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Theory for Informal Settlements and Informal Urban Growth

We want to, in collaboration with existing informal communities, develop theory for enhanced informal urban growth.

Photo of Oskar Gudéhn
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Architecture must, if to be successful, be well informed and anchored in social, economic, environmental and built contexts. We base our work on a foundation of data collection, research, urban theory and social inclusion. The collective knowledge formalise in overarching strategies for continued, and improved, informal urban development. When working with informal urban development it is of utmost importance to work within informal processes and frameworks, acknowledging principles of Informality. Informal (Urban) Development, like Formal Development, follows a clear set of premisses, mechanisms and processes. These informal processes are heavily shaped by a dynamic network of interdependent “Principles of Informality” (comparable to the laws, regulations and economies of formal development). Informal processes and networks are all affected by these principles to a varying magnitude and in different combinations. We are interested in research that would further develop principles, terminology and urban theory for informal urban development. The research includes various forms of on-site mapping (e.g. spatial, typo-morphologic and actor network mapping), interviews, seminars and academic collaborations. The project aims to fill the academic hole concerning informality. The project will help architects, planners and policymakers to understand and interact with informal settlements. // SEE ATTACHMENT FOR MORE INFORMATION //


Informal communities in rapidly growing urban areas and on the border between formal and informal urban areas. City planners, governmental organisations, city counsels, NGO:s. Architects, planners and similar professionals.


Our methodology is to build onto, and to enhance, existing (social, economic and cultural) networks in informal settlements. These networks are key actors and crucial for all work concerning informal development. By finding incentives and models for collaborations that will strengthen these communities, we want to expand the “toolbox” used by informal actors, rather than giving simplified solutions. We would argue that many informal areas are, to a great extent, flexible systems with a highly efficient use of resources. When increasing life quality, one of the major hurdles is not to increase efficiency in informal areas, but rather to make the formal civic society realise and work with the potential of the informal communities and networks.


  • Yes, for two or more years


  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for between one and two years


  • Yes


We are two, unaffiliated, professional architects in Sweden. We both have experience from living and/or working in informal settlements in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Bhubaneswar (India), Chișinău (Moldova). We have some connection to the Architects Sans Frontiers Sweden and their affiliated partners.


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Photo of Willy Johan Gorrissen

I am really glad that this has come up in all this discussion of how to "fix slums". I think this sort of research is foundational for all other interventions. There are many good characteristics of informal urban communities that, given our lack of understanding, we are unable to recreate while many of the explicit problems are, in fact, quite solvable given sufficient investment and interest. We know how to lay a water pipe but try to plan human scale, dense, and livable space from scratch and we are stumped. Any how, this is a topic in which I am definitely interested and have thought quite about about. My wife and I worked on a project developing an approach to rebuilding post Katrina New Orleans using informal development principals an emergent communities based ownership and zoning strategies and there is much to consider on this topic. I look forward following this project and hope the powers that be see how key this is. Let me know if there is anything I can help with.

Photo of Oskar Gudéhn

Hi Willy and thanks for your response! It’s always nice to find people with similar interests!

A lot of my and Frej’s work centres around using already existing forces and processes (instead of combating them) to improve living conditions, equality and resilience in informal settlements. A first step is to acknowledge informal practices (businesses; settlements; networks; communities; etc.), a second to improve the “infrastructure for mutually profitable interactions” between the formal and informal.

We are, at the moment, mainly focusing on the contact zone (or interaction) between formal and informal practices. We strongly argue that formal and informal must be understood as one complex system, not as two separate.

The work you did in New Orleans sounds really, really interesting! Both me and Frej have been there after Katrina to study resilience, planning and rebuilding (me in 2007, Frej in 2008 I think).

Frej has worked quite a lot with finding (and defining) key concepts for understanding and working WITH the power and growth of informal settlements (I’ll leave it to him to write more about it if he wants to). It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the subject and how “drivers” of informal growth can inform zoning and planning! Are there any papers or presentations of your work in New Orleans (or of similar work) that you could recommend?

I also saw your Openideo project on “Distributed Distribution”. Me and Frej have earlier been talking about how to use processes in informal settlements for distribution (in simple terms, “if power and water supply will be ‘hacked’, design them to be optimally hacked”). Distributed ownership models for energy distribution are interesting. If you have any further information (for energy distribution laymen), that too would be of great interest!

Best Regards // Oskar Gudéhn