This project is born out of a collaboration between urbz in Mumbai and the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis. The Informal Cities workshop is an annual 1-credit course created and led by the Sam Fox School’s Master of Urban Design (MUD) program. MUD students, as well as students from other degree programs, took part in this year’s online workshop titled “In My Backyard: In Your Own City,” from November 11-25, 2020. Led by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava (cofounders of urbz and the Institute of Urbanology) and Matthew Bernstine (lecturer in the Sam Fox School), the workshop explored the nature of informal and formal relationships that impact space, architecture, building, and planning in urban contexts around the world. 

To extinguish the easily used trope of “othering” informality, the workshop asked participants to look within their own worlds to identify modes, operations, and spaces of informality. WashU students digitally participated in the workshop from across the world, in locations ranging from St. Louis to Seattle to Beijing. The digital nature of the workshop coupled with the disparate locations of the students offered an opportunity to compare ideas, designs, and new ways of understanding expressions of informality across many cities. 

The workshop’s intent was to explore the idea of informality in the context of urban living by inviting participants to put a spotlight on their own lives, everyday activities, neighbourhoods, and cities—wherever they live—and ask questions about formality and informality. Students began the workshop by documenting their personal observed expressions of informality within their hometown. They furthered their investigations by developing ideas and representations of opportunities to engage as a designer. These reflections were discussed and compared among participants, as well as with urbz’s experiences, over the three workshop sessions. Each session was organized around a series of questions representing the conceptual and practical experiences of urbz during the last twelve years. 

About the Informal Cities Workshop

The Informal Cities workshop is an annual 1-credit workshop organized by the Master of Urban Design program at the Sam Fox school of Design & Visual Arts. This collaborative, hands-on workshop explores topics and conditions of Informal Urbanism, practices within the city that are created outside the sanctions of state authorities. Facilitated by the School’s urban design faculty and an invited practicing professional, students from the MUD program and other areas of study from across the University converge to broaden their understanding of design and their own roles, responsibilities, and agency in developing social-spatial designs. The locations and themes of the workshop change each year, pivoting around the guest professor’s expertise and the contextual peculiarities of the chosen city. Past locations have included Lima, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Rio, and Varanasi. 

The workshop is sponsored and supported by the following groups: Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts , Center for the Humanities at WashU, The Divided City Initiative, Washington University in St. Louis

About Urbz 

Urbz was founded in 2008 in Dharavi, Mumbai, a neighbourhood classified as one of the most significant settlements of its kind in the world. A mix of an urban village, migrant camps, makeshift shelters, and workers accommodations, Dharavi is hurriedly called a slum at worst and an informal settlement at best. Urbz's journey has been practical—working with local builders, residents, and communities to create spaces and structures. It has also been conceptual—interrogating the idea of informality through its intimate interactions with the inhabitants of Dharavi. These conceptual explorations encouraged urbz to speak of the neighbourhood as one “in-formation” rather than informal, with its own underlying structures and rules that go beyond the idea of the formal and the informal. Dharavi has grown from within, building on resources within each family, home, workshop, and community, creating homegrown networks and structures incrementally over generations. 
“The informal sector allowed academics and bureaucrats to incorporate the teeming street life of exotic cities into their abstract models without having to confront the specificity of what people were really up to. To some extent, I sacrificed my own ethnographic encounter with real persons to the generalizing jargon of development economics. (Hart 2000)
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