The Informality of Public Life

Airbnb San Francisco coverage 2008 and 2012
Infographic by Kelli Anderson

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.

Social life in the T Nagar District

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.

Strøget, Copenhagen

Whitechapel high street, London
Photo credit, Diamond Geezer

  1. Nice Post. Airbnb have met huge resistance from the formal industries of hotels and ‘proper’ B&Bs who (correctly) see it as a threat to their incredibly lucrative and long-held monopoly on the market / their revenue. They’re lobbying hard for protectionist legislation. I think the law plays an interesting role in this. Though it’s not a physical barrier to the entrepreneurial / public /informal use of space, regulations often distort the market place in favour of one group of vested interests over the greater good – often in the name of protecting the people (i.e. airbnb hosts haven’t had the rigorous fire safety training that proper b&b hosts have had so we should shut them down, thank you very much.) the same could be said for food hygiene standards vs street food.

  2. tobiasmoe said:

    ecxellent post. Speaking of Copenhagen it is generally a city where less and less space is left open for informal social activity not least because of a growing ‘commercialization’ of public space. You can hardly sit anywhere without having to pay for exorbitantly expensive coffe or the like.

    • gehlblog said:

      Thanks Tobias. I think getting the right balance between commercially led opportunities to sit and ‘truly public’ seating is a difficult one. Whilst perhaps you’re right that there is a concentration of commercial seating in the busiest parts of the city, in other areas the Municipality (København’s Kommune) has recently built new and inventive public spaces that are completely free to use. Kastrup sea baths and the whole of Amager strand Park is an astonishingly generous statement almost completely non-commercial space. There are other new spaces the city has recently delivered; the new Banana and Super Kilen parks in Nørrebro. There is also a fair amount of free public seating – i.e. benches along Strøget and comfort along the water’s edge in Nyhavn that is in close proximity to paid seating. Not to mention, secondary seating like opportunities to rest, lean and watch along the doorways and steps, the Theatre decking and edge to the canals all offer many moments for resting and staying.
      In some cities, London, New York, the Middle East and many others there is a real threat to public life from privatised public spaces where real restrictions on what, who and how things can happen there. Copenhagen is not amongst these and it is important to celebrate that, we feel very positive about the balance between commercial and non-commercial in Copenhagen.

      • tobiasmoe said:

        Thanks for the reply. Maybe I expressed myself too harsch – Copenhagen definitely contains a lot of wonderful public spaces, and one shouldn’t even start to compare the level of commercialized space with those major metropols mentioned. But I am sharing an emotion described to me by other copenhageners who are frustrated over the shrinking access especially in the inner parts of the city, substantiated with concrete physical proof or not. Well, a lot of your examples are indeed public friendly spaces and I take part in your admiration of the Municipality, but in my opinion it should be a genuine right to have a huge part of open spaces for all in a city. Inhabitants shouldn’t be flattered by the opportunity to sit on benches or in the streets of Nyhavn or any other street, they should take it for granted. The areas by the harbour front were as far as I know also accessible before the building of the new theaters – admitted, less attractive than now. Same goes for the Nørrebro Parken before the extension (which I tribute highly).
        Anyway, this wasn’t meant to pull focus away from the broader and much more interesting discussion of informal economy’s impact on social life in a global perspective, merely a slightly unconsidered brainwave…

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