Notes on the Synthesis of Coformal Cities: Investigating the Ecology of Urban Informality in Dhaka, Bangladesh to Develop a Set of Urban Heuristics


We require a new ethos to guide the building of fair urban scenarios that will blur the distinctions, as well as reduce antagonistic positions, between formal and informal territories.
-Sergio Fajardo and Alejandro Echeverri



What characterizes the 21st century? In these very liquid times (Bauman 2007), the ‘Anthropocene’ has been made cliché rhetorically but not probed pragmatically, least so by the built environment and design community. The ecological exigencies, the economic turbulence, the social repercussions—in a globalized world, there is no escape from the unintended consequence of modernity and the ensuing entanglement and magnification of uncertainty creating a ‘global risk society’ (Beck 2016). This uncertainty seems to be the defining character of the emerging zeitgeist (Shafique 2016), and beyond mere resilience which aims to survive, urbanism must redefine itself structurally to benefit from the disorder, and move towards an antifragile existence (Taleb 2014). The global shift towards an urban way of life is most pronounced in South Asia, where the urban population grew by 130 million between 2001 and 2011 and an equal number now live in informal settlements (World Bank 2016). This growth entails a rebalance of global capital—a shift of capital from being instrument of imperialist exploitation to one of active participation in emerging economies and one can expect an unprecedented resetting of global cultural historiography about to happen along with the urbanization (Lim 2012).

In these shifting times, urbanization faces unique challenges in the context of Bangladesh, the world’s 7th most populous country. On one hand identified as one of the ‘Next Eleven’—top emerging economies (Goldman Sachs 2007), the country also ranks number one in the Climate Change Vulnerability Index (Maplecroft 2010). Climate change induced migration to urban centers is already a lived reality and by 2050, 15 million people could become climate refugees (IUCN 2015). This is in addition to the urbanizing trend where more than 50% of the population (85 million) are said to be urban by 2050 (UNHABITAT 2012). This staggering resettlement, within the geographical area comparable to the state of Iowa, will be unparalleled in the history of urbanism. Given the weak governance, lack of resources and the inherent incapacity of formal planning instruments to address such shift, one can assume that much of this urbanization will be informal, which follows closely the global pattern of informal urbanism as the dominant mode of urbanization (Hernández et al 2012). It has been long projected that urban informality, as situated in Third World cities, will emerge as the new paradigm to understand urbanism in the 21st century (AlSayyad 2004).  

Dhaka, the burgeoning megacity capital with a density of 115,000 people per square mile (Demographia 2016) and a population approaching 20 million by 2020 (UN 2012), where already more than 4 million people live in ‘slums and squatters’ (Ahmed 2014), presents a unique microcosm of the virulent urbanism about to unfold across other urban centers. Having been subject to the expansive neoliberal market forces creating employment, weak legal enforcement, frequent natural disasters at the periphery causing migration, the parallel governance of the NGO sector and availability of agricultural and wetland in the hinterland, Dhaka has fostered urban informality to the point where it has become the defining character of the city, yet it cannot be reduced to just the informal settlements. The informality situates itself within the formal and between the formal, in a way where the negative spaces are utilized as the bedrock for the informality to grow and then re-situate the formal in itself.

This curious coexistence of the formal and informal, which I term as ‘Coformality’, has been previously unnamed yet it is the same ground on which the static and the kinetic (Melhotra 2012), the smooth and the striated (Deleuze and Guattari 1987), the abstract space and social space (Lefebvre 2003) and the pedagogical and the performative (Bhabha 1994) are constantly co-created, negotiated, translated, subverted and grafted on each other. Neither a case of political economy nor the study of the marginalized, this ‘Coformality’ in Dhaka is a particular way of life that defies modernistic reductionism into preconfigured frames and needs to be territorialized within the discourse of urbanism. It is ever present in cities of similar nature, has been hinted widely by practitioners and theoreticians but has not been formalized as a transmodern concept. With an aim to foster epistemic disobedience (Mignolo 2009), the concept of coformality situates itself with similar concepts such as glocal, transnational, cosmopolitanism as one looks at globalization from the paradigm of transmodernity (Magda 2004) and sees itself as a manifestation of the ethic of liberation (Dussel 2013). The concept aims to push the discourse on informality beyond the modern reading of the informal as a mere reaction to the formal and the research asks questions in the same vein as formulated by Ananya Roy in “Subaltern Urbanism”— “…projects that disrupt subaltern urbanism… understand the inevitable heterogeneity of the Southern urbanism…” (Roy 2011). Against the reading of the megacity through the slum, the approach is to bring the informality out of the sanctioned ignorance towards redefining this urban condition as a hybrid condition, which, “makes possible the emergence of an interstitial agency that refuses the binary representation of social antagonism” (Bhabha 1994). Through a synthetic investigation on Dhaka, this particular case of entangled urbanity ought to be framed theoretically for a projective future. Such an attempt is the general agenda for the doctoral research, within which the specific research questions are set.

Here it should be noted that a literature review on informality in Dhaka reveals a steep bias towards the idea of ‘development’ and are usually set within very limited disciplinary agenda. Poverty, marginalization and subaltern are the usual lenses through which informality is read. In terms of the discourse in architecture, in most research informality is still seen as a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘solved’ through employment of architectural innovation / technology. This lack of nuanced understanding of the complexity and relational nature of urbanism results in iatrogenic catastrophes in the future. There is a paucity of knowledge as well as the lack of an epistemic framework for the production of knowledge that sees the subaltern as an agent for change. Hence, this doctoral research situates itself in that very gap, both as a step to produce specific knowledge but also to develop a theoretical standpoint for future investigations.   

Roy proposes four emergent concepts: periphery, urban informality, zone of exception and grey spaces, as “concepts to chart new itineraries of research and analysis”, and it is this particular theoretical demarcation of urban informality that acts as the grounding on which this proposal is constructed. The interpretation of urban informality stems from previous work of AlSayyad, in which he identified informality as an urbanizing logic emerging from a paradigm of liberalization (AlSayyad 2004). Against the categorization of urban informality as the territory of the subaltern urbanism, Roy liberates urban informality as a relational device not bound specifically to slums or squatter but rather having a fractal existence, “within the informalized production of space” (Roy 2011). Thus the central investigation in this doctoral research becomes one that studies the metamorphosing relationships between the legal and illegal, the top-down and the bottom-up, the mapped and the uncharted—the uncovering of the ecological nature of urban informality in Dhaka. Here, the ecological becomes indicative of the study of the relationships.

The investigation is multi-scalar, ranging from the territory of the slum and its rhizomatic grafting on to the city to the micro-spatial scales at which the logic operates, and interdisciplinary, identifying the relational aspect between disciplines. Architecture, landscape and city planning will give particular disciplinary lenses to analyze the informality and the cross-interrogation will help identify previously undetected associations.   In order to structure such a multifarious investigation, the proposal wishes to use the lens of complex adaptive assemblage as developed by Kim Dovey, which incorporates two particular theoretical frameworks, Complex Adaptive Systems theory and Assemblage theory, as developed by DeLanda. The synergies of the formal/informal, the emergent character, the irreducibility of the complexity are addressed within this framework which helps to “understand such multi-scale relations without reducing the microscale to epiphenomena of larger-scale processes and structures” (Dovey 2012).

For such a complex endeavor, the proposal wishes to utilize a variety of research methodologies and analytical tools deployed strategically in phases. After setting up a theoretical framework through discourse analysis, the research shall move on the site of investigation. Through feedback loops, the data gathered would reshape the theoretical framework, which in turn will require reinvestigations. Prior to collecting data from the site, a set of socio-spatial parameters will be defined to focus the investigation. On one hand, the parameters would be based on the economic, political and legal i.e. the social relations between the formal and the informal and on the other hand, the basis would be various infrastructural and environmental entanglements such as food, water, sewer and energy. Rather than focusing on space as an object and categorizing it, the research wishes to delve into the particular set of relationships that acts as the precondition for its emergence. The primary method will be mapping and diagram construction, aided by interview, observations, and spatial analysis. There is a particular lack of knowledge in terms of the representing and mapping such relationships, which is a particular challenge that the doctoral thesis must overcome. Diagramming procedures from ecological sciences will be beneficial at this stage.

In phase 1, the proposal wishes to focus the investigation on one particular informal settlement in Dhaka and its formal ‘hinterland’ i.e. its interstitial zone and use it as a basis for mapping its urban informal relations. Korail, with a population of about 175,000, is the largest informal settlement in Dhaka city and is located in a triangular void between three planned parts of the city, namely Gulshan, Banani and Mohakhali. It is deeply embedded in the economic life of the city and is a resilient neighborhood that has emergent properties, a hierarchy of self-organization and self-regulation (Ehsan 2012). It is predominantly informal yet there is presence of a weak formality. Korail presents an ideal milieu of complexity to study the notion of coformality. The objective of phase 1 shall be to develop a methodology of identifying, representing and consolidating the formal-informal relations into a ‘Matrix of Coformality’ as investigated in that particular interstitial space.  

In phase 2, the objective is to utilize the matrix across a diverse sample of informal settlements in Dhaka and generate a typology of coformality based on the parameters bound in phase 1. Akin to the results Christopher Alexander arrived at in A Pattern Language, the study should lead to identification of patterns that that foster desirable traits found in zones of coformality—high social capital, resourcefulness, resilience, adaptive capacity, the entrepreneurial spirit, vitality and spontaneity. Rather than either romanticizing or villainizing the coformal condition, the idea is to recognize the desirable straits objectively and to identify their logic of production, thereby being able to reproduce it effectively elsewhere. A particularly interesting precedent for understanding how informality can be seeded by deploying an anticipatory and adaptive framework will be the work of David Gouverneur and the ‘Informal Armature (IA)’ approach as a preemptive urban device. The IA approach operates in the middle ground that creates a plural framework in which informal urbanism grows (Gouverneur 2015).

Furthermore, in phase 3, the doctoral research, based on the fact that complex systems arise from simple rules of engagement (Mitchell 2011), will investigate how the pattern language generated in phase 2 can be distilled further to create a set of urban heuristics i.e. rules of thumb, which, when employed usually results in the desirable patterns. Heuristics, as opposed to codes, lacks certainty of conformity and exactly for that very reason, allows adaptation. Similar examples of simple rules interacting to create a complex scenario can be seen in social, cultural and economic systems (Sull and Eisenhardt 2016). Such urban heuristics which generate coformality can be trained both formally and informally and thus can be embedded into the collective wisdom of settlement and can be seen as hybridizing traditional wisdom of the vernacular with new urban knowledge of synchronized assemblage. In this way, future urbanization can be self-constructed, autonomous and yet beyond being smart, be wise enough to fosters the desirable straits and avoids the problematics. It presupposes a shared design authorship with a minimal top-down formality and accepts the unpredictability of the local level decision making resulting in a synergistic urban coformality that has sustainability issues deeply embedded in its organization and emergence. Employing urban heuristics to generate coformal settlements is a radical approach to urban design and is oppositional to comprehensive rational planning. Given the set of social, climatic and economic context, and the incapacity of conventional means to address challenges of urbanization, it is crucial to investigate the potentialities of such an alternative.  

For the cities of the south in the urban century, the thesis imagines resituating urban informality and defining coformality as a tool of production of conviviality (Illich 1973), that reclaims the commons and employs new patterns of resource management (Ostrom 2011), becomes host of alternative development (Esteva et al 2005) and evolves an urban existence towards a more social, resilient, empathic and autonomous ‘way of being’—which is the essential task of urbanism.


[developed as part of Ph.D. proposal by Tanzil Shafique]



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