PhD: Policy and Informality

It is astounding to remember that I created this blog as a tool to document the process and knowledge obtained from my final thesis to graduate from Architecture School in Brazil. Immediately after in 2014, two years ago, life and opportunity have brought me to the United States to complete my PhD in Urban Planning at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Not only have life and personal growth been tremendous but so have my understanding of planning and what my focus of study should be (for the time being). Previous posts  document my passion for inclusionary zoning and housing as a governmental policy to control land values and thus promote affordable and central housing for communities usually placed on the fringe of the formal city. But as many have told me, and I have been feeling, the purpose of a Doctorate is to (try to) let go of your strong ideas and investigate further.

Perhaps I can even say that all the ideas I has until this point have existed due to my confidence in existing land policy and in traditional government. During most of my education I have studied zoning, which, as a trained architect, was appealing due to its ability to orient growth and directly affect the constructed outcome. However, the process of occupation in Brazilian cities continually reserves central open land for upper classes, often enclosed in gated communities monitored by guards and use private automobiles. Raquel Rolnik explains the social and spatial risks of dividing classes: “From a spatial point of view, the separation between the rich and poor expands social tensions, as the classes are being increasingly separated by apparatuses of control and safety, further fragmenting the urban space” (ROLNIK, 2009: 2). The approval of the Statute of the City as a mean to guarantee the ‘right to the city’ for those often marginalized, demonstrated the relevance of the housing deficit and urban order to public officials and the population. However, ZEIS as an inclusionary zoning mechanism, is just one of the tools presented in the Statute that has faced setbacks for implementation. While private and public stakeholders fight redistributive policies, housing programs build at a slow pace not sufficient to cope with the existing deficit. In 2012 research indicated a national deficit of 5,792 million homes equivalent to 9.1% of total homes. The character of that deficit was composed by 45.9% of homes paying excessive rent, 32.2% of homes in a situation of co-housing, 15.3% of homes in precarious living conditions and 6.6% of rental homes with excessive occupation (CEI, 2014). Additionally, the census of 2010, indicated that Brazil had 3.2 million dwellings located in 6329 informal settlements (comprising about 5% of all identified census tracts) (IBGE, 2010).

Past research on informality has guided policies that displace low income populations and view spontaneous or squatter settlements as a malaise. However, from November 2014 to May 2015, an exhibition called Uneven Growth presented proposals from six teams of researchers and practitioners to deal with urban growth in New York, Lagos, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Hong Kong and Mumbai (Figure 1).


Figure 1: Image provided by the MoMA as an advertisement for Uneven Growth. Source: A book was also published with the results of the exhibition.

I was amazed to see a study of urban growth presented in the museum, which proves the relevance of the topic and the momentum that is being created to push the housing agenda. My interpretation of the proposals is that they were based on the assumption that those existing settlements in the Global South (I will include Istambul in the terminology) have hidden potentials that could be somewhat improved by design. The small-scale interventions in specific areas of the slum or housing project were formalizing the informal activities already happening or serving as a platform to enlarge the scale of the impact of that activity. For instance, in Istambul the designers created an app which facilitated bartering and trading of services. Those relations were already happening informally but only within each individual social housing high-rise building, thus and the app, with other way finding techniques, enabled the communication between people from different buildings. One can critique all the proposals but I prefer to acknowledge that the designers have approached the existing issues in those settlements from an innovative and less judgmental perspective.

The renewal and infrastructure projects that are often implemented by governments fail to assess existing potentials and provide support to existing activities while improving what is lacking. That initial step is crucial if we are to preserve community ties and consider a sustainable form of improving informal settlements. The clear scrapping of slums and subsequent rebuilding in a “formal” acceptable design provides benefits for the construction industry but is traumatic for the people involved and presents a tremendous demand for infrastructure and materials. In addition, housing programs move at a slow pace not efficient in predicting urban growth. However, Uneven Growth was based on architects’ and designers’ short-sided perspective that all solutions for urban problems stem from constructed and physical interventions. While I can personally relate to that and understand the intentions behind the proposals, I have been bothered by architect’s “God syndrome” (more on Design and Brainwashing to follow).

Architects are mislead in the course of their studies to believe that their good design is pivotal in changing people’s lives and that those drawings have magic power for betterment. It is unfortunate to state that eliciting requisites from the client is was not really a focal point of my formation (and many others if I may say so). This leads to an increasing perception that, when entering a community or approaching a client, one has an inherent position of power in the conversation. There lies my challenge: to deconstruct the implicit biases I have developed over time regarding communities as “clients who do not speak” and slums as “bad”. One must keep in mind, however, to not be attracted by the romantic view of the slum as “vernacular” and a “true representation of people’s needs”. This romantic and simplistic view disregards urban development as a power struggle and slums as a physical representation of the illegitimacy of a chunk of society.

With those dilemmas in mind, I have come to finally accept that I shall study slums, instead of housing policy, as the topic of my studies.


CEI – Centro de Informações e Estatística (2014) Déficit Habitacional no Brasil Anos 2011 e 2012. Christensen, KS. (1993). Teaching savvy. Journal of Planning Education and Research. Retrieved from

IBGE – Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (2010) Census 2010: Aglomerados Subnormais. Published in SIDRA database. Available in:

ROLNIK, Raquel. Regulação Urbanítica no Brasil: conquistas e desafios de um modelo em construção. In: Anais do Seminário Internacional:Gestão da Terra Urbana e Habitação de Interesse Social, PUCCAMP, 2000




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