Embracing informality: A crucial element in crafting equitable urban resilience

Learn how the Southern African Resilience Academy’s Informality and Equitable Urban Resilience Working Group synthesised research and practice to examine how informality influences urban resilience.

Written by: Hallie Eakin, Gina Ziervogel, Maike Hamann, Martha Sibanda, Ernita van Wyk, Jade Sullivan, Nadine Methner, and Johan Enqvist
GRP Areas of work: Knowledge Theme: Cities and urban resilience

Informality is a pervasive and defining aspect of urban life in the Global South, shaping the experience of millions in southern Africa. From informal settlements to informal trade and institutions, its influence on urban dynamics is undeniable. However, the link between informality, urban inequality, and resilience is often overlooked in contemporary urban planning. This oversight risks perpetuating existing disparities and hampering effective responses to crises and climate-related shocks. Recognising this gap, the “Informality and Equitable Urban Resilience” working group, formed under the SARA working group initiative, seeks to explore and address the critical role of informality in urban resilience and equity of rapidly growing cities in the Global South. 

Our goal is to synthesise research and practice from southern Africa and other Global South contexts to comprehensively examine how informality influences urban resilience. By leveraging interdisciplinary expertise in climate change adaptation, social-ecological resilience, urban governance, social movements, and environmental justice, we aim to develop recommendations for improved urban planning and governance for cities in southern Africa and beyond. 

The inclusion of representatives from ICLEI Africa and Slum Dwellers International, two organisations that work closely with urban communities and decision-makers across southern Africa, enhances the practical relevance of our insights, bridging the gap between research and on-the-ground experience. 

Collaborative approach 

Our working group’s strength lies in its diversity, both in terms of expertise and representation. Regular online meetings facilitated collaboration and ensured consistent progress on various outputs, including an academic paper, insights brief, and a session at the recent Adaptation Futures 2023 conference. By bringing together academics, practitioners, and community perspectives, our collaboration is well-positioned to provide actionable recommendations that consider the nuances of informality in resilience planning. 

Global relevance

While the focus on informality in southern Africa is paramount, recent trends in Global North cities, such as the rise of the gig economy, increased migration, the impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic, and climate change, highlight the growing relevance of informality worldwide. Our SARA working group’s insights aim to contribute timely and essential perspectives to the global discourse on sustainable and equitable urban futures. As we delve into the role of informality in urban resilience, we raise critical questions of equity and justice:

1) Inclusivity: Who is included in the conceptualisation of a resilient urban system?
2) Contribution: Who contributes to urban resilience, and how?
3) Participation: Who participates in urban resilience planning, ensuring diverse voices are heard and considered? 

Our working group’s exploration of informality’s multifaceted role in urban development is not just relevant to the Global South but has broader implications in the face of global challenges. We anticipate that the insights garnered through our collaborative efforts will be instrumental in shaping a more inclusive and equitable approach to urban resilience worldwide. By recognising and embracing informality, we can pave the way for resilient cities that truly prioritise the well-being of all their inhabitants.