Informality as a Concept for the Cities of the Global North: The Case of Water Infrastructure

Authors: Laura Pangallozzi*, Binghamton University
Topics: Urban Geography, Environment, Political Geography
Keywords: water provision, water infrastructure, informality, political ecology
Session Type: Paper
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This paper situates the conflict over lead in drinking water in Newark, NJ, within the literature on urban informality. As participation of the developing world in the global economy has made itself felt over the past 30 years, scholars have challenged colonialist modes of understanding cities of the global South (Robinson 2006; Roy 2009; McFarlane 2012). This literature champions the postcolonial city and wants to redefine the informal as the cosmopolitan, the creative, the imaginative-- rather than merely as activity in which state should be involved but is not. One fruitful aspect of this challenge has been to break down simple binaries (formal/informal, core/periphery, and North/South itself) that no longer have the descriptive power they once did. A related advance, pertaining to cities of the global North, is recent work (Mukhija 2014; Haid 2019) that catalogs the way that informality appears--has always appeared--in the developed urban world.

Yet, this turn toward the “ordinary city”--defined against the “world city”--has invited critiques of its own. The most ardent come from those who challenge, in turn, what they see as a “spatialized inversion” (Peck 2015) that simply flips the narrative of the world cities paradigm, particularly its less critical versions. From this perspective, the ordinary cities literature risks aestheticizing inequality and fails to see how fiscal austerity, imposed at higher scales, mandates urban informality. This paper uses water provision in Newark to talk about the possibilities and limits of the notion of informality for U.S. cities.

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