On Informal Cities

Across Europe, during the last century, millions of people moved in different waves of rural-urban domestic migration that built contemporary cities as the places we know now. The depopulation of the countryside and the exponential growth of some cities were a major phenomenon, implying the definitive establishment of a fully industrial society. These movements were not only an economic issue, but a whole social phenomenon with impacts in culture, labour market and urban fabric. One of the most significant problems was housing access: the market could not meet the demand that grew exponentially with the increasing influx of immigrants and under-housing and slumming were some of the solutions people came up with. So, generally, immigrants whether in shacks or in other self-constructed dwellings, settled on the outskirts of the city (not only geographically but also socially), and ended up populating a series of neighbourhoods where almost all its inhabitants were of immigrant origin and working class.

The migrant population from the countryside to the city often shared the surroundings of the urban peripheries, and particularly the informal settlements, with the Roma community. The Roma collective has been historically expelled towards the margins of cities and European society, where it has coexisted with the most impoverished social sectors, as is the case of rural migrants.

 Cities grew and developed thanks to the extraction of this population’s labour force at almost no cost, being the shacks therefore constituent of the city itself. Even so, collective imaginary surrounding the informal settlements on the city outskirts refers to a representation of its inhabitants as dangerous and uncivilized people who need discipline and control to become productive agents. Those guilty of bringing poverty to cities.

Usually, informal settlements phenomenon is part of what we could call the repressed collective unconscious of the city, the forgotten revers that any city doesn’t want to recall. However, physical and symbolic erasure of the shacks removes also the memories of some groups of people and specific social events: memories of migration, of Roma people, of the impoverished, underclass and their creativity, popular culture manifestations and social practices.

 The city is also built from its stories and images as the representations of the city dictate specific ways of inhabiting it. Thus, the omission of the informal in the hegemonic discourse on the city has induced its collective oblivion.