Researcher Contribution

On Spatial Practice Language

On ‘Informality’

It is important to understand what is implied by the distinction between formality and informality in the built environment.

Government has certain definitions

While architects may have other definitions

There is a certain attractiveness that some architects tend to see in informality, especially when it speaks to the natural settlement patterns and nuances that people tend towards without there necessarily being an architect involved (this brings to mind the Timeless way of Christopher Alexander).

Simultaneously the idea of informality is daunting for other stakeholders in the spatial inequality game. Government struggles to adequately take stock of things like housing and income and service delivery when things are informal – because they can essentially not be counted or labeled or categorized very easily. Which may seem attractive when trying to stick it to the man, but it also makes providing support systems and infrastructure that truly responds to actual conditions very difficult.

Financial institutions and private investors also struggle with informality because it is very difficult to attach value to things which makes providing finance or insurance or offers to purchase/sell very difficult. This often results in owners of the informal stock to remain outside of the capital cycle, because they cannot, for example, use property as collateral for loans, they cannot insure property and they cannot claim real value in the event of sale.

Another danger with informality in the built environment is of course that of safety and building standards. Often, when constructing homes or shops in an informal manner, there is little discretion with regards to adequate building materials. This, in combination with limited financial buying power, also allows retailers to sell sub-par building  materials to the desperate. The result of this is often the destruction of entire communities in the face of the elements or fires.

On ideas of ‘Urban & Rural’

In South Africa, it is difficult to simply divide places into Urban and Rural categories. Traditionally, Urban settings refer to those that are more formal and rural to those that are informal, unregulated and unsupervised. However, in South Africa there are may sub-categories to consider.

In 1996 the government decided to revisit place boundaries and definitions and create district municipalities that would used varying tiers of governance so that settlements previously under serviced by government will be included with areas that received government servicing to balance the load on municipalities and ensure equal distribution of resources.