This lecture examines how precarious urban livelihoods in the informal economy can be transformed by innovative and rights-based approaches to urban policy, contributing to economic and social inclusion, and recovery in crisis-affected cities.


AUDIO: Alison Brown - The Urban Informal Economy


Issues which the lecture addresses

The informal economy is the lifeblood of many cities today. It provides jobs for urban workers, provides flexible services to urban residents, and makes significant contributions to urban economies.

However, diversity makes the informal economy hard to capture in conventional urban policy processes, and for many informal workers precarious and dangerous work, exploitation, harassment, or evictions are a daily threat. Recognising the potential of urban informal workers and their solidarity economy in urban planning, informal settlement upgrading, and recovery from urban violence, disasters and other crises is key to social inclusion of informal workers, to local economic development and to building resilience in 21st century cities. This lecture addresses the challenges and opportunities that the informal economy presents.

Short analysis of the above issues

Between 2014 and 2050 the urban population is predicted to increase from 3.9 billion to 6.4 billion, with an estimated 95% of growth taking place in cities and towns of the global South. Secure and decent livelihoods are critical to ensuring that urban households can claim an equitable stake in urban life. Economic development policy has long prioritised macro-economic growth and promoted formal urban economies. A major policy oversight has been the urban informal economy as a source of jobs, livelihoods and as a key contributor to economic development. Despite its importance – in some cities the informal economy accommodates up to 80% of urban workers – social protections rarely include informal workers, regulations affecting workers are complex and conflicting, and evictions are commonplace. Yet the informal economy is adaptive and resilient, providing livelihoods for women, young people, and new urban migrants, operating in local and global markets. Including urban workers in local economic development debates, and participatory slum upgrading programmes is key. The informal economy is also central to economic recovery in crisis and conflict affected cities, in providing replacements for disrupted services and livelihoods for victims of violence.

Propositions for addressing the issue

Proposition 1: Inclusion needs a radical rethink of urban planning paradigms to provide a platform for informal workers and mainstream the informal economy in urban dialogues. Rights-based agendas such as the “right to the city” are a basis for inclusion, e.g. recognising public space as a key place of work for street vendors and waste pickers, and resolving conflicts through participatory design.

Proposition 2: Informal settlements are dynamic centres of economic activity, supporting vibrant and specialised economies. Understanding of the complexity and social solidarity of these specialised economies is essential to building social inclusion, especially in participatory slum upgrading programmes.

Proposition 3: Urban governance and micro-practices matter. Solutions should be context- and sector-specific, and developed in partnership between workers organisations, city governments and other urban actors.

Proposition 4: The urban informal economy has untapped potential to contribute to post-conflict recovery and reconstruction, supporting the livelihoods of communities affected by violence or disaster, and contributing to provision of basic services in crisis-affected settings. Urban refugee economies also contribute to the economic development in host cities, particularly where refugees are granted the right to work.


Alison Brown is a Professor of Urban Planning and International Development at Cardiff University. She is an urban planner and development policy expert with research and consultancy experience in 27 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Her research focuses on the urban informal economy and governance in low-income and post-conflict cities, include studies of refugee economies. She provided expert input to Habitat III as a member of Policy Unit 1 on the Right to the City and Cities for All.


Brown, A. Mackie, P., Dickenson, K., GebreEgzhiabher, T. (2018) Refugee Economies in Addis Ababa, IIED (forthcoming)

UN-Habitat (Brown, A. and Yap, K-S.) (2018) Prosperity for all: Enhancing the informal economy through participatory slum upgrading (UN-Habitat, forthcoming)

Mackie, P. et al. (2017) Informal economies, conflict recovery and absent aid, Environment and Urbanization, 29(2): 365-382

Brown, A. (ed) (2017) Rebel Streets and the Informal Economy: Street Trade and the Law, Abingdon, Routledge

UN-Habitat (Brown, A. and Roever, S.) (2016) Enabling productivity in the urban informal economy,

Brown, A. and Smith, A. (2016) Livelihoods and urbanisation, Topic Guide: Evidence on Demand, Commissioned research report for DFID,

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