(A paper submitted to “Questioning the space of modernity: Informal urbanism and the city” international conference)
Since the turn of the 21 century, a growing body of literature on urban development and city governance has been paid attention to the cities in the Global South, attempting to build alternative epistemologies for urban studies that do not follow the modernist, rationalist, and functional research framework (AlSayyd, 2004; Robinson, 2006; Roy, 2009). By shifting the analytical framework, many researchers have acknowledged that the phenomenon of informal urbanization has extended from the “Third World” to the “First world”, becoming a ubiquitous urban experience throughout the cities in the world (AlSayyad 2004; Davis 2004; Rao 2006; Roy 2005). However, as to what are the causes, effects, and policy implications of informal urbanization in contemporary cities, scholars have offered very diverse accounts. There are generally two different interpretations: one tends to focus more from the side of “agency”, i.e., the creation and creativity of informal activities; the other tends to focus more from the side of “structure”, i.e., the power relations between the state and people who are engaged in informal activities.
Both interpretations, however, are incomplete in certain way. While the former overlooks the power of the oppressive political-economic system, the latter overlooks the potentials of informal urbanism to challenge this system. In order to avoid the weaknesses but to adopt the strengths of both interpretations, I will link them to Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) theory of “the production of space”. This theory provides researchers with a useful framework to address both the agential and structural aspects of informal urbanism because in this explanation informal activities can be regarded as insurgent actions taken by people who are structurally expelled from the advantageous geographical locations in the city. By doing so, we are able to see how people inhabiting in the interstices within urban structure and system manage to produce alternative forms of, knowledge about, and practices in these spaces, and how these spaces might serve as tacit sites for them to claim their “right to the city”.
Combining current theoretical discussions of informal urbanism and the concept of “the production of space”, the present study aims to look at an informal industrial settlement, Wenzaizun in New Taipei City, understanding how local residents create a small manufacture industrial cluster in a district categorized as a farming zone in the city, how the action of violating zoning code contributes to the development of the cluster, and how the local government responds to the growth of the unauthorized factories and economic activities in this area. I will argue that Wenzaizun cluster is developed through autonomous organization power of economic agglomeration, which takes place outside the formal economic and planning system. Moreover, in the context of Taiwan’s capital accumulation process, the space of Wenzaizun not only serves as a site of survival, but also survives as a site of resistance to the formal urban space production system, which usually favors the wealth and powerful.
In what follows, I will first briefly review the theoretical debates over informal urbanism, with a particular focus on the issues of agency vs. structure. Next, I will reframe the concept of “the production of space” and the related concept of “the right to the city”, bridging them to the notion of informal urbanism. Thirdly, I will present a preliminary observation of the developmental process of Wenzaizun industrial cluster and explain how it transforms from a site of survival to a site of resistance. Finally, I will discuss how the findings of this case study can contribute to the theory of urban informality.