As Anand Giridharadas wrote in the New York Times on Friday we are experiencing a resurgence in the informal economy in the developed world facilitated by online platforms that digitally organise informal jobs, house stays or car rentals. I’m not sure if I agree that these jobs can really be called informal as they are facilitated by state registered tax-paying entities, but taskrabbit, airbnb and relayrides are certainly creating jobs in a decentralized and on-demand way that wasn’t possible before internet 2.0. Whilst Giridharadas in his article considers the potentially regressive effect this type of job may have on the labour market- we have been considering what it might mean for city life – engaging latent value through social organisation generates an increased urban intensity that Jacobs describes, so we got thinking what it might mean for city public life.
We have observed and documented public space and public life in Chennai, located in the South Eastern state of Tamil Nadu, India. The unmistakeable street-life in our research has shown is at the very least very well supported by if not generated by the informal economy. In a study of the T Nagar district in Chennai we measured the numbers of people in a street occupied by informal vendors had an average level of staying activity was eighteen times higher in the street than that in the nearby parks. In total it was found that the numbers of people along this street with few formalized shops were equivalent to those found on London’s Oxford street. Whilst these levels of intensity in India are created by the enormous populations, as well as large populations of street dwellers – there is also a strong social culture of it.
Whitechapel high street in London has served as a local informal market place for over 150 years. First a Jewish market, and now a Bangladeshi market, it continues to attract diverse street life particularly for the newest British immigrants. The culture of the informal economy here has remained long after many other places in the city were formalised and the wide spaces of Whitechapel road and the more intimate space of Brick lane have given lasting form for to this.
In contrast, stands Strøget, Copenhagen’s one mile long pedestrianized shopping street, completely formalised yet also alive with a not dissimilar level of public life. Can the same spatial parameters contribute to the likelihood of either a formal or informal economy arising in the street and providing fertile ground for public life and social exchange. Both Whitechapel and Strøget are lined with a fine grain building network, with several entrances and a robust building stock that has accommodated a evolving change of uses over time. Strøget is a 1.5 km route accentuated with public spaces and interrupted only twice by cross streets as it is meanders between 2 key public spaces. While Whitechapel is a traditional high street interrupted regularly by cross-streets and lacks a series of public spaces adjacent to it.
So how do these new types of virtual companies impact and affect the physical manifestation of micro economies, formal and informal in the city? Airbnb lets-out spare rooms to those travelling through the city or working temporarily creating increased densities and variety of people. Relay rides decreases the number of dormant vehicles and makes increased use existing cars in the city. All of these arrangements require a level social interaction and trust between fellow citizens that has been somewhat lacking in our formal economies, but always present in the street and spaces of our cities. Perhaps we should be looking more broadly, more intelligently at our social condition for ways to generate a ‘healthy city’. Such a city according to Richard Sennett’s is ‘a city can embrace and make productive use of the differences of class, ethnicity, and lifestyles it contains, while a sick city cannot’ – and in this vain perhaps we need to leave room for informality and explore how it affects public life. We must do more to understand this relationship between the virtual and the physical, between the formal and the informal and work to create spatial frameworks and social conditions that allow this relationship to flourish and mutually reinforce each other.