How do urban planners frame informality?

Photo by Andrés Almeida Guano / Unimedios

Photo by Andrés Almeida Guano / Unimedios

Andrés Linares is an urban planner at AECOM in Colombia, where he has participated in the reconstruction of a town swiped away by a natural disaster and in the planning of Bogotá’s urban expansion. He is responding here to a set of questions proposed by Andrés Melendro, regarding his works. Melendro holds a bachelor’s degree cum laude in Political Science and a master’s degree in Urban Policy from Sciences Po Paris.

AB: What role does informality play in the new settlements planned by AECOM?

AL: I was involved for several years in the reconstruction of Gramalote, a small town of 3000 inhabitants located in Northeastern Colombia, which was severely damaged by a landslide triggered by La Niña phenomenon in 2010. The Colombian Government promised to relocate the town in a suitable location for its dwellers to reconstruct their social ties and economic activities, since the risk in the previous location was too high to be managed through disaster preparedness. During the planning phase we realized 60% of the inhabitants did not have land tenure, meaning they were either tenants or squatters of private or public land. Nonetheless, authorities decided that any household that didn’t own property somewhere else and was below the poverty line would be entitled to housing in New Gramalote. That was the first moment we came across informality. In general, planning assumes formality as a starting point. A legal instrument cannot be based upon informality.

Due to the national policy implemented by the Ministry of Housing to allocate 100,000 free houses, after receiving property rights, , house owners had to start paying property tax. Even though the amount was not very high, the payment itself was a novelty for many of them.

AB: To what extent can the design of a new settlement influence local economic development?

AL:The reconstruction of Gramalote did not include the construction of new roads, therefore the town is still relatively isolated from larger urban agglomerations. In fact, it is possible to draw a comparison with Radiator Springs, the town where the animated movie Cars takes place. When they are no longer at the intersection of roads linking cities, towns tend to decay. Even if the disaster would not have happened, Gramalote would have lost 20% of its inhabitants in 10 years. The reconstruction process itself attracts people, since it boosts the economy by creating employment. Nevertheless, many youngsters who moved to Cúcuta, the provincial capital, during the reconstruction, did not move back because job offers are very limited in a small town. The new dwellers are mainly retired persons attracted by the quality of life of New Gramalote. Urban planning in Latin America prioritizes access to housing. Yet, if this is not coupled with sufficient jobs and education offer, population will not settle down on the medium term.

Concerning local finances, before the disaster the municipality was in red numbers. Now that the new settlement has been built with higher urban design standards, which imply higher maintenance costs, it raises the question of financial sustainability. Local authorities have opted for raising more taxes, including some that existed but were not collected locally. Yet the challenge is still present.

AB: How is the interaction between land use regulation and the dynamic of informal trade in the public space?

AL: Urban planning in Colombia nowadays tends to favor mixed uses, in part to discourage informal street vending. All the houses in New Gramalote were designed taking into account that principle. Each house has a space that the family can devote to commerce. The zoning of the land use code establishes that the town center can have a higher commercial density. Some activities like car repairing cannot be carried in a house and require a dedicated independent space. We conducted a benchmark of the commercial offer in neighboring towns, as well as a survey of the businesses present in old Gramalote to assess how much retail space the new settlement needed and what its ideal location was. This way, we tried to reduce the informal occupation of public space.

AB: What differences would you highlight between the economic dynamic of old and new Gramalote?

AL: We identified people who used to run a business, regardless of whether it was formal or informal and the Government offered economic revitalization programs to them. Families had to compete with a business plan to receive formalization and strengthening mentoring. In particular, training was offered by SENA (the institution in charge of vocational education) and also financial support to launch a business. This initiative was successful. Nowadays the businesses that received counseling generate income and pay taxes. Somehow, economic progress can hardly be measured yet, since little time has passed, and small companies are still receiving subsidies.

AB: According to your experience, can urban planning negatively affect informality levels?

AL: Planning is an activity carried or lead by the national or local government. It is by definition tied to the willingness to formalize a territory. Even though, it can also produce unwanted effects. For instance, the Government decided that New Gramalote had to follow all urban design standards (sidewalks, public spaces, etc.) introduced by the New Urban Agenda. This implied that the town went from having an area of 30 Ha to 100 Ha approximately. This expansion meant a rise in distances and the emergence of informal transport offer that did not exist in the old town: mototaxis.

AB: What are the main differences between planning cities and towns?

AL: During our planning workshops, residents were told the new town would have much more green space. Nevertheless, they seemed uninterested by this feature, something that wouldn’t happen in a city. In fact, the town is surrounded by green fields and many of its residents are farmers and thus work surrounded by greenery. This highlights the importance of citizen participation in the planning process.

Andrés Melendro Blanco is currently studying mandarin and environmental policy at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His main interest is the spatial analysis of public policies. He is currently conducting research on China’s climate change adaptation strategies in light of its accelerated urbanization process. He is looking forward to contrasting them with Latin American experiences through Oxford Urbanists. He previously worked as an editor for The Business Year, an international media group, as a consultant for UN-Habitat and as an urban development analyst at ProBogotá, a think-tank dedicated to fostering Bogotá’s sustainability. He holds a bachelor’s degree cum laude in Political Science and a master’s degree in Urban Policy, both from Sciences Po Paris.