resulted in certain global morphological characteristics that seem to exhibit Fractals in structure.

The resulting geometries are complex, particularly since subdivided properties needed to maintain functionality - with the need for additional arrays of lanes and access points. Finally, due to the limits on space, adjacent owners often became intertwined in various kinds of complex property infringement agreements - for example one offering access to a rooftop for the other, with the other offering access through their garden to the other's entry. In this way, singular properties became intertwined in a variety of manners, resulting in more organic, holistic spatial organization.

Here, the city gains structure from the bottom-up actions of individuals, taking specific iterative steps that give form to their dwellings - all with reference to how these steps ultimately impact their neighbors. These localized, incremental actions, are therefore not entirely independent, but rather locally constrained in such a way that, over time, a collective, coherent urban form could emerge. These cities gain long-term adaptive fitness due to iterative adjustments made over time, allowing them to take on a complex natural order responding to the needs of their inhabitants.

Informal Settlements

In addition to these traditional settlements, today we can point to innumerable regions characterized by unplanned, informal settlements. The growing rural to urban trend has long since passed the threshold where more people live in cities than in the countryside, and housing cannot keep pace with this trend. Accordingly, people are forced to build their own houses in an effort to settle in areas where they can gain access to employment opportunities. These settlements are seen as problematic, due to a host of issues including lack of sanitation, safety concerns, infrastructural and transport issues, etc. 

That said, there are many ways in which we can, nonetheless, learn from informalities.  While the characteristics of urban informalities vary, many of them have been quite successful in achieving vibrant, livable communities. Furthermore, these settlements are often the source of a great deal of civic creativity and ingenuity. While there is always the risk of romanticizing these locales, for those interested in bottom-up self-organization, they would seem to offer a prime case-study for how effective solutions can be achieved without need for top-down control.

The character of these settlements changes incrementally in two key ways:  morphologically and materially. Initially, a dwelling will be built using the bare minimum size and construction required in order to satisfy the need for shelter from the elements. Construction is speedy and may rely on assistance from other family or community members. Once a given zone of habitation has been carved out, two modifications will tend to occur: the material quality will be improved/replaced as resources become available, and/or extensions may be added. Living spaces may also be extended to incorporate outdoor surroundings, which may include the appropriation of air space (balconies) or rooftops. Over time, as primary needs of housing are met, an informal settlement will begin to see other forms of basic functions crop up: including shops, repair, or other service infrastructures. 

The quality of informal settlements is often contingent upon whether or not occupants feel secure in their land tenure. In Turkey, for example, where land tenure is relatively secure for those who have settled informally (due to particular aspects of Ottoman Law), the processes described above (incremental expansion, alongside of material replacement, gradual functional support services), mean that many environments that appear to have been planned parts of the city are in fact examples of robust, evolved, informalities.

In addition to the physical characteristics of these matured informalities, they also often develop to have their own internal social and governance structures, which help ensure safety,  resolve disputes, and relay knowledge. Within a settlement, networks of individuals develop who assist others in navigating through uncertain situations, with knowledge and experience relayed throughout the group. Thus, in additional to the hard, material  infrastructure of the physical settlement itself, there are less tangible, but equally important Networks of community that develop.  When these settlements are intervened upon by outside actors -  'cut down' or razed to the ground in order to make way for more progressive, controlled, and top-down housing developments - this accretion of knowledge and organization is lost. Areas that are developing towards these self-organized structures are stripped of the opportunity to go through the processes of incremental succession that can lead to quite successful communities.

Informalities of this nature are studied by many researchers, including Hesam Kamalipour, Kim Dovey, and Juval Portugali. Each draw links between informalities and the dynamics of complex adaptive systems. 

Learning From Informalities: Urban Experiments in Self-Organization 

Much of the research on informalities centers around efforts to better understand and steward their functioning (rather than simply destroying and replacing them). That said, planners working within the more normative development context have begun to ask if it is possible to apply this kind of rule-based,  incremental, and context dependent approach to planning to European or North American contexts.

There is perhaps no better example of this than the case of Almere, Oosterwold, a project designed by the Architecture and Urban Design group MVRDV in the Netherlands. The project employs a series of conditional rules that allows individuals to purchase plots and then constrains how these plots are developed by reference to a number of rules that must be preserved for the development as a whole. At the same time, certain characteristics of each plot development hinges on site conditions of surrounding neighboring plots, reducing the Degrees of Freedom available for subsequent development.  

Individuals are responsible for the provision of a number of personal and site infrastructures, and are otherwise left to their own devices in terms of determining how, precisely, to go about developing their own site. The project is an interesting example of bottom-up self-organization in planning, that incorporates both rule-based thinking and bottom-up agents. Furthermore, the project has no pre-determined end-vision. Instead, depending on the nature of the non-linear process of land acquisition and development, a whole range of outcomes may be possible. Rather than being proscribed in advance by a vision or master-plan, the intent is for the settlement pattern to be one characterized by Emergence over time.

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Photo Credit and Caption: George Steinmetz, National Geographic; and Héctor J. Rivas for the mediterranean image (unsplash)

Cite this page:

Wohl, S. (2022, 9 June). Urban Informalities. Retrieved from

Urban Informalities was updated June 9th, 2022.

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Building blocks form the foundation of larger scale patterns within Complex Systems.

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Complex systems are composed of agents governed by simple input/output rules that determine their behaviors.

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Complex Adaptive Systems become more 'fit' over time. Depending on the system, Fitness can take many forms,  but all involve states that achieve more while expending less energy.

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There would be some thought experiments here.

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